A quiet transformation is happening in the skies above Southern Africa. A new wave of intra-regional aviation is connecting communities, empowering economies and opening routes for tourism and trade across the SADC (Southern African Development Community) region.
For those of us in the travel and economic development, this is incredibly heartening news. The growing momentum of collaborative initiatives like Iata’s Focus Africa and efforts by Afraa (African Airlines Association) to promote air connectivity, signal that aviation has taken flight as a strategic priority across the region.
The power of connectivity
Aviation is not simply about covering distances; it's about bridging economic gaps. In Africa, where air travel accounts for just 2% of global market, the potential for aviation to transform economies is immense. Iata estimates that a 10% increase in air connectivity can boost a country’s GDP by 0.5%.
Each additional daily flight between two trading partners increases bilateral trade by 8-15%. At least 55% of international tourists now travel to their destinations by air.
Recognising aviation’s power of connectivity, SADC member states are now making concerted efforts to improve aviation infrastructure, open their skies, and attract new carriers. The recent increase of flight frequencies and new routes by airlines like FastJet, FlySafair and CemAir are positive developments in line with a broader regional commitment to elevate aviation.
We’re taking off
Other promising updates in the past year demonstrate an upward trajectory for air connectivity in the SADC region:
- Fastjet Zimbabwe launched the Victoria Falls to Nelspruit and Victoria Falls to Maun routes in 2022. The airline now serves five domestic destinations.
- CAAZ granted FlySafair and CemAir foreign operator permits for Harare and Victoria Falls routes in 2022.
- Airlink resumed its Johannesburg to Antananarivo flights in 2022 after Madagascar reopened its borders after COVID.
- Eswatini Air launched a new Eswatini to Harare route.
- Proflight launched its twice weekly flights between Lusaka and Cape Town.
- LInhas Aerias Moçambicanas connects Mozambique to Cape Town with a direct flight from 15 October
- SAATM membership has climbed to 23 countries, with more expected to join the single African air market.
The focus on improved air connectivity is welcome news indeed for players like the newly formed SADC Business Council Tourism Alliance, comprising private-sector tourism industry associations across the region. Air access is but one of the priority areas for the Alliance as it works with the SADC Secretariat on a unified SADC Air Access Strategy along with other initiatives such as skills development, reputation management across the region and ease of travel across SADC borders.
Such collaboration is crucial if we are to fulfil the promise of seamless travel within the region promised by the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM). As it stands, SADC accounts for just 1.1% of global scheduled flights and many key routes remain underserved or not served at all.
Taking tourism to new heights
Increased air connections are already bearing fruit for major safari destinations like Maun and Victoria Falls. Currently, 80% of travellers must connect through at least one hub to reach Africa’s safari destinations. New routes mean that travellers have more options, ease of travel and lower airfares.
Maun in Botswana is benefiting from new routes served by Airlink, FastJet and CemAir, which are increasing arrival numbers from key source markets like Germany and the US, according to ForwardKeys' Flight Search data. In Zimbabwe, the direct flight from Frankfurt to Victoria Falls is a big draw card. As connectivity improves, there are more opportunities to tap into long-haul markets.
An Iata survey found that if 12 African countries improved connectivity, they would create 155 000 new jobs and generate $1.3 billion in annual GDP. The message is clear: more airlinks equal more trade, more tourism and more prosperity across the region.
Learning from global best practices
To unlock aviation’s potential, closer co-ordination between stakeholders is vital, SADC Business Council Tourism Alliance believes. South Africa’s Cape Town Air Access initiative provides an excellent case study of a co-ordinated multi-sector approach to air connectivity that continues to pay dividends.
By bringing together airlines, government, tourism bodies and airport operators, the initiative has systematically attracted over 1.5 million seats to Cape Town International.
The success of the Cape Town Air Access initiative is not only evidenced by the remarkable growth in traffic, but also the new routes that have been established. Today, CTIA handles 31 000 passengers per day on average. International traffic was up 64% last year alone.
Since September 2022, seven new airlines and seven new routes have launched from CTIA. For the 2023/2024 summer season, the airport expects a 25% increase in seat capacity to over one million inbound seats.
There are now 15 direct flights per week to the US with three airlines serving four destinations. The latest new route is South African Airways' direct São Paulo flight launched on October 31, strengthening connections to South America.
This collaborative model demonstrates that isolated efforts are less impactful than partnerships in improving air connectivity, especially for routes that may lack initial demand.
Thinking big: The promise of Fifth Freedom Rights
As we celebrate recent progress, it’s also time to envision bolder innovations. One solution supported by the SADC Business Council Tourism Alliance could be the adoption of 'Fifth Freedom Rights', which allow foreign carriers to transport traffic between two countries en route to their home base.
For example, Air Namibia uses this model to link Southern Africa to Accra, Lagos and São Paulo via Windhoek.
Pursuing an open Fifth Freedom policy could significantly enhance connections between underserved cities and catalyse economic activities. Rather than isolated markets, cities could become gateways to wider regional and ultimately continental opportunities.
An integrated future takes flight
The SADC Business Council Tourism Alliance applauds regulators like Zimbabwe’s CAAZ deserve credit for granting foreign operator permits to South African carriers, increasing connectivity and competition which reduces fares.
Public-private partnerships between agencies like CAAZ and airlines demonstrate the growing recognition that aviation requires collaborative efforts between stakeholders to maximise opportunities.
For the SADC region to achieve its economic potential, a vibrant aviation sector must sit in the pilot’s seat. Steps like liberalising airspace, adopting innovative solutions such as Fifth Freedom Rights and building smart partnerships are key to realising this future.
The sky is no longer the limit. Rather, the point of departure for the region’s continued growth and integration.