The Sky’s the Limit

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The Regional Manager of Southern Africa & Latin America for Air Mauritius, Carla da Silva, was previously with SAA for many years, and has plenty of experience in seeing just how an African airline is run. She also has some strong views on what the industry should be concentrating on, and the role that government plays in the development of the aviation industry – making for a rather interesting cup of coffee at Design Quarter in Johannesburg. 

According to Carla da Silva, it’s not all doom and gloom in the African airline industry, despite the rising cost of fuel, concerns over safety and the issues of skills development and infrastructure.

In fact, she believes there’s much to be positive about.

“We’ve progressed in a sense that there’s been additional capacity injected into the continent. SAA has done this, but also other airlines around the world, from the Middle Eastern carriers to ourselves, Air Mauritius – we’ve increased our frequencies and are now flying to Nairobi,” she says.

But, there’s no hiding from the fact that there are some serious issues on the table and Da Silva doesn’t shy away from what she believes is among the most pressing ones.

“There needs to be a lot more engagement with governments,” she says, “because they control a lot of what happens. There needs to be an open skies regime and we’ve spoken about it for years and years. But, there’s a lot of resistance, mainly because of history and legacy issues. Everybody is trying to protect their own market share and also, if we do go the route of open skies, does this mean that the international carriers, such as the Middle Eastern carriers, would take over? There’s definitely an element of risk.”

Fair point, considering the fact that the likes of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways have made a big impact on the continent, nicking some of that market share with a host of new routes, competitive rates and some impressive-looking products at the front of their aircraft.

“I understand why some countries are still protecting their turf,” says Da Silva. “But, it is detrimental, because if we take a look at open skies, I think everybody will benefit. There will be healthy competition and it would make a huge difference in terms of foreign investment. There would be a lot more businesses investing, more airlines, more capacity, and more travelling, which will create development and long-term sustainability.”

Open skies is not the only issue to get under Da Silva’s skin and it’s no surprise that she cites skills development as one of the major challenges facing the African aviation industry.

“You can have all tools, from a government or airport infrastructure point of view. But, if you don’t train the guys on the ground, it’s pointless,” says Da Silva. “Safety is still a major challenge, simply because of the infrastructure development that hasn’t taken place. It goes hand in hand and I think that that’s played a very negative role in terms of investment in the continent.”

Da Silva believes the way to go is to establish more training centres or academies, but that requires investment and getting airlines to part with their cash, at a time when the bottom line is a sensitive issue and making a profit is not as easy as what it used to be.

No discussion about airlines would be complete without addressing the issue of taxes and Da Silva admits it’s a major challenge, in an economic climate that is already challenging enough.

“We need to have one voice to government and we need to stand together,” she says, “because we are all facing the same challenge. Airport taxes affect route profitability and when that happens, head offices start debating whether or not they should close that route and migrate elsewhere.”

“There’s airport taxes, passenger service levy taxes and security taxes. Then there’s the CAA, ACSA and the tourism levy. So, all these different government bodies who are, in actual fact, one body.”

So, are we talking here about government milking the proverbial cow?

“Precisely,” says Da Silva. “We are paying astronomical government taxes and we’ve sat down around the table with them and shown them the data, to substantiate our argument. Every international airline out there is complaining, but we need that one voice, because ultimately, it’s the consumer who will be hit.”

That’s enough to chew on. I look forward to that next engagement with government and wish Da Silva well in what looks to be an uphill battle.

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