Friday, July 11, 2014

It Seems Official: Delta Departing Liberia

Arriving in Atlanta from Monrovia on one plane, December 2011.

This weekend the Monrovian flying public was wracked by news reports indicating that Delta Air Lines, would be ending its services to Liberia. Delta has served Robertsfield since September 2010 with multi-week wide body flights to the U.S. via Accra, first from Atlanta, then more recently from New York-JFK.

While one of the more credible publishing houses cites credible sources in its reporting, there was initially no official word from Atlanta. Normally, news of withdrawal from markets is reported after an official press release from the airline itself, and even though FrontPage Africa has now reprinted a statement to the paper directly from Delta headquarters, the airline has made no official general public announcement.

Presuming it is 100% verified, Delta's departure at the end of August would leave Liberia with weekly service by just two intercontinental carriers, whereas in May there were multi-week options to three cities in Europe and one in the U.S. on four different global airlines. Now there will be just a pair of choices: British Airways to London-Heathrow and Brussels Airlines, which is Liberia's longest serving long-haul carrier with its Sabena-heritage going back decades. Neither of the remaining airlines, of course, offers a critical trans-Atlantic link to the United States.

Air France, which had flown twice-weekly from Paris CDG to Monrovia for over three years, stopped its service at the end of June, citing weak passenger numbers of poor revenue volume. It is likely that Air France headquarters looked not only at mostly-empty Airbuses but also its regional developments: in terms of its airline alliance and owned-carriers, it is still possible to fly to Monrovia via its network: Skyteam member Kenya Airways still flies to Monrovia via Accra, where Air France's Dutch subsidiary, KLM, takes a planeful of people to Amsterdam every single night. Likewise, Air France has been steadily upgrading its service to neighboring Abidjan, and as of this autumn will rotate in an A380 super jumbo thrice-weekly on its route from Paris, in the face of the rapid regrowth of Cote D'Ivoire, where it recently invested in the new national carrier, Air Cote D'Ivoire, which itself now flies non-stop to Monrovia several times per week. From Air France's perspective it probably makes more sense to have passengers connect in Abidjan rather than sit through a same-plane stop in Sierra Leone.

The good old days, c.2010

As for Delta, its ambitious, circa-2009 expansion plans across the African continent, from Luanda to Malabo to Nairobi, have been greatly curtailed. Visitor numbers from the U.S. to Africa peaked in 2010 have actually declined significantly in the past three years (I was shocked to learn: see below), and instead of spreading farther Delta has withdrawn from markets in the face of low passenger numbers, or security concerns: Monrovia joins an forlorn crowd of Cape Town, Cairo, and Abuja, have all fallen off Delta's map since 2009.

In looking at the last five cities those reductions left on Delta's African route network, it is amazing that tiny Monrovia has lasted as long as it has when compared to much larger, more important cities: Accra, Dakar, Lagos, and Johannesburg.

In fact, this is not the first time that I've remarked that it is astonishing that Delta actually started flying to Monrovia at all, much less flying past much bigger markets like Casablanca to do so, and it surely can be understood that passenger numbers do not justify what is surely a high-cost operation, in terms of security and crew management alone for such a small, distant destination. Ultimately, the Monrovia flying public is just too small for a three-times per week wide body to JFK.

Slower economic growth, most notably the still-lengthening trough between the frenzied exploration phase of extractive projects and the revenue-generating production phase of most of them, and of course Ebola have all surely contributed to a deterioration in passenger numbers. Most ironically, an improving socio-political situation has surely meant a decline in NGO activity (do such statistics exist?) which means fewer World Bank suits in the front and fewer save-the-world backpackers in the back of the planes.

Delta's arrival to Liberia in September 2010 was one of the high-water marks of Liberia's post war redevelopment; the first time since Pan Am departed in 1986 that an American commercial passenger plane scheduled service to Liberia. This blog has been progressively running a series of "Flying to Liberia: Its Getting Easier" posts over the years. Now that situation is rapidly retrograding.

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