Q&A: Long road ahead

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Under the leadership of CEO Rodger Foster, Airlink has grown steadily over the past 25 years into the largest independent regional airline in southern Africa, linking passengers to the smaller towns, cities and regional centres. Foster took time to share his thoughts on the state of the airline industry in Africa and the changes happening at Airlink.

Q: What’s your view on the current state of the African airline industry?
A: Evidently it is not a happy place. One just needs to look at the extent that to which most of Africa’s airlines are subsidised by their respective state shareholder to recognise the order of magnitude of the problem. The African Union is currently promoting the concept of a single African sky, which follows on the concept of the Yamoussoukro Decision to implement Liberalisation within Africa. The challenge is that a single sky concept is impossible without a single level playing field with a single set of rules and regulations (from the civil aviation, competition, licensing, ownership and control perspective), a single safety oversight authority and a single anti-trust watch dog. As it stands there are 54 states with political boundaries, each with its own aeronautical authority, civil aviation safety oversight authority, and anti-trust legislation and authority. We don’t need to re-invent the wheel here, we can simply apply what has been implemented elsewhere, for instance in the European Union. If Africa desires a true free market system, the first thing that has to happen is that subsidies will have to go. We then need a single set of rules and regulations and a single competent and proficient central authority charged with ensuring compliance by each operator on a fair and equitable basis. We then need a single interpretation and clarification of the objects of liberalisation, for example when and under what circumstances may fifth freedom traffic rights be applied. Can you imagine how long it would take to get to a single set of rules and regulations? We are far away from achieving this. Meanwhile liberalisation is being implemented differentially within Africa. The South African Aeronautical Authority is encouragingly progressive, but irresponsibly so relative to its peers who seem happy that their airlines avail of market opportunities to and from South Africa without having to reciprocate, with the net upshot being that the South African markets are accessible to all Africa’s airlines without South African airlines getting any market opportunities back in return.    

Q: What do you believe are the most pressing issues that need addressing?
A: Establishment of a single central Aeronautical and Civil Aviation authority, as well as a single set of anti-trust rules.

Q: You recently launched flights out of Cape Town to Vic Falls. What was the thinking behind pursuing this route?
A: Cape Town is growing at a phenomenal rate, at more than 30% year-on-year. Tourists visiting Cape Town also wish to visit other key eco-leisure and experiential destinations, such as Skukuza, Maun (Okavango) and Victoria Falls. This new air linkage facilitates this.

Q: What’s the latest on your proposed St Helena flight?
A: Our bid was submitted on time. We await feedback from the St Helena Government.

Q: Airlink previously expressed interest in operating Air Botswana when the last round of RFPs went round. Do you remain interested in taking on such a project?
A: Airlink has submitted an expression of interest.

Q: What was the thinking behind the fairly recent fleet changes?
A: The medium term plan is that the additional ERJ135KLs will replace the J41 fleet over time as we retire more J41s and the EJets (E170LRs and E190ARs) will replace the Avros as we retire these over the next few years. The end state is that Airlink will be an all Embraer operator with two types, the ERJ135 and the EJet 170/190.

Q: What is the appeal of the five E-Jets that Airlink is leasing?
A:
The EJet offers superior operational performance specifically to our most testing destinations such as Pietermaritzburg, Vilanculos, Skukuza and Pretoria Wonderboom, especially in wet runway situations. The EJet is in service in high numbers all over the world and is highly appealing to passengers. While proficient on short runways, the aircraft is also certified for narrow runway operations and it has the range that will broaden Airlink’s horizons to include further afield destinations such as Brazzaville, Pointe Noire, Kigali and others. In particular the E190AR is fully ETOPS certified and is therefore ready to tackle remote destinations such as St Helena (should Airlink succeed in our bid). The E190AR will be configured with 98 seats in two class and the E170LR with 74 seats in two class. Airlink will be taking delivery of two E190ARs and three E170LRs, which will replace five of the Avros that are nearing their planned retirement from Airlink duty.

Q: On which routes will the E-Jet be deployed?
A: Ultimately on all the Avro routes, and additionally some new horizon routes such as Kigali.

Q: Are there any current global airline trends that you believe could be applied to the African market?
A: The African markets are growing but off a very small base. Consolidation is a global theme that has specific and broad application throughout Africa. There are too many African airlines (over 200) all trying to nibble at the same tiny pie.