Published On: September 16th, 2020By Categories: Editor's Choice7 min read
new rules

National symbols were created to be iconic symbols of collective national identity, inspiring patriotism and a sense of national pride.

Alongside the national flag, national anthem and emblem, we have come to accept the African conundrum that is the national airline.

A brief history

Air transport in Africa is almost as old as the industry itself. As early as the 1920s, only two decades after the Wright brothers completed the first-ever flight, Air France and Deutsche Lufthansa had passenger transport services into Africa. In fact, it was in the 1930s that South African Airways, Africa’s oldest airline was formed.

Air transport in Africa continued to grow and in the 1940s, Ethiopian airlines came into existence. South African Airways and Ethiopian airlines remain the oldest existing airlines on the continent. The 1940s also saw the emergence of Misrair, Egypt’s national airline and Liberian national airways.

In this colonial era, airlines in Africa were largely foreign-owned and that trend continued into the 1950s with the likes of Pan Am, Trans-World Airways(TWA), Sabena Belgian airlines and the British Overseas Airways Corporation(BOAC) all playing significant roles at the time.

Under colonial control, regional airlines began to emerge through multi-lateral cooperation. East African Airways, West African airways and Central African airways were all formed.

As African countries started to get their independence, A new bold and proudly African multi-lateral initiative was created at the Yaounde treaty of 1961.

11 newly independent states from Francophone West Africa came together to form a majority African owned airline called Air Afrique – one that would prove to be a successful venture. Air Afrique eventually closed in the early 2000s.

By the end of the 1960s, there were over 70 airlines in Africa during the peak of African independence. More African airlines were formed almost as part of a new post-independence identity package and subsequently marking the end of multi-lateral regional airlines. This trend continued all the way to the formation of the Republic of Zimbabwe in 1980 and in which year Air Zimbabwe was also formed.

The broken promise of Yamoussoukro

1988 saw the advancement of aviation policy towards greater co-operation across Africa. The Yamoussokro declaration was designed to integrate airline transport between African airlines. However, an event more significant policy shift was initiated again in the Ivorian city of Yamoussokro in 1999. A decision to fully liberalise the air transport market and grant access beyond the restrictive bilateral regime that was hampering the growth of the African airline industry.

Today, the Yamoussokro decision has evolved into the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) a more robust initiative to accelerate the implementation of the Yamoussoukro decision. Open skies in Africa is still very much a work in progress and a case of so near yet so far. African airlines and economies continue to be robbed of the benefits of liberalization of air services.

South African Airways vs Ethiopian Airlines

Until recently, these two airlines remained shining examples of African airlines that stood the test of time and sustainably grew through the pre-colonial and post-independence times to emerge as some of Africa’s finest and proudest.



Today, however, South African Airways and Ethiopian airlines are two different sides of an African coin – one a cautionary tale and the other a benchmark for success. No two prominent African airlines have such contrasting fortunes to better put into context what is and what could be for African aviation.

South African Airways

The eventual implosion of SAA was something that time bombs are made of. Years of losses and close to a decade of billions of rands in bailouts footed by the South African taxpayer proved to be unsustainable. Today little has changed, the airline is in a business rescue plan, hundreds of jobs are on the line. What went wrong?

Government interference

The role of government is crucial to the growth of Aviation. Governments have a responsibility to create an enabling environment for airlines to thrive. The role of government is to facilitate growth and not to run airlines.

The significant interference by the political structure and involvement in crucial decision making at SAA including the hiring and firing of important employees has proved to be one of the recipes for the eventual disaster


The on-going state capture inquiry in South Africa has shined the light on the rotten culture of corruption at the state-owned airline. In one case, the Gupta family managed to influence the company to relinquish a lucrative route to Mumbai in favour of an Indian airline in which they had interests. In another, an executive allegedly negotiated a R100 million kickback in order to rig a tender process in her favour.

Former board chairperson Dudu Myeni once told Parliament’s standing committee on finance that there were ghost employees on SAA’s books and a call centre in Florida, in the United States, despite the airline not flying to this destination. And there is so much more.

Unstable leadership

Since 2009, SAA has had a total of 12 CEOs and acting CEOs including the two stints of Nico Bezuidenhout and the current leadership of Philip Saunders.  An average of one per year and a really long line of drama at the top. With such turmoil, there was no chance for long term thinking and continuity. This instability also led to loss of confidence in the airline. As far as leadership goes, the past decade at SAA has been nothing short of catastrophic.

Ethiopian Airways

In 2008, Ethiopian airlines carried 2.5 million passengers. That same year, SAA carried three times more passengers at 7.5 million. Fast forward to 2014 where Ethiopian airlines and SAA carried six and seven million passengers respectively, one clearly on the rise and the other moving in the opposite direction. In 2019 Ethiopian carried 13.3 million passengers to SAA’s dismal 4.6 million. Ethiopian airlines had firmly established itself as Africa’s pre-eminent carrier completing a meteoric rise spanning over a decade. A success story built by design and the result of a deliberate effort to be the best.

In 2014 that Ethiopian airlines came up with what would be the first in a series of key strategic roadmaps. Vision 2010 was designed with the ambition to achieve a turnover of one billion dollars by the year 2010. This challenge meant Ethiopian had to grow by a massive 20% year on year. Lofty ambitions.

In June 2010, Ethiopian airlines recorded a turnover of (US) $1.2 billion. They didn’t stop there. A long term vision and plan was drafted and dubbed vision 2025 with the aim of making Ethiopian airlines the largest airline group in Africa – Vision 2025 had four important pillars:

  • The Fleet – The plan was to achieve more commonality of aircraft type within the airline fleet in order to drive efficiencies through a clear maintenance culture and training regime. Ethiopian airlines largely grew a Boeing fleet for short, medium and long haul with the bombardier Q400 workhorse taking on regional and domestic routes
  • Human resource – For long term sustainability, skills development would be at the heart of growth. The Aviation academy was expanded and today is the largest aviation training center in Africa
  • Infrastructure – Bole airport set about becoming a major hub that could service the ambitions of Ethiopian airlines. It was expanded and developed.
  • Technology and IT – Driving technology through the airline’s processes was key to maximizing efficiencies.

With seven successful and profitable companies within the group, Cargo and logistics, Maintenance repair and overhaul(MRO), in-flight catering services, the aviation academy, the airports company, Ethiopian hotels and tourism plus the airline along with a host of subsidiaries and equity partners across Africa, Ethiopian airlines is today the largest airline group in Africa way ahead of schedule and is already drafting another strategic roadmap dubbed vision 2035 with the aim of sustaining this incredibly fast growth.

There is no overstating the importance of a long term strategic vision but Ethiopian airlines had added to that stable leadership, good corporate governance, strict business principles and a hands off approach by the Ethiopian government, allowing the experts to run the airline without interference.

What does the future hold for Africa’s flag carriers? The choice is really ours to emulate success or go down the slippery path of our failings

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