Côte d’Ivoire: Taking to the skies
On October 30, Air Côte d’Ivoire (ACI), the country’s new national airline, launched its inaugural flight from the Ivorian economic capital, Abidjan, to Dakar, Senegal. Like many West African countries, Côte d’Ivoire has repeatedly struggled to maintain a national carrier, faced with price-sensitive consumers, expensive landing fees and muted demand. However, the government is hoping that the recent unveiling of ACI will buck the regional trend and capitalise on an increase in flights to the country’s main international hub in Abidjan.
ACI was founded in May 2012 as a partnership between the national government, Air France and the international Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED). At present, the government holds a 65% ownership stake in the new company, while Air France holds 20% and AKFED, 15%. The airline started with CFA2.5bn (€3.81m) in capital, which is expected to grow to CFA25bn (€38.11m) in the near term. Fellow national carriers Air Mali and Air Burkina, both of which are part-owned by AKFED, will share services and infrastructure with the new start-up, to streamline services and operations.
At present, the airline’s fleet consists of two Airbus A319s. Each is equipped with 12 business-class seats and 96 economy-class seats. Commercial operations for the airline began on November 12. At the outset, ACI will focus on offering flights to capitals in West and Central Africa, including Bamako, Brazzaville, Dakar, and Douala. Domestic flights are slated to begin sometime in early 2013. ACI aims to carry 300,000 passengers within its first year of operations.
ACI is the country’s latest attempt at forming a national airline since the failure of Air Ivoire in 2011. The drop in demand following the political crisis of 2011 helped hasten the closure of Air Ivoire, but a bigger factor in its decline was its heavy debts. Historically, air travel between West African cities has been marked by exorbitant ticket prices, few connections and generally unreliable technical and customer service, providing a challenge not only to travellers but also to investors.
Air Ivoire was far from the only victim. Ghana International Airlines, for example, which was majority-owned by the Ghanaian government, suspended operations in 2010 after only five years of service. Air Senegal International, which was founded 50 years ago, stopped flying in 2009 following a dispute between shareholders Royal Air Maroc and the Senegalese government.
However, with broader economic growth rising and purchasing power increasing in West Africa, investors have become increasing bullish on the region’s aviation potential, not only in terms of service but also in terms of infrastructure.
In addition to the creation of ACI, Gaoussou Touré, the minister of transport, recently announced the “Aerocite d’Abidjan” aviation initiative. Aerocite d’Abidjan aims for the Felix Houphouët Boigny Airport, which is located in Abidjan, to welcome 10m passengers annually by 2020. To reach this goal, Touré has allowed for the addition of a new runway at the airport, as well as general equipment upgrades throughout the facility.
Perhaps one of the aviation sector’s greatest challenges at the moment is the lack of clearance from the US-based Transport Security Administration (TSA) for the Felix Houphouët Boigny Airport. This means that, at present, no flights can travel directly between Abidjan and the US, meaning that all passengers travelling between these destinations must transit through airports with TSA clearance. In a recent public statement, Touré appeared optimistic that the airport’s facilities and security were up to par and that it has the potential to receive TSA clearance in 2013.
With or without TSA clearance, the Felix Houphouët Boigny Airport continues to welcome an ever-growing number of international and regional carriers, up from around 10 in June 2011 to 20 in September 2012. The airport is currently served by South African Airways, Turkish Airlines, Royal Air Maroc, Emirates, Brussels Airline and Air France, among others.
Meanwhile, several regional carriers recently announced plans to either begin flights to Abidjan or increase flight frequencies to the city. Arik Air, the six-year-old Nigerian airline, plans to begin flights to Abidjan soon, and Accra-based Starbow Airlines began flights to Abidjan on November 8, offering five flights per week, aimed specifically at serving business travellers.
In the face of increasing flight frequency, Côte d’Ivoire’s new airline will have to compete fiercely to reach profitability, as an ever-growing number of international carriers attempt to establish routes to the city. The good news is the country’s economic growth has helped bolster demand and if the current level of competition in the sector keeps pace, Ivorian and international travellers alike will benefit from more comfortable flights, better connections, and less expensive tickets to and from Abidjan.