Until 2006, when Delta Air Lines Inc. launched service between Atlanta and Johannesburg, South Africa, via Dakar, Senegal, the only major U.S. carrier to serve Africa was Pan American World Airways. Offered since the end of World War II, Pan Am’s direct passenger and cargo service to the continent ended when the carrier collapsed in 1991. That left African carriers with 100 percent of the market throughout the 1990s and halfway into the first decade of the 2000s. Africa-bound passengers flying on U.S. carriers had to stop in Europe for ongoing connections.
All of that has changed. A burgeoning commercial and tourist destination, Africa today is one of the fastest-growing air transport markets. U.S. carriers are expanding capacity on U.S.–Africa routes, even as they look to reduce capacity to an economically shaky Europe. Delta, for example, has grown its African operation to six destinations and 44 weekly flights, including daily direct service from Atlanta to Accra, the capital of Ghana, and direct service several times a week from New York to Dakar, Senegal; to Accra and to Lagos and Abuja in Nigeria. United Airlines, which only began serving the market in 2010, has daily flights direct to Accra from Washington, D.C., and to Lagos from Houston, Texas. Market analysts CAPA–Centre for Aviation says opportunities in the U.S.-Africa market are huge, given the current small number of flights, strong ethnic ties and increasing commercial activity between the two regions. “There is plenty of room in the US-Africa market for both African and U.S. carriers. The total number of seats between the U.S. and Africa, about 37,000 per week, remains paltry given the potential demand,” CAPA said in a December 2011 report.
Recognizing the opportunities, in 2009 Nigerian carrier Arik Air, jumped into the fray with direct service between Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, its primary hub, and New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Founded in 2006 after the demise of Nigerian Airways and 100 percent privately owned, Arik has already become West Africa’s largest commercial carrier, operating 150 daily flights across a network of 33 destinations domestically and internationally. These include ongoing flights from its hubs in Lagos and Abuja to Accra, Dakar and Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, as well as to Johannesburg and Luanda, capital of Angola.
“Generally there is over demand for the routes and under-supply. Due to this under-supply the biggest problem is frequency of flights to and from the continent. Only 3 percent of global travel goes in to and out of Africa. This demand is expected to grow in double-digit terms in the coming year. Estimates are 13 percent to 14 percent increase in demand to Africa, which is higher than the estimated global average,” says Arik Air Chairman Sir J.I.A. Arumemi-Johnson.
Placing great emphasis on safety and security, Arik built one of the largest aviation security departments in the industry and partners with Lufthansa Technik of Germany and Iberia Airline, Spain’s flag carrier, on maintenance for its domestic fleet and long-haul fleet, respectively. An expatriate management team oversees operations at its Lagos headquarters in refurbished Nigerian Airways facilities. Team members explain that their presence is vital, but temporary. “It helps development and brings expertise into the country to develop a local talent base and to develop a first-class Nigerian staff.”
In October 2010, Arik became the first Nigerian airline in 15 years to meet the safety criteria of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and in 2011 became the first airline to be allowed to operate Nigerian registered aircraft to the United States in more than 10 years. Delta is its toughest rival in the U.S.-Africa market, especially for business travel. “Our biggest competition in the business sector from New York to Lagos is Delta Air Lines. We have only three flights per week from JFK compared to Delta’s daily flights,” says Robert Brunner, Arik’s vice president for the Americas. In addition, “Arik has no frequent miles program yet and is not a member of any of the alliances like Star or One World, which would allow code sharing and miles.”
Arik hopes to entice Black business travelers. “We work with several Black groups, such as 100 Black Men. We’re actively reaching out to the community,” Brunner says. In January, Arik appointed Black-owned C. Moore Media International Public Relations as its agency of record. The firm has an Africa division that specializes in raising the international visibility of African brands and organizations. “We want to increase our PR activities, and based on C. Moore Media’s understanding of our business, and insights into our competitive advantages, the agency is the obvious choice. They will be an invaluable asset in telling the Arik Air story,” Brunner said at the time.
Arumemi-Johnson says Arik has no immediate plans to join an alliance. “We are focused on developing our own services and airline network. We, of course, will consider this position if the need arose, but right now our focus is on consolidating our position domestically and regionally.”
Under consideration now, however, is expansion of interlining and code share to develop beyond services to Europe, the Middle East and the United States and expansion of service to key cities across Africa. “Arik Air is spreading its wings across Africa,” the airline boasts. Long-haul expansion includes service from Lagos to Houston, Abu Dhabi and Sao Paulo, Brazil; from Abuja to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; from Accra to London; and from Freetown (Sierra Leone) to London.
Arik executives acknowledge that implementing such ambitious plans won’t be easy. “We are hampered by the infrastructure at our hub airport in Lagos as there is no transfer facility which allows passengers to connect onwards to domestic or regional flights from international flights. This is a situation that is outside of the control of the airlines,” says Arumemi-Johnson. “This is just one example of how poorly maintained infrastructure makes it difficult to operate networks to secondary destinations. There are, of course, many other issues, but the political and security situation on the ground in many African countries also stifle the ability to develop regional networks and links. Arik commenced flights to Bamako, Mali, in December of last year, but we have had to discontinue the service due to the coup that took place and the uncertain political landscape that has unfolded.”
He conceded that efforts are being made to overcome these difficulties. “Regions are working better together in the interest of an economic bloc, for example, ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), which makes movement of goods, trade and migration easier and better, thereby developing air transport links between member nations. This increased trade and commerce assist in the development of infrastructure projects, which in turn make operating in to and out of airports in the region easier and more attractive than what it was ten years ago. Very simply, by coming together as a continent, something that has been problematic in the past due to cultural and ethnic differences, we can achieve what needs to be done to solve the problems we all similarly face.”