The business aviation industry in sub-Saharan Africa faces several challenges to profitable and efficient operations, according to speakers at late February’s Aviation Africa conference held in the Rwandan capital Kigali. Consensus among speakers was that the failure of African civil aviation authorities (CAAs) to comprehend the nature of business aviation is a significant part of this problem.
“For BestFly, relations with the Department of Civil Aviation are always a continuous effort,” said Nuno Pereira, managing director of the Angola-based business aviation services group. “When we did our application for an AOC [aircraft operator's certificate] four years ago, they wouldn't even look at us. They would only evaluate us on the same requirements as [national airline] TAAG Angola Airlines.”
The authorities treated the company in exactly the same way as it would an airline and wanted it to provide the same kind of documentation, which Pereira said was unrealistic. “It took us about two years to get the AOC in the first place. Most of the process was explaining to them that what they wanted us to demonstrate was not possible.”
“There is a lack of understanding of anything other than commercial aviation,” concurred Susan Mashibe, CEO and founder of Tanzanian aircraft and ground handler Via Aviation. “If you are private, the authorities will ask for an AOC. You have to explain over and over again that it’s a private operator and not a commercial AOC.”
“Most of the regulators come from a background of fixed-wing commercial aviation. They don't understand [our business] and request operators comply with commercial aviation rules. That mentality is really hard to [remove],” said Patrick Nkurikiyimfura, managing director, Rwanda’s Akagera Aviation. “I do believe we need more dialogue with the CAA to help them understand our type of operation.”
In Nigeria, classification of companies continues to be haphazard. There is a lack of understanding about the different legal types of permits, said Alex Izinyon, president and general counsel of Nigeria’s Izy Air.
“As long as you have an AOC, you are paying a lot more. In terms of the billing system, they look at you the same [as commercial airlines]. I've argued this many times: ‘I have only three jets—and the others are under management.’ ‘Well you have an AOC.’ ‘Yes, but I am not the same as [airline] Arik Air.’ I think that this is something that only very few at the Nigerian CAA understand.”
Positive Changes Ahead
The shake-out that has taken place among Africa’s major oil producers, which include Nigeria and Angola, has led to a rationalization that can only do the business good, said Pereira.
“The downturn in oil prices is a major [change]. People are now operating more efficiently, because they are obliged to. When oil was at $100 a barrel, they would throw money at everything. They didn't care. Now you see that change of mindset,” he said.
Despite all the difficulties, last year was the best year ever for BestFly, with more companies expected to enter the market and growth forecast. “When you waste money, you lose the ability to invest. At the end of the day, what happened last year is going to be very positive for the region. The companies are going to restructure and be more independent,” Izinyon said.
Most African airports were built in the 1960s and 1970s, and 40 years on they are maturing in the sense that their facilities are generally not keeping up with modern requirements.
“I believe in the next 10 years, the [focus in Africa] will be on airport infrastructure, and that will also combine the needs of business aviation. I understand that Rwanda’s new airport [at Bugesera] will be equipped with an FBO, and that's a very positive evolution,” said Nkurikiyimfura, whose company operates a fleet of helicopters that has seen major growth of late in demand for emergency medical evacuation services.
“There is also the question of whether the existing airport will become a private airport or bizav airport. Different options are still being looked at. Nothing is cast in stone. We'll know about it when the new airport is up and running. We are lobbying to use it, but other considerations might come into play,” he said.
Despite the difficulties that bizav companies face on the continent, the top end of the market continues to do well, according to Gulfstream. The Savannah, Ga.-based company characterizes the sub-Saharan and North African markets as robust.
“The Gulfstream fleet in Africa has grown slowly but steadily over the past five years,” Heidi Fedak, Gulfstream's corporate communications director, told AIN. “There are more than 75 Gulfstream aircraft in Africa. Nearly 95 percent of them are large-cabin aircraft, including the GIV series, GV series and G650.”
Low oil prices have had a severe effect on the Nigerian economy, but this has not affected Gulfstream’s position in that country negatively, she said. “We haven’t seen a dramatic impact on our backlog or demand based on oil prices,” she added.”Nigeria continues to be the largest market in the region. Algeria and Egypt also do well. The African market is extremely important to Gulfstream, as reflected in the investments we’ve made there.”
In 2014, Gulfstream appointed SkyJet Aviation Services its authorized sales representative for aircraft transactions in central Africa. SkyJet’s territory includes Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar.
It also engaged Inkwazi Jet Centre as an authorized independent sales representative to support sales in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland.