Air France’s African operations face turbulence due to diplomatic changes, security concerns

by MMC
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RIYADH: The decision of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to place West African countries that have suffered coups under “red alert”, a measure initially aimed at ensuring the security of nationals of this European country, has took an unexpected turn. negatively affecting airlines operating in the region.

This suspension is particularly painful for Air France, since flights between Paris and Bamako, the capital of Mali, represent its third busiest route in sub-Saharan Africa, behind Abidjan and Dakar. The sudden cessation of these services not only deals a hard blow to Air France but also opens up opportunities for competitors.

This crisis marks a turning point in the operator’s relations with Africa, impacting 14% of its turnover. This highlights the wider issues facing airlines operating in politically unstable regions and highlights the need for a delicate balance between security and commercial interests in the aviation industry.

Africa has seen seven coups since August 2020, with the most recent military coup taking place in Gabon, preceded by Niger, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Sudan and Mali. However, the diplomatic standoff between France and the region’s military juntas did not work in its favor.

President Emmanuel Macron has just disengaged from Niger, recalling its ambassador and pledging to withdraw his troops by the end of the year, marking a significant shift in France’s approach to the region of the West African Sahel.

Air France celebrated the 80th anniversary of the Bamako-Paris route in 2017, affirming its commitment to the region, even in the face of conflicts and security challenges. Although disruptions occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, sub-Saharan Africa remained a resilient region for the company, accounting for nearly 18% of its network revenue in 2021.

However, this figure fell to 14% in 2022 as other destinations, notably in Asia, began to recover. The current crisis therefore has both immediate and long-term implications on Air France’s presence in Africa and its overall revenue situation.

The consequences of the suspension extend beyond the airline itself, affecting diplomatic relations and providing new opportunities for competitors. As the airline navigates the complexities of resuming operations, it faces not only a logistical challenge, but also the task of rebuilding trust with local authorities and passengers in these African countries.

Ovigwe Eguegu.

“These West African countries are redefining their ties with France, and it made no commercial sense to blacklist them, even if France’s security concerns are understandable,” Ovigwe Eguegu, a Nigerian political analyst, told Arab News.

“The possibility of Air France losing market share to Turkish Airlines is real because beyond aviation, Turkey is striving to deepen its presence in the region and France may have just given another opportunity in Ankara,” he added.

This highlights the competitive landscape of the aviation sector, where quick decisions can lead to a reshuffle in market dynamics. Turkish Airlines, along with other ambitious carriers, now see an opportunity to expand their presence in Africa at the expense of Air France.

In terms of number of seats, the situation was similar in Niger and Burkina Faso, the two destinations each having 4,000 seats in August 2022. The abrupt cessation of Air France services, from July 27 for Niamey and August 7 for Ouagadougou, resulted in the collective loss of several thousand seats, which represents a loss of revenue estimated at $3.2 million, according to Arab News calculations.

As of August 2022, there were more than 10,000 seats available for flights between Paris and Bamako, making it the third largest destination in sub-Saharan Africa in terms of capacity, according to aviation data provider OAG. However, the following year this number dropped significantly to fewer than 5,000 seats.

Turkish Airlines should regain part of the market share from Air France. (Shutterstock)

Experts say the Turkish carrier, known for its ambitious global expansion strategy, is well placed to capitalize on Air France’s absence. However, it is not the only player at stake. “African companies, including Air Senegal, which has a fleet of A330s, and Corsair, which continued its flights to Bamako despite the recommendations of the French Ministry of Affairs foreign countries, are also in the game,” Alain Kazadi, a Congolese aviation expert, told Arab. News.

“Corsair, in particular, has demonstrated resilience, continuing its services even during difficult times. It plans to operate more flights, thereby strengthening its presence in the African market,” Kazadi added.

The situation also highlights the complexity of air agreements and the sovereignty of nations over their airspace. “Each state holds the power to grant or deny authorization to airlines, and these decisions can have significant consequences for carriers,” Kazadi said, noting that while bilateral agreements are common in the airline industry, aviation, they may be subject to change at any time.

“In the aviation sector, bilateralism is favored, but agreements are often confidential and can be called into question at any time,” Ovigwe said, commenting that the Malian Civil Aviation Agency even went so far as to cancel authorization to operate Air France flights.

Air France, for its part, is trying to minimize the situation, affirming that it will have to submit a new authorization request when flights resume, which according to it constitutes a standard procedure.

Africa has the distinction of being the continent with the lowest number of air passengers each year, accounting for only around 2% of global air traffic, encompassing both passenger and cargo transport. The main driver of air transport in Africa has traditionally been international tourism.

However, the continent’s rapid population and income growth has long offered the promise of new opportunities in this sector, making it increasingly important to delve deeper into the African aviation market. One of the most significant obstacles facing airlines operating in Africa is the exorbitant cost of doing business, which far exceeds that of other regions.

In 2021, spending on jet fuel and oil accounted for approximately 31.2% of overall costs for African carriers. While the surge in global oil prices has affected the entire sector, jet fuel remains 12% more expensive in Africa than in other regions.

Between 2010 and 2019, the premium rose to 18 percent, reaching around 40 percent by 2022. Africa’s unique infrastructural and logistical challenges have led its carriers to assume an exceptionally high premium in the global aviation industry.

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