By Hani El-Assaad
The past year saw a resurgence in demand for air travel to, from and within Africa, with end-2022 capacity in all the sub-regions either exceeding or close to early January 2020 levels, bar Southern Africa, which ended the year 27%* below that high-tide line.
As forecast, the recovery was led by domestic markets, but regional and long-haul markets are following suit as carriers reinstate intra- and inter-continental services with African destinations.
The drivers of air transport in Africa remain undiminished. COVID-19 has not slowed population expansion or urbanisation on the continent. Similarly, it did not shrink the distances or the challenging terrain between markets, which make air transport the safest and most efficient way to move people and products. We also expect air travel demand to be fuelled by the implementation of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area and its sister AU flagship programmes, the Single Africa Air Transport Market (SAATM) and, most importantly for travellers, the Free Movement of Persons Protocol. The rapid increase in passengers will continue to put pressure on airports, especially those who were obliged to let go of talent, stop or curtail their infrastructure expansion projects and switch off some equipment and services as they scrambled to shore up their cash reserves during the crisis. Worldwide, over 62 million travel and tourism jobs were lost thanks to the COVID-19 travel and social restrictions. Having made deep cost cuts most airports have been unable to re-hire in sufficient numbers to ramp back up fast enough.
Although African airports largely escaped the long queues, missed flights, schedule snarl-ups and capacity caps that characterised the European and US summer, many faced their own operational challenges which upset and frustrated passengers and airlines. Like their northern hemisphere counterparts, depleted funds, weak balance sheets together with insufficient people and unavailable equipment continue to be the Achilles heel of many African airports.
In Africa and elsewhere, just as the response to the 9/11 attacks were a raft of security restrictions, most of which are still in place, so will COVID-19’s legacy be a set of adjustable biosecurity protocols for airports to implement seamlessly to prevent further logjams when there are future outbreaks or other pandemics.
The introduction of modern security processes will not occur in isolation, but in the metamorphosis of airports into smart facilities where technology and automation combine to reshape the workforce, give rise to flattened business organisations and streamline operations. This will require new skills and create new opportunities for employees in the air travel industry and in government agencies responsible for security, immigration and customs.
To remain competitive and avoid becoming choke-points, Africa’s airports – regardless of their size – will need to digitalise and automate some of their processes as passengers increasingly demand the same digital experience and efficiencies across their entire journey, from door-to-door, regardless of the size and location of the airports they are travelling from, through and to. The fast-paced evolution of modern digital technology has brought affordable and scalable solutions within easy reach, enabling even small airports to scale-up, improve both their capabilities and capacities. With a modest investment, they can future-proof their operations and pursue additional revenue streams.
By transforming and meeting their customer airlines’ demands for safe and efficient passenger experiences, African airports will be promoting themselves as well as the communities, industries and markets they serve as welcoming destinations.
It is a golden opportunity to exploit the latest technologies and re-imagine the processes and specifically passengers’ airport experience.
While there is a lot of noise around the Gen-X / millennial market, in many of the world’s lucrative international tourism source markets people are all living longer and older people are travelling in greater numbers than ever before. This is borne out by new research which shows 36% of all passengers were aged 56 and older in 2021 compared to just 25% in 2019. Both these groups come with their own requirements. Younger travellers demand a digital travel experience, using their mobile to navigate and manage their journey. For older travellers, wayfinding, walking and waiting are key concerns. Here too technology will help, making it easier to find your way around the airport and to deliver services such as wheelchairs based on where they are needed.
Biometrics along with privacy, digital identity rights, and controls will be a priority for passengers in a future where it becomes possible to travel from everywhere to anywhere without the need for physical documents or being stopped for identification.
With the roll-out of advance passenger information (API) systems, travellers are able to share their travel documents ahead of travel and avoid queues at when they arrive at the airport. This will accelerate as more countries and governments implement such API processes and in doing so, will pave the way to this more connected, seamless travel experience passengers want.
Collaboration will be pivotal to its success, which is why SITA is working with airports, border agencies, airlines, industry bodies, and other international partners on this.
The roll-out of biometric-based identify programmes in several African countries is further testament to this. By 2030 digital identities will be interoperable and usable globally, with identity credentials securely shared with all those involved throughout the journey, from start to end, including government visa issuance and border control authorities.
However, to ensure universal buy-in, digital ID systems must respect privacy, safeguard personal information and operate.
based on informed consent. In a pilot to test and validate these processes, SITA is currently working with the Government of Aruba, where the SITA Trust Network allows travellers to use a mobile app for fast-tracked immigration pre-clearance and enjoy access to the island’s participating venues, including restaurants and clubs.
Biometrics and mobile technologies will also help airports and airlines boost revenues. By enabling secure mobile payments and where passengers are willing to share their travel details, will make more personalised service possible.
The establishment of trusted data exchanges, will push operators across all transport modes to collaborate so that passengers can use these technologies on any combination of air, land and sea journeys. As an illustration of what will be possible, when a passenger books a multimodal door-to-door ticket, delays to a train service could automatically trigger alerts to the airline to provide alternative replacement flight options and to notify transfer providers at the destination airport. Intermodal travel ranks high on airlines’ investment agenda, with 67% of airlines confirming development programmes.
One of the biggest demands we see is cost-effective best-in-class baggage and airport management systems. Smaller airports using simple, scalable and affordable baggage reconciliation systems like SITA Bag Manager Lite can reduce the number of mishandled bags by up to 20% by automating what is typically a manual process.
For many years Africa has been portrayed as a continent of potential. The advent of powerful and capable digital technologies, harnessed to provide secure, reliable, scalable and affordable solutions to improve the passenger journey, presents a golden opportunity for Africa’s governments to leverage their airports to sharpen their competitiveness and generate sustainable national economic prosperity.