Félix-Houphouët-Boigny International Airport in Abidjan (Ivory Coast)

In a previous article, we argued for the top three nations to become the next capital of aviation in the east of Africa. But what about the west of Africa, an equally diverse and strategic region?

As we mentioned before, there a few criteria that a nation needs to rise to the top.

  • A secure and stable government that has recognized the importance of aviation and, most importantly, has the means to invest in it.
  • A stable economy that is also competitive and encourages private innovation.
  • Attractive domestic aviation potential (multiple cities linked by airports) and international appeal.
  • Easy access for foreign investment and also a legal system to protect foreign assets.
  • Internationally certified airports that follow IATA and ICAO standards.
  • The country needs a local carrier that operates within the borders and supports aviation jobs. Without this, the nation can’t 100% maintain an industry without significant foreign airlines (some cases do exist, like tourism islands).
  • But this local carrier should be a private entity that survives on the whims of its product service offering. If the government is heavily invested in the local carrier, it can stifle competition and discourage other airlines from flying there.

Let’s explore the top three hubs of West Africa

– Ghana

Ghana has seen a rapid development of its aviation sector under the leadership of its current government, so much so that it would be surprising if the number of airlines operating domestically didn’t triple by 2025. The country is large and has a real possibility of a robust domestic market, with multiple regional airports undergoing extensive infrastructure upgrades to accommodate modern jet aircraft. You can read about the airport landscape of this country here. 

Similar to the situation in Rwanda, Ghanian authorities have sought partners for a new flag-carrier airline. While discussions may have stalled with Turkish Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines, there is now an opening for the local private sector to invest – particularly from defacto domestic carrier African World Airlines. You can read more about the airline landscape in Ghana here. 

Since the publication of those articles, Ghana’s primary airline, Africa World Airlines has resumed international flights to Lagos, Abuja, Freetown, Monrovia Roberts and Abidjan.

– Nigeria

Nigeria offers a complex market with a rich domestic base, multiple airlines, and plenty of international airports. However, an appropriate metaphor to describe the country’s aviation landscape is “like butter scraped over too much bread”. With such a large population and network of carriers, critics may find it a case of quantity over quality.

Nigeria has one of the most complex aviation markets in Africa, with a range of different airlines operating everything from the Boeing 747 for flights to the Middle East (Air Peace), and another making the largest order (50 A220 aircraft) to Airbus (Green Africa). In 2020, there are ten scheduled carriers operating passenger services, one cargo, and four charter airlines. There are also multiple startup airlines attempting to break into the market. There is no dominating government-backed flag carrier, although many attempts have been made and abandoned through the years (most recently in 2018).

“I regret to announce that the Federal Executive Council has taken the tough decision to suspend the National Carrier Project in the interim.’’ Aviation minister Hadi Sirika on Twitter (September 2018), reported by The East African.

When it comes to airports, there are eight international airports, ten major domestic airports, twelve minor domestic airports, and many regional airstrips. Unlike other nations in this list that need airport investment, Nigeria is overflowing. However, this vast investment comes at a cost. With so many airports operating, the government can’t maintain quality standards and suffers from a poor reputation for operational efficiency and safety. The government will need to either privatize many of these airports (the lions-share is owned by the government) or consolidate resources to a handful of sites.

That being said, it doesn’t mean there has not been any effort by the government to solve the problem. Improvement works have been limited to the capital Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (with a repaired runway in 2017 and a new terminal building commissioned in 2018 to serve 15 million visitors). Other notable improvements include Murtala Muhammed International Airport which has fixed faulty baggage equipment, dramatically improved security and stamped out corruption. This has lead to international airlines taking an interest in the destination, with carriers like Emirates, Ocean Air, Delta and China Southern Airlines filing for landing rights.

The government has been quick to step in during the current crisis and provide aid to airlines and other firms relating to aviation.

“Given the importance of air transport for Nigeria’s economy and connectivity, the government must not let aviation fail. The industry faces a liquidity crisis. Without a viable aviation sector, Nigeria’s eventual recovery from COVID-19 will be longer and even more painful. Aviation-specific financial relief measures are urgently needed as a matter of survival,” said Muhammad Albakri, IATA’s Regional Vice President for Africa and the Middle East.

This complicated market place deserves its spot in this article, and will likely rise up as a fierce location for the hub of West African aviation.

– Côte d’Ivoire

Côte d’Ivoire (or in English, The Ivory Coast) has noticed its geopolitical rivals making moves in aviation and has quickly jumped on board to ‘optimize its competitiveness’. The nation used to be a significant aviation hub before the country’s second civil war, but a decade later, is the nation ready to reclaim its title?

According to CH-Aviation, the government has moved forward with a plan to support the profitability and sustainability of its national carrier,  Air Côte d’Ivoire, plans that are believed to be focused on reducing costs. The airline, while small, influences the region with its six A320 series aircraft (four small A319s and two A320s) and Q400 turboprops, which it used to fly 850,000 passengers before current market conditions. Back in 2019, the government also planned to lease a single Boeing 777 aircraft to open flights from Abidjan to Paris, alas these plans seem to have been put on hold at the moment. The cause of the airlines’ high operating costs is that of its hub – Abidjan Félix Houphouet-Boigny airport charges exorbitant rates.

“It does not have a governance problem, it suffers the burden of high operating expenses at Abidjan Félix Houphouet-Boigny airport and across the sub-region. In addition, it does not receive royalties from operators and companies that serve Abidjan airport, unlike Air Sénégal and Dakar Blaise Diagne Int’ l airport,” explained Jeune Afrique in 2019.

Speaking of Abidjan International Airport, this is where the Ivory Coast has made the right moves. Back in 1996, the government privatized the operation of the facility to AERIA, a French company, which in turn split up the ownership to the facility to the private market. Thanks to this investment, the company has been able to upgrade the airport and deliver an impressive quality service operation – so much so that the government extended its contract. The airport has been expanded from 11,000 square meters of terminal space to 26,000, the airport lengthened for the Airbus A380, and both ONOMO and the Radisson Blu have opened airport hotels at the location for travelers.

While an extensive regional network of landing strips paints a good future impression, the lack of other local carriers apart from the government-owned flag carrier stifles competition. Besides, the scars of the recent war are still present, and foreign firms may take some time to warm up to the nation.

Conclusion

West Africa is a vibrant and turbulent region, with many different nations jostling to be the aviation champion. Alas, there can only be one powerhouse and that falls on these three nations to make it happen. Will upstart Ghana be able to undercut the large, but vastly spread Nigeria, or will the Ivory Coast regain its prestige? There are many more nations than listed here, and for the full perspective contact Eways Aviation today.