Southern African airlines face crippling skills shortage


Airlines in southern Africa will face a potentially crippling shortage of skills and failure to hit employee transformation targets if governments do not fix basic and tertiary education, the Airlines Association of Southern Africa (AASA) has cautioned.

Airlines and the entire aerospace industry are dependent on a pipeline of young, appropriately educated talent who they can prepare, with bridging training, for careers in the sector. However, poor science, technology, engineering and mathematics learning – especially at schools in townships and rural areas – and the financial squeeze on South African universities and students is causing the pipeline to dry-up, AASA said.
“Without this talent pipeline, airlines and other aviation businesses in our region, specifically South Africa, face a calamitous future,” cautioned AASA CEO, Chris Zweigenthal, in his address to the association’s 2017 annual general assembly.

Africa’s unprecedented population explosion is driving increased demand for air transport across the continent, with projected annual 5.7 percent average growth over the next 20 years. In parallel, around 20,000 new pilots, similar numbers of technicians and engineers together with a range of other professions will be needed to operate and support Africa’s expanded fleet and to succeed the current generation of airline employees.
“Transformation is a non-negotiable factor and we want to accelerate the pace at which we advance representation and diversity – not just in the cockpits and the executive suites, but in all roles across the industry. Frustratingly, our combined efforts, which include various industry-funded education outreach initiatives, are hamstrung by the low standards of basic education, especially in poor communities,” he added.
“At the same time, we trade in an open and competitive labour market. In addition to fixing education, we need to attract the available talent to work in aviation in the region and also find ways to make sure they want to stay,” he said.

Contributing factors identified by AASA for urgent attention include the scarcity of funding (including the current financial squeeze on universities and students), the absence of a specialist aerospace and air transport education institution in Africa and a lack of effective coordination between governments, educators and the industry.

An industry econometric study by Oxford Economics for the International Air Transport Association shows that aviation supports 6.8 million direct, indirect and induced jobs in Africa and generates US$72 billion for the continent’s combined GDP. A significant portion of these are in Southern Africa. “It is a key economic and development enabler and driver of domestic, regional and global imports, exports, investments, business and leisure tourism and innovation,” AASA noted.
“While IATA is forecasting a US$31 billion net profit for the entire global industry, African airlines are set for a repeat of the 2016 trend, returning losses of around US$ 800 million for 2017. Zooming in, SADC airlines are expected to incur a combined US$350 million loss, of which about US$100 million will be from South Africa’s carriers,” Zweigenthal noted.
“Across the continent and particularly in Southern Africa, our industry remains characterised by intense competition, – domestically (particularly in South Africa), regionally, and internationally – with a number of players increasing their footprint across the continent.

Other challenges facing the local airline industry include African governments’ failure to reform market access, whether it is through the Yamoussoukro Decision or the AU’s commitment to establish a single common African aviation market; high US Dollar-driven operating costs; safety and security and the need to remain focussed on continually improving safety performance throughout Africa; revenues earned in some countries being withheld and access to them blocked by governments that are attempting to hoard forex reserves; climate change and the need to embrace and comply with initiatives, measures and associated goals that mitigate aviation’s contribution to global warming.