South Africa’s aviation flight recovery plan


The COVID-19 pandemic grounded Africa’s fragmented commercial aviation industry for much of 2020 and as 2021 commences, South Africa finds itself in a second wave of infections with a quicker-spreading variant of COVID-19, resulting in most borders across the globe closed to South Africans.

The result of the COVID-19 pandemic on South Africa’s general aviation sector, similar to other industries, has been businesses closing and jobs lost. The industry has, however, worked together with great comradery as it fights a common enemy.

The third annual Commercial Aviation Symposium Africa took place virtually on 3 December 2020, and was aptly themed, “Aviation’s recovery flight plan” as it focused on recovery and a sustainable future for the commercial aviation industry.

Although CEO of the Commercial Aviation Association of Southern Africa (CAASA), Leon Dillman, said there are many who think the industry is, “singing its last few songs on a sinking ship”, the overwhelming sentiment from the symposium is that recovery is taking place and that there will be opportunity for jobs in the near future.

MC for the event, Ryan Hogarth, opened the symposium by saying, “Slowly and surely a recovery is in progress and a resilience in local players is emerging.”

As 2021 brings the COVID-19 vaccine to South Africa and civil aviation restarts its engines, Dr Roelof Botha, a leading economic analyst in South Africa, gave a presentation on what the future might hold for airlines in Southern Africa. “The travel and leisure sector has been hit so hard by this COVID, that it is very difficult to create a mood of optimism.” However, Botha said there is a V-shaped recovery from the pandemic for most countries. As countries’ GPDs plummeted during 2020, solid economic growth will be seen for 2021 as the vaccine is distributed and economies open again. Botha suggests that this recovery will be similar for the aviation industry. The first economic quarter of 2021 may still be tough, especially on the travel and leisure sector, however, Botha is predicting businesses and industry will start playing catch up shortly after. Botha closed in saying, “Hopefully from the second quarter of next year [2021], we can start to look forward to better days, bright skies and safe travels for a hell of a lot of people.”

Guy Leitch, editor of SA Flyer magazine, recently did a PhD on the challenges that African airlines face. The biggest challenges, in order, that Leitch observed are the lack of air route liberalisation, management weakness, state protection, lack of competition, connectivity issues, the need for partnerships, interlining and code-sharing, aviation policies and the role of government.

Leitch sees COVID-19 as a black swan event, with the aviation sector finding a new normal this year. What he means by new normal is the African economy will reach between two to 4.5% growth per annum, with Africa’s aviation sector essential to this growth. South Africa’s general aviation skills will be vital to this recovery.

Looking at challenges African airlines face, COVID-19 pandemic aside, Leitch said, “There are about 400 international routes within Africa; less than half of these are served daily and only 68 or so are served with two daily flights. Africa needs more high frequency routes to support trade and business.” Poor regulation will limit passenger growth as African airlines need to rethink their fleets and embrace collaboration for profitability and connectivity within Africa to improve.

From Leitch’s experience in general aviation consulting, he said South Africa can expect to see more collaboration, in the form of acquisitions, joint ventures or equity purchases, in the coming months and years.

Leitch highlighted that African airlines have on average about 50 aircraft on order in the sub 150-seat category, putting increasing importance on air contract flying. New generation, small, single aisle aircraft such as the Airbus A220 enable new routes that were previously not economically viable. Smaller aircraft also allow for more frequencies on existing routes currently served with larger aircraft.

Post COVID-19, Leitch notes there may be a pilot crisis in Africa, with a demand for about 27 000 new pilots as of the end of 2021. South African Airways and SA Express will give the industry a temporary oversupply that will soon be absorbed. SA pilots do not necessarily enjoy being expats, according to Leitch. There are commercial pilot opportunities for South African pilots in Asia and Arabian countries, but Leitch said there is a strong sentiment that the better pay does not balance the alienation felt.

Additionally, Leitch noted an estimated 20% of pilots will soon be lost to retirement and a further 20% lost due to being fed up with the industry. Training more pilots then becomes the next topic and Leitch said that South Africa has some natural advantages for that: good weather, high standards and a respected Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). South Africa’s CAA is respected because it has an 87.39% compliance (highest in Africa) with International Civil Aviation Organization’s standards and recommended practices. It has minimal corruption and mismanagement and quality exams and people.

Another opportunity may be in the maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) of aircraft as Leitch said there is a lack of skills in MRO as well as scared investors paired with ageing fleets.

“There are already ongoing opportunities for cabin crew development, engineers, air traffic management and quite simply, airline management. These are a major weakness of all African airlines, in my opinion,” said Leitch.

Leitch concluded in saying that the future for South African general aviation is to supply the African post-COVID-19 recovery and growth story.

The symposium was hosted by CAASA and sponsored by Pratt and Whitney, Commercial Aerospace Manufacturing Association of South Africa (CAMASA), Aerosud, DJA Aviation and Air Traffic Network Services (ATNS).