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Flying in Africa still pricey despite busier skies

CAPE TOWN, Oct 9 – It has never been easier to fly to Ouagadougou, Juba or Maputo but Africa’s increasingly busy skies are still among the most expensive in the world.

Budget carriers are cropping up in the bigger countries, with South African taxi operators last month becoming the latest to enter the market with the launch of a domestic low-cost carrier.

But across the continent, airlines are dogged by airspace restrictions, high taxes, poor safety records and inadequate airports even as outside competitors muscle into a market to serve a growing middle class wanting to fly more often.

“The biggest problem that Africa faces at the moment is the fact that some countries are deregulated and other ones are not,” said Bert van der Linden, business director of Comair, which operates British Airways and no-frills in South Africa.

“The more frequencies that come about, the more opportunity one has of creating additional markets and increasing the demand.”

African carriers are tipped to break even this year but will suffer losses of $100 million in 2012, according to industry body the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

At one end of the spectrum is bankrupt Air Zimbabwe; at the other, are ever-expanding carriers like Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways.

Arik Air stepped into the Nigerian slump in 2006, introducing the country’s first new airplanes in 20 years. It now flies to 29 domestic and international destinations and will open five new African routes by the end of the year.

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The market is not competitive enough, spokesman Keelan Morris told AFP. Flights within the continent can be much more expensive than longer flights to Europe.

“Travel to Africa only accounts for less than five percent of global traffic but the fares are still some of the highest in the world. There is a lot of demand but not enough capacity,” he said.

Dubai-based Emirates, one of the most ambitious airlines in the world, will increase its network to 21 African cities next year, including Harare following the demise of Air Zimbabwe.

“Emirates has long understood the enormous potential of Africa, which today is one of the fastest expanding economic regions of the world, benefiting from a combined market of over one billion people, rising consumer demand and an abundance of natural resources,” chief executive Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al-Maktoum said.

But not all carriers are happy at the opening up of local skies to foreign carriers while facing challenges of getting into markets elsewhere on the continent.

The 40-member African Airlines Association warns that regulations are needed to prevent predatory outside competition and urges governments to allow more flights by regional carriers.

South African Airways (SAA) chief executive Siza Mzimela said one of the carrier’s biggest threats was outsiders such as Emirates who are drawing passengers to their travel hubs.

“Whilst other markets are opening up in the rest of the world, African markets are not opening as quickly as they should,” Mzimela added.

Despite the problems, the IATA predicts that Africa will see the world’s second-highest growth in passengers by 2014.

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“Slowly but surely governments seem to be loosening up,” predicts Comair’s Van der Linden. “Slowly but surely things are starting to evolve.”

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