Friday, November 1, 2013

Air Mano River Union?

A bit of a strange, and typically vague press report came out of the recent meeting between the Transport Ministers of the Mano River Union (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote D'Ivoire) that stated, in part:

The Ministers of Transport of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea have resolved to establish a common airlines to connect the three countries and ease the difficulty being experienced by inhabitants of the sub-region  because of the absence of connecting flights.    

It should be noted that presently none of these three countries has any domestic airline, unlike Ivory Coast, with its recently re-launched state carrier, Air Cote D'Ivoire. Perhaps that's why the MRU's newest and largest member state (which also does not straddle the Mano River) is not listed among the countries seeking to 'establish a common airline.'

The impracticalities of this scheme are evident: aviation anywhere is a costly endeavor; even in low-competition  Africa, continental giant Kenya Airways struggles to yield a profit. In the region, privately-backed, would-be Sierra Leonean state carrier Fly 6ix went bust with little fanfare, while news of an Arik-backed or government-back successor have gone silent.

The region remains a tiny market for commercial flights, with fewer seats departing Liberia in a week than are filled at most major airports in a quarter of a single hour. Furthermore, there is still very little need to connect the Mano River Union capitals with one another, much less for domestic flights. Since Brussels Airlines changed its schedule earlier in 2013, there has been no scheduled service between Abidjan, an urban center of 5 million, and Monrovia, just 2 hours away (Brussels airlines stops in Freetown as of last month). Likewise, Conakry and Monrovia were initially linked by Air France's service which it began in 2011, but that has now switched to a stop in Freetown. British Airways also flies to Freetown, although it doesn't have rights to drop passengers from Liberia in Sierra Leone. Despite all these widebody fights, there are still more frequencies to further-away Accra than next door Freetown.

ASKY Airlines, launched in 2009 by Ethiopian Airlines, and based out of Lomé, dominates scheduled flights across West Africa, albeit with tiny turboprops making a handful of flights a week, few of which hopscotch the Anglophone/Francophone checkerboard of West African countries. In April, a flight from Monrovia to Abidjan took 6 hours, as the only routing was on ASKY from Monrovia to Accra to Lomé, to a change of planes to reverse directions to Abidjan. This is the result of the current state of both the economics and regulations of the region, and ASKY has been successful in part because it boasts no particular national affiliation. Although national flag carriers will always be a point of pride for governments, they are expensive and impractical, especially for under-budgeted, underdeveloped countries.

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