Aviation: Air Afrique: the African dream that never reached cruising altitude

Afrique

The African aviation industry is replete with names of promising national carriers that once graced the skies but whose life span fizzled out no sooner than they had commenced flight operations.

Many African carriers in the continent have either revived with new names to give the airline a new identity or are heavily being subsidized by the government of the country to stay in business.

In the beautiful article written by Jeff Megayo, blogger on medium.com, he x-rayed some of the intrigues that led to the demise of one of the national carriers the plied the African skies.

The article reads:

As a child, I didn’t have a clue on how airlines operated. I simply knew that people sat in those flying machines and they traveled very far and very fast. But the first time I heard about Air Afrique, it ignited such a strong sentiment in me. I didn’t even know who owned the firm, but the name reassured me that it was truly African. I was captivated by Air Afrique because whenever I watched their commercials on T.V., I saw pilots and crew members who looked like me.

And I found their posters fascinating because they depicted an Africa that I was familiar with. I was so infatuated with Air Afrique that at that age, I thought it was a much bigger airline than Air France and KLM, the only other carriers I knew. Each time the engines of an aircraft roared through the skies, I pictured a black pilot in command with the beautiful flight attendants whom I loved.

Was Air Afrique that glorious or was it a fantasy that I had as a child? Indeed, most Africans who knew Air Afrique would agree with me that it was an airline that made them proud.

A truly multinational firm owned mostly by African states. Nevertheless, the 41-year lifespan of Air Afrique wasn’t that splendid in many aspects. Besides its early years when the company quickly grew its operations, Air Afrique’s history was underlined by a visionless leadership, an opaque management, and constant power-plays.

A Francophone Affair
Air Afrique was principally owned by a consortium of francophone African countries that interestingly, were also either former French colonies or protectorates. Sierra Leone was the only anglophone country shareholder and it joined much later in 1978.

During the Treaty of Yaoundé on March 28th, 1961 in Cameroon, 11 African countries established Air Afrique. The countries that signed the treaty were: Congo, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, and Chad. It wasn’t until in 1968 that Togo and in 1992 that Mali, officially held a participating stake in the firm. The African countries had a 66% share in the venture while Air France and Union Aéromaritime de Transport (UAT) held a 16% stake each.

Over the years, Gabon, Cameroon, and Sierra Leone disposed of their equity in the firm. The table below from an AfDB report, lists the shareholders of Air Afrique in 1999. The states increased their shares to 70.40% after the other members exited.

The impetus for a pan-African Airline
Air Afrique was established during a period when African countries — mostly colonized by the French — were gaining their independence in a rapid sequence. From 1957 to 1961, out of the 24 African countries that gained their independence, 15 were former colonies or protectorates of France. Hence, the firm was born from the heydays of the independence years in those countries.

It was clear that the Air Afrique project was driven by a strong desire of some African leaders to have a common identity. They found this identity in an airline they would own, and which would ensure the transportation of their people within their borders and beyond; an airline that could eventually compete against the airlines of countries that just yesterday, besieged them.

Some people argue that Air Afrique was less of a pan-African dream — as depicted — and more of an opportunity that the leaders identified to exploit a commercial activity for the benefit of their newly independent countries. I disagree. Given the period in which the company was launched, leaders in the newly independent countries were looking to make a statement that, united, they could accomplish great exploits. Furthermore, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was also created in 1963 and it is a strong indication of the pan-African sentiment that was present in Africa during that period.

The early years
Despite some internal disagreements among member states, Air Afrique was off to a remarkable operational start. The firm scaled rapidly by leasing new aircraft, opening new agencies, and flying new routes. In October 1961, it began its first long-haul flights between Africa and France. By April 1965, Air Afrique had a fleet of nine aircraft and it managed 2,500 employees. At its height, Air Afrique employed over 5,000 people and served 30 destinations in Africa, Europe and North America.

The company even flew Pope John Paul II from Ghana to Côte d’Ivoire and from Côte d’Ivoire to Rome in May 1980 when the Pope toured Africa.

What went wrong?
In retrospect, the fate of Air Afrique was inevitable from the get-go. Besides the disappointing leadership, one can also point to a few other external factors that contributed to the firm’s downfall. But in my opinion, all these reasons were simply the consequences of a leadership that lacked vision and a bad operational execution. Although internal conflicts and inadequate management were present since the inception of the pan-African airline, the outcomes only began to manifest in the operations of the firm during the 1980s.

Internal battles
The visionless leadership that I refer to extends beyond the leadership of the firm. It included political leaders who wanted to have things done their way at Air Afrique. Remember, Air Afrique regrouped 11 countries and political leaders quickly saw an opportunity to reward allies through nominations and promotions and punish foes through layoffs. Leaders also manifested their ego. For example, there was a bitter debate between a few state leaders regarding where the headquarters of the pan-African firm should be.

It was finally inaugurated in Côte d’Ivoire, but the tussle had already damaged the comradeship among the political leaders. Many countries had even established their own airlines with a couple of planes. They eventually went bankrupt.

In another example, some country leaders were quite upset that there weren’t many people from their countries in management roles within the firm. As trivial as this may seem, this caused some countries such as Cameroon and Gabon to exit Air Afrique.

Conflicts of interest and management oversight
Political leaders weren’t the only guilty ones. At the operational level, executives, branch managers, and other decision-makers engaged in behaviors and decisions that one could only qualify as a suicide mission for Air Afrique. There are first-hand accounts that some high-ranking executives were suddenly struck with the urge to run for top-level political positions in their countries. They were emboldened because they were running a pan-African firm which was also very political. As a result, they focused more on nurturing their political ambitions and less on sustaining the airline. This also put them in conflict with their country leaders who were not to be challenged by people they nominated.

Air Afrique became an “everything-goes” company
In the past, I had the opportunity to speak with a few people who were either related to or knew people who had worked at Air Afrique. They narrated stories of family members and acquaintances of high-level personnel of the firm who flew regularly for free with Air Afrique. Some housewives became business women overnight and started selling fresh vegetables and African food in Europe.

A few years ago, during a conversation with a friend, he revealed to me that he knew a woman who regularly traveled from Togo to France to sell okra and other spices. She didn’t hide the fact that she traveled gratis. The Air Afrique segment of her business was so lucrative that she began to neglect her other activities in Togo. There were reports of Air Afrique flight attendants who were involved in commerce and they stuffed their luggage with merchandise. Business was booming for many people because of Air Afrique.

Evidently, there’s no such thing as free lunch and somehow, someone had to pick up the tab. In this case, it was Air Afrique who was liable for the expenses. The company struggled to pay its creditors and the African states desperately injected cash on multiple occasions to keep the company afloat.

The situation only worsened with cancelled flights and excessive tardiness. Some flights even reportedly departed earlier than scheduled, leaving passengers stranded and confused. To top it all off, between 1987 and 2000, there were six reported incidents with Air Afrique’s flights. Clearly, in a highly competitive industry, customers would begin to choose alternative airlines whenever they could.

What went wrong?
In retrospect, the fate of Air Afrique was inevitable from the get-go. Besides the disappointing leadership, one can also point to a few other external factors that contributed to the firm’s downfall. But in my opinion, all these reasons were simply the consequences of a leadership that lacked vision and a bad operational execution. Although internal conflicts and inadequate management were present since the inception of the pan-African airline, the outcomes only began to manifest in the operations of the firm during the 1980s.

Internal battles
The visionless leadership that I refer to extends beyond the leadership of the firm. It included political leaders who wanted to have things done their way at Air Afrique. Remember, Air Afrique regrouped 11 countries and political leaders quickly saw an opportunity to reward allies through nominations and promotions and punish foes through layoffs.

Leaders also manifested their ego. For example, there was a bitter debate between a few state leaders regarding where the headquarters of the pan-African firm should be. It was finally inaugurated in Côte d’Ivoire, but the tussle had already damaged the comradeship among the political leaders. Many countries had even established their own airlines with a couple of planes. They eventually went bankrupt.

In another example, some country leaders were quite upset that there weren’t many people from their countries in management roles within the firm. As trivial as this may seem, this caused some countries such as Cameroon and Gabon to exit Air Afrique.

Conflicts of interest and management oversight
Political leaders weren’t the only guilty ones. At the operational level, executives, branch managers, and other decision-makers engaged in behaviors and decisions that one could only qualify as a suicide mission for Air Afrique. There are first-hand accounts that some high-ranking executives were suddenly struck with the urge to run for top-level political positions in their countries. They were emboldened because they were running a pan-African firm which was also very political. As a result, they focused more on nurturing their political ambitions and less on sustaining the airline. This also put them in conflict with their country leaders who were not to be challenged by people they nominated.

Air Afrique became an “everything-goes” company
In the past, I had the opportunity to speak with a few people who were either related to or knew people who had worked at Air Afrique. They narrated stories of family members and acquaintances of high-level personnel of the firm who flew regularly for free with Air Afrique. Some housewives became business women overnight and started selling fresh vegetables and African food in Europe.

A few years ago, during a conversation with a friend, he revealed to me that he knew a woman who regularly traveled from Togo to France to sell okra and other spices. She didn’t hide the fact that she traveled gratis. The Air Afrique segment of her business was so lucrative that she began to neglect her other activities in Togo. There were reports of Air Afrique flight attendants who were involved in commerce and they stuffed their luggage with merchandise. Business was booming for many people because of Air Afrique.

Evidently, there’s no such thing as free lunch and somehow, someone had to pick up the tab. In this case, it was Air Afrique who was liable for the expenses. The company struggled to pay its creditors and the African states desperately injected cash on multiple occasions to keep the company afloat.

The situation only worsened with cancelled flights and excessive tardiness. Some flights even reportedly departed earlier than scheduled, leaving passengers stranded and confused. To top it all off, between 1987 and 2000, there were six reported incidents with Air Afrique’s flights. Clearly, in a highly competitive industry, customers would begin to choose alternative airlines whenever they could.

CFA Franc devaluation: an important external factor
In 1994, France devalued by 50%, the value of the common currency that 10 of the 11 African countries used: the CFA franc. Mauritania had its own currency. Regarding Sierra Leone, it didn’t use the CFA franc and I couldn’t find data on this, but I believe by 1994 the country had already exited Air Afrique because the civil war began in 1991.

I published an article which explains the history of the CFA franc currency and why France even had the right to devalue a currency that African nations utilized.

The consequences of the devaluation were quite damaging to Air Afrique. The firm earned in local currencies but paid for the lion’s share of its expenses in dollars. It also affected the firm’s customers in the countries which used the CFA franc. Their purchasing power decreased as a result of the devaluation and planes tickets became theoretically 50% more expensive for them. I reckon that traffic from Europe to Africa increased on the other hand, helping to offset some of the losses in domestic flights.

The effects of the CFA franc devaluation could have been mitigated
It is my view that too much weight shouldn’t be given to the devaluation of the CFA franc in Air Afrique’s demise. By 1990 and 1991, it was clear to all decision makers — therefore to Air Afrique’s executives as well — that the CFA franc would soon be devaluated, and that it was the only option that France and the Bretton Woods institutions expected. Had Air Afrique maintained strong financial results during the prior years and implemented very efficient operations, it could have weathered the storm.

Unfortunately, by 1994 the firm’s financial health had already deteriorated and the devaluation simply put it into a coma that it was never able to recover from.

By Jeff Megayo
Source: medium.com

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  • I couldn’t have written this story any better. The African ‘peoples’ and the countries on the continent have many skills, desirable cultures and rich histories; however, the ONE thing no one in Africa has mastered – is commercial aviation – AS AN INDUSTRY.

    Many nations have tried…and most have failed. The most severe criticism I can level at the African commercial aviation industry – is that NONE of the failed carriers ever progressed past the ‘amateur’ stage of their maturity. They learned the ‘tricks of the trade’…and very little of the actual ‘trade’.

    Ethiopian is the ONLY carrier who has learned the trade, learned to shun and resist ‘government’ interference, learned how to ‘operate’ aircraft – in addition to learning how to ‘fly’ aircraft (HUGE difference), learned how to follow a business plan, learned how to read financial spread sheets…and learned that an airline is a BUSINESS…and not a hobby (and NOT a politicians personal valet and transport).

    Nigeria could be – and SHOULD be – the home of Africa’s largest, safest and most profitable airline. Currently, there is NOT one airline in all of Nigeria worthy of emulation and not in need of massive infusions of capital and operational talent.

    The industry is NOT getting better…it’s been declining for the past two decades!

    Nigerian…and other African airlines…don’t need any more ‘awards’; they all need direction, guidance, leadership, management, character – and INTESTINAL FORTITUDE!

    Operating an airline requires a vast skill set, tremendous energy, laser-like focus on the business plan, the ability to ‘multi-task’ (X10)…and unwavering Positive Mental Attitude.

    Len Hobbs February 19, 2020 6:34 pm Reply
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