Analysis in brief | All of Africa’s major economies are carrying out major airport building and expansion efforts in anticipation of ever-rising air passenger numbers. Airports are status symbols in their role as gateway announcements to African destinations, but also play vital roles in economic expansion.
- Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa will rival in size the world’s largest airports when expansion is completed
- Rwanda has positioned itself as Central Africa’s aviation hub, home to Africa’s first drone airport
- ‘Open skies’ policies agreed to by all African countries will, when implemented, expand air travel between African countries
Where once, every African country’s pride was its own national airline, today the prestigious item is a gleaming new state-of-the-art airport as Africa’s most populous nations are competing to be regional hubs. They seek to be air transportation centres where long flights from Europe and Asia come and go, and disembarking passengers go on to other countries via shorter route air carriers. Regional hub crowns can be bestowed upon Cairo for North Africa, Addis Ababa for East Africa, Lagos for West Africa, Kigali for Central Africa and Johannesburg for Southern Africa. However, international flights arrive at dozens of international airports distributed across all regions, from which the routes of shorter-haul aircraft emerge like spokes.
As Africa’s population grows and air travel becomes more affordable, together with increased foreign direct investment on the continent, construction of new airports and expansion of existing facilities will accelerate. However, not all airports are created equal. The ‘chicken or egg’ conundrum regarding air travel – which comes first, the airlines with their routes requiring an airport at a destination, or the existence of an airport that then draws airlines – has been answered in Swaziland. The King Mswati International Airport opened in 2014 at immense cost to the impoverished nation which previously had only one small airline flying only one route, to and from Johannesburg, and operating in the country. Government wanted a new airport, and argued that once it is built a host of international air carriers will descend on the country, bringing tourists and business investors and repaying the costs of building and maintaining the facility. After three years, none of that has happened.
In contrast, a major upgrade of Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport in 2010 was prompted by projected need to accommodate the FIFA World Cup and a rise in business investors to the country and the region. Expansions of airports in Ethiopia and the construction of a new international airport in Mozambique to meet the needs of a province on the brink of significant tourism and mining expansion were also based on need. Whenever a new air facility is conceived, the desire is always to construct a soaring passenger terminal of glass and metal tubing bathed in LED light displays signalling to passengers that they were arriving at a thriving, forward-looking African destination.
The big airports and major destinations get bigger
Prompted by business activity that doubled from 2011 to 2012, from 45% to 80% in terms of investment deals that year, airport construction and expansion plans were announced by several governments hosting regional hubs. In North Africa, Algeria budgeted US$ 952 million, Libya US$ 2.1 billion and Egypt US$ 18.5 billion on airport work. Nigeria budgeted US$ 1.07 billion in West Africa, and Rwanda US$ 650 million. In Southern Africa, Angola set aside US$ 2.1 billion for airport expansion, and Zambia committed US$ 500 million.
As these projects unfolded, air passenger capacity increased significantly in other nations. Ethiopia’s showcase Bole Airport in Addis Ababa, opened in the early 2000s, is already seeing a US$ 225 million expansion. When completed, the facility will be one of Africa’s largest airports, handling 120 million travellers annually, the same capacity as Dubai and Heathrow airports. Bole International Airport is truly a regional facility, and 70% of passengers are transit travellers who never leave the airport but change planes for other destinations. However, now that Ethiopia is East Africa’s largest economy, four additional airports are being built in key areas under development throughout the country.
East Africa’s primary tourism destination, Kenya, is spending US$ 40 million to expand Kilimanjaro International Airport to accommodate more visitors this year. Kenya’s main Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, another of East Africa’s regional air hubs and at present the region’s busiest, is seeing a major expansion costing US$ 612 million. Elsewhere in East Africa, Uganda’s Entebbe airport is seeing a US$ 400 million upgrade. In February, Tanzania announced its new capital city, Dodoma, requires its own air facility, and will be the country’s fifth international airport.
Drone airport shows aviation’s future
Africa’s first airport devoted to remote-controlled pilotless aircraft, or drones, opened in Rwanda in early 2017, initially to accommodate medical drones with their capability to deliver blood supplies to remote clinics. Rwanda’s aviation ambitions are greater, as officials made clear at the Africa Airport Expansion Summit in Kigali in February 2017. The country also intends to be a regional air hub, doubling air traffic by 2020, while showing the capabilities of drone aviation for commercial and agricultural purposes.
“Rwanda has prioritised the aviation industry, setting a zero tax levy for companies with regional headquarters in Rwanda,” announced Clare Akamanzi, CEO of the Rwanda Development Board. Rwanda’s aviation expansion is predicated on population demographics and economic projections. Within 20 years, Rwanda’s middle-class, a demographic which travels by air, is expected to double from 33% of the population to 63%. Airport expansion will be pro-active to meet this growth.
African construction firms needed to expand air infrastructure
Chinese construction companies are at work on Ethiopia’s ambitious airport building drive, while European firms have been hired by various African countries to erect their growing air infrastructures. Only once African construction firms are doing this work, the continent’s aviation industry can truly be considered localised. A second hurdle is overcoming the patchwork of national aviation laws that make it easier for passengers to fly to Europe from an African capital than to fly to another African nation. All African countries have agreed to ‘open skies’ aviation treaties that will bring uniformity to pricing, routes and air space use fees. When these commitments are actually put into practice, African air travel will expand exponentially, driven this time by African travellers flying within the continent and not just international travellers on long-distance flights.