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Unlocking the African Skies

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The aviation industry in Africa has to look at passenger-focused solutions to truly take off

  • Over 300 million passengers to go through African airports per year by 2035
  • US $22 billion needed to modernize African airports

Flying with purpose

The International Air Transport Association claims that air traffic in Africa is expected to grow by an average of 4.6 per cent a year for the next 18 years. This translates into more than 303 million annual passengers by 2037. This is triple the number of annual passengers flying in African skies today.

Demand for cargo in Africa is increasing too. While the continent only commanded 1.7 per cent of the global share of freight tonne kilometers in 2019, African carriers consistently post the fastest air cargo growth in the world. Latest data shows that capacity has outstripped cargo growth for the last 21 months. 

“As population and income increase in Africa, air transport for both people and cargo will continue to grow in the foreseeable future,” says Jean-Marc Bourreau, global aviation expert at CPCS.

“African airports have to make the most of this windfall while ensuring passenger well-being and operational profitability.”

Revisiting nagging problems

So what can African airports do to join the big league?

The conventional wisdom among African airport authorities is that safety concerns continue to keep fleets aground. Though the last 10 years saw vast improvements in air safety, the apprehension remains justified.

While commercial airliner operations in Africa haven’t suffered any fatalities from 2016 to 2018, most African airports still lag in the implementation of safety standards.

According to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), less than 50 per cent of African countries have a satisfactory number of safety standards and recommended procedures in place. This means that each of these countries have their own ways of operating aircraft, maintaining aerodromes and investigating accidents.

This non-standardization makes some countries leery of doing business with African airlines. In fact, the latter are often banned from operating in the United States and in some European countries.

Clearly, safety standards falling outside of international norms play a big part in preventing the African aviation industry from unleashing its full potential in a global economy. 

Passenger-minded improvements

In light of the situation, it makes sense that African countries are scrambling to invest as much as possible in airport infrastructure – preferably by way of private funding. The African Infrastructure Investment Managers estimate that African airports need a staggering US $22 billion to modernize their infrastructure and operations.

Jean-Marc, however, worries that some airport authorities, governments and stakeholders have lost sight of passenger experience as they race to meet ICAO’s safety standards.

Case in point: many African airports are worried that their airside infrastructure (i.e. everything related to aircraft operation) does not meet ICAO’s standards. When 40 per cent of African airports lack sufficient pavement strength, 35 per cent lack airport perimeter fences and 20 per cent face capacity limitations, it’s obvious that there is still some way to go before African airports are ICAO-certified.

“Public travelers tend to consider safety standards as given – and they definitely should,” says Jean-Marc. “But they are more interested in what they can see and feel.”

Moreover, ICAO says very little about modernizing passenger and cargo terminals – the most visible pieces of infrastructure to passengers and freight operators. As such, airports may very well gloss over improvements to what are usually the central determinants of passenger experience.

For instance, it’s in every airport’s interest to protect passengers from inclement weather and provide controlled temperatures in their terminals. Yet, such basic amenities are precisely what’s left out of ICAO’s standards.

“Passengers rarely remember a safe landing, but they’ll certainly recall waiting for hours in a terminal without air conditioning,” says Jean-Marc. “That’s not good for business.”   

The lesson is that guaranteeing safe flights is not sufficient; African airports must cater to user experience as well.

Landside and business opportunities

A second overlooked aspect of airport infrastructure is land transit – also not covered by ICAO. “Landside” planning is a critical element of what makes airports “successful.” Intuitive entrance and exit locations and gate placement are crucial in ensuring acceptable transit times between the airport and the city it serves. An airport that neglects ground access is almost guaranteed to worsen congestion in the surrounding areas.

“The days of airports in ‘the middle of nowhere’ are over,” claims Jean-Marc. “Airports must learn to become good neighbours with the businesses and residential areas in their vicinity.”

As air travel becomes increasingly popular in Africa, the logistic obstacles of providing fluid land transit in and around airports will be magnified.

Finally, Jean-Marc suggests paying more attention to airport-generated business opportunities. This can range from quality of life changes such as adding boutiques and lounges inside the airport to flagship development programs like building an aerotropolis. Entrepreneurship may be the key in making certain African airports more profitable.

In short, African airports are right to focus on elevating their safety regulations up to the highest standards, but they must not neglect passenger experience and business opportunities related to their development.

“While better passenger experience won’t increase total air traffic, it may lead to more passenger spending,” adds Jean-Marc.

Pre-emptive solutions

The good news is that airports in Africa are generally willing to address passenger-related issues

“But they must do a better job at anticipating them,” says Jean-Marc.

That’s why he proposes a two-track strategy centered on eliminating these problems before they arise.

Proper planning

The first part of this strategy is proper planning.

As traffic grows, proper planning allows African airports to improve processing times, increase passenger and cargo operator satisfaction and become a “good neighbour” to the community.

This goes beyond typical planning work. Communication and cooperation with national Civil Aviation Authorities (CAA) is key. CAAs are instrumental in managing safety around the airport and participates actively in land use planning with surrounding communities. When these authorities are not part of the planning process, dangerous oversights occur.

Some disappointing cases that result from a lack of proper planning include greenlighting flight paths over schools, hospitals and residential areas and granting permits to build facilities under low altitude flight paths. Poor planning can also result in unmanageable travel times to and from the airport and cargo loss.

Airport Service Quality Management System

The second part is exploring the feasibility of an Airport Service Quality Management System (ASQMS). An ASQMS could focus on logistics, airport ambience, connectivity and telecommunications processes to improve passenger experience. It also acknowledges that seemingly straightforward activities involves multiple moving parts and airport services. A smooth check-in experience, for instance, is not just the responsibility of service counters. Staff in the backrooms work tirelessly to get luggage at the right place at the right time. Meanwhile, developers are constantly optimizing and updating the airport’s website to provide accessible, relevant information.

Lacking this holistic Airport Service Quality Management System, airports rarely get the full picture with regards to passenger satisfaction. Passengers may appreciate the courtesy of service counters but may deplore the website’s poor user friendliness or a less than flawless experience with authorities. The result is that the airport receives a glowing review for its check-in process but an overall poor score for passenger satisfaction.

How airports currently manage passenger experience (e.g. feedback surveys) don’t entirely capture this complexity. However, the subjective nature of passenger experience makes this elusive ASQMS difficult to implement.

“It’s not easy to create standards out of perception,” recognizes Jean-Marc. “The same quality management system for the Singapore Changi Airport can’t be used for a small airstrip on an island in the middle of the Pacific.”

Despite the difficulties, implementing such a system could drastically improve how African airports manage passenger experience and lift them on the same playing field as some of the best airports in the world. 

Impressions matter

A famous expression in the aviation industry is that airports are the first and last impressions of a country. More than hubs of transportation, airports are symbols of wealth, development and opportunities. As such, it behooves countries, especially emerging markets in Africa, to ensure that their airports reflect the image they want to portray.

Flight safety and meeting international standards are a good place to start, but they play no part in a country’s charms and promises. What’s next for African airports is to make sure their passengers remember with fondness their trips in the African skies.

And this starts with infrastructure work on the ground – always with the passenger in mind.

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