Passage to Africa

New routes are bringing an end to the era of ramshackle planes and expensive fares that have crippled the Continent's growth. Meera Selva bids farewell to the world's most hair-raising airlines
Click to follow

The signs seemed good: the flight was due to leave on time, I checked in my bag, picked up a bottle of Zimbabwean red wine at duty-free and then watched through the plate-glass window in the departure lounge as a man driving a souped-up golf cart with a flight of stairs attached drove straight into the side of the plane on which I was due to depart.

The signs seemed good: the flight was due to leave on time, I checked in my bag, picked up a bottle of Zimbabwean red wine at duty-free and then watched through the plate-glass window in the departure lounge as a man driving a souped-up golf cart with a flight of stairs attached drove straight into the side of the plane on which I was due to depart.

After a few mumbled apologies about "technical delays" the shame-faced flight attendants finally admitted their colleague had managed to dent the airplane's door.

In any Western country, this mishap would have been enough to delay the flight by hours while a replacement plane was found. In Zimbabwe, a few men with hammers climbed on board, knocked out the visible dents, and within two hours, we took off. An aeronautical engineer told me I was lucky the cabin had not depressurised in mid-flight.

So far, so predictable in the sometimes chaotic and chronically underdeveloped world of African air travel. But despite the still-nightmarish logistics of some trips - to fly from Accra in Ghana to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, you must go via Dubai or Amsterdam - a brave new world may be emerging.

Yesterday marked the inaugural flight from Lagos to London of Virgin Nigeria, a joint venture between Nigerian institutional investors and Virgin Atlantic. It is hoped Virgin Nigeria will soon be flying Africans across their continent on new routes. Ethiopian airlines and Kenya Airways are already developing the west African market from their bases in the east.

If the bad old days of infrequent, expensive and often hair-raising flights really are over, they will be unmourned but long-remembered. That flight from Harare was one of the better ones I have taken within Africa. I have also climbed aboard an old Russian cargo plane with some cursory seats Sellotaped to the floor to fly on to a strip of dirt in Mogadishu, where a gang of AK47-wielding gunmen demanded an arbitrary "visa" of $20 (£11).

The worst flights are internal ones; travel by road takes days so anyone who can afford the cost of an air ticket climbs on board single-propeller airplanes that bump their way across vast countries such as Sudan and Ethiopia.

But air travel certainly makes sense in Africa. The continent is vast and most roads are unusable. Railways built by former colonial powers have been neglected. Traders who want to transport goods from the continents' ports have to allow several days to reach inland destinations. This inevitably affects the cost and people in the most remote places with the least disposable income end up paying extra for basics such as soaps, cooking pots and oil.

And the economic rewards of efficient air travel are there for all to see in Asia. Go east and back 15 years, and you arrive at the example of Penang in 1990. Then, the Malaysian island of one million people had only a few flights a day to Kuala Lumpur, with regulated high fares. Today, you can choose from 20 flights a day, with seats available at under £20 even when booked only a couple of days before departure.

The catalyst was the realisation by the Malaysian authorities of the dramatic economic benefits of liberalising aviation, and the subsequent creation of "south-east Asia's Ryanair", Air Asia. It now has a no-frills network stretching from Bangkok to Bali, with links to China and the Philippines.

The fundamentals of low-cost aviation were written in the US in the 1970s, and, in the past decade, have been finessed in Europe, Asia and Australia. In every region, the effect is the same: an exponential rise in the number of travellers, fuelling economic growth and creating countless new jobs. Tourism and business flourish, and families and friends are brought closer.

But much of Africa remains locked into the aviation world of the 20th century, where airlines are run purely for the prestige of the government and the benefit of the staff. In 2002, only 29 million Africans took flights, out of a global total of three billion passengers.

Most of the reasons are economic: most Africans cannot afford the couple of hundred dollars it costs for an airline ticket and even if they could, they could not afford the hotel and restaurant bills at the other end. On my rusty plane to Mogadishu, the Somali men wore their best three-piece suits and the women had painted their hands with henna in celebration of the journey, which most of them can only afford to make once in a lifetime.

Even the Africans who can afford to travel often have to wait months for elusive visas and travel permits to countries within and outside the continent. Trade patterns are also to blame. African countries still tend to trade with their former colonial partners rather than with each other. So Senegal's biggest trading partner is France, and neighbouring Gambia has strong links with the UK. The two African countries barely do any business with each other.

Trade among African countries accounts only for about 10 per cent of their total external trade and, as a result, the continent's railways and roads lead to ports rather than to other trading centres. Air travel follows a similar pattern and it is often actually cheaper to pass through Europe to fly from one African country to another.

But the grounds for optimism are undeniably growing. Across Africa, some national carriers are working hard to turn their capital cities into hubs for the rest of the continent. Ethiopian Airlines has a reputation for being one of the best-value carriers - it allows passengers a 40kg baggage allowance, double the international standard - and the gleaming new Bole international airport is small but clean, efficient and comfortable. The company has invested $1.6bn on 10 new Boeing 787 jetliners, which should be ready in 2008.

Kenya Airways, a partner of Dutch airline KLM, is also expanding inter-African routes. It has announced new flights to west Africa; to Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Mali. In the spirit of the times, it has also opened up a route to Shanghai, to cash in on the growing trade links between China and Africa. In South Africa, low-cost carriers such as Kulula have copied the easyJet model, dressing its youthful airline crew in bright uniforms and charging for on-board drinks and meals in return for cheap fares to popular holiday destinations such as Cape Town and Durban.

South Africa's President, Thabo Mbeki, has made it clear he wants Africa's airline industry to improve in time for the 2010 World Cup, which his country will host. He told a recent aviation conference: "If we are to give the 2010 World Cup the distinctive African flavour we have promised, we have to make sure that Africa is well-represented on the field as well as on the stands of the stadium where the games will be played. For that to happen, we need easy air access, cheaper fares, as little regulation as possible and partnerships among airlines on our continent." But if African air travel is to succeed, a few conditions need to be met. First, visas. Kenya Airways has already complained that immigration restrictions make it hard for west African citizens to obtain transit or tourist visas for South Africa. At present, 1.4 million of its total of two million passengers are in transit from other African countries. Kenya Airways wants it to be easier for them to obtain visas to leave the airport and spend the night in a hotel before catching a connecting flight.

At the other end of the scale, wealthy Western tourists who can afford to pay for African hospitality are often deterred by travel advisories issued by the British Foreign Office or the US state department. Kenya's tourism industry almost collapsed after a hotel in Mombasa was bombed in 2003, and Tanzania has still not fully recovered from travel advisories after the US embassy in its capital Dar es Salaam was blown up.

Safety is another obvious concern. A recent analysis of air accident statistics by the International Air Transport Association found 27 per cent of all fatal accidents were in Africa, although the continent accounted for only 3 per cent of the world aircraft departures. African Transport ministers have promised to reduce the accident rate by 50 per cent by 2015 but travellers are understandably wary of flying within Africa until safety standards have improved.

But although international donors and African governments alike can be easily seduced by the idea that gleaming new airports and aeroplanes can act as a panacea to the continent's woes, the actual solutions may be even simpler. African countries need to reduce tariffs on goods that pass through the region and customs officials should not charge bribes to allow traders to pass.

The whole continent needs better roads. The UN's World Food Programme, which feeds people in remote areas around the continent, always pleads for roads to be improved so their trucks can travel easily. In the worst areas, such as south Sudan, 20 years of civil war have destroyed even the little Tarmac there once was.

The WFP is forced to airdrop maize, flour and corn-soy blend. The transport costs involved make each meal more expensive than a four-course dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Roads, railways and buses should not be forgotten in the plan to get Africa moving in the air. But it would certainly be nice to know that those AK47 visa-enforcers will not be boarding a plane any time soon.