Letter from Africa: Flying high?
In our series of letter from African journalists, London-based Ugandan writer Joel Kibazo considers the travails of travelling by air in Africa.
I had barely woken up when the phone started ringing.
Friends called to ask if I was in Nairobi and if I was OK, knowing that I am frequent traveller and often fly into Jomo Kenyatta International Airport either going to and from Kenya itself, or on the way to Addis Ababa, Kampala, or Lusaka.
Jomo Kenyatta Airport
- Busiest airport in east and central Africa, and seventh busiest in Africa
- Handles six million passengers a year
- Hub for neighbouring countries as well as cities as far away as Lagos, Johannesburg and Cairo - as well as gateway to continent for Europe and Asia
- Serves 49 destinations in 23 countries, across five continents
- Key export point for Kenya's flower industry, one of the country's top foreign exchange earners
The airport is now a regional hub, and last month's fire, which destroyed the arrivals hall, highlighted the fact that more than 16,000 passengers go through it every single day.
That figure may be puny when you compare passenger numbers at other international airports.
Last year, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in the US had a total of 95 million passengers - making it the world's busiest airport - while Heathrow in the UK saw 70 million people go through its terminals.
Yet the figures from Kenya clearly indicate that Africans have at long last been bitten by the travel bug.
Where once almost all the flights to and from the continent were linked to Europe or the United States, almost every time I stand before the flight boards I now see new routes within Africa.
And where most of the travellers were once clearly from outside the continent, today it is Africans getting on flights to do business or seek new opportunities such as travel for education and increasingly for sports fixtures between national teams and those of clubs and associations too.
Finding a seat to have a rest, let alone decent toilet facilities, is often a struggle”
But make no mistake - travelling in Africa by air is still one of the hardest and most frustrating things to do.
Yes there are new routes but not many that directly connect many of our cities.
It is still much easier and sometimes quicker for me to fly from one part of the continent via Europe than to fly direct.
The facilities at many of our airports make the hours of waiting between flights seem even longer.
Finding a seat to have a rest, let alone decent toilet facilities, is often a struggle - never mind braving the frequently rude, though to be fair usually underpaid, immigration and customs officials.
Major African air disasters since 2003
- June 2012: A Dana Air passenger plane with about 150 people on board crashes in a densely populated area of Lagos, Nigeria.
- July 2011: A Hewa Bora Airways plane crash-lands in bad weather in DR Congo, killing 74 passengers.
- May 2010: An Afriqiyah Airways Airbus 330 crashes while trying to land near Tripoli airport in Libya, killing more than 100 people.
- May 2007: A Kenya Airways Boeing 737-800 crashes in swampland in Cameroon, killing all 114 on board.
- December 2005: A Sosoliso Airlines DC-9 crashes in the Nigerian city of Port Harcourt, killing 103 people on board.
- October 2005: A Bellview airlines Boeing 737 carrying 117 people on board crashes after take-off from Lagos, Nigeria.
- January 2004: An Egyptian charter plane belonging to Flash Airlines crashes into the Red Sea, killing all 141 people on board.
- December 2003: A Boeing 727 crashes after take-off from Benin, killing at least 135 people en route to Lebanon.
- July 2003: A Boeing 737 crashes in Sudan after take-off, killing 115 people on board.
- May 2003: About 170 people are reported dead in DR Congo after the rear ramp of an old Soviet plane apparently falls off, sucking them out.
- March 2003: An Algerian Boeing 737 crashes after taking off from the remote Tamanrasset airport, leaving up to 102 people dead.
Believe me, it is enough to wipe away any notions of the glamour of air travel on the continent.
All of that before you even get to the issue of safety.
The International Air Transport Association (Iata) admits the Africa region has the world's worst safety record and data from the body revealed safety performance in 2012 had declined in comparison to the previous year.
Apart from the need to improve safety, specialists also say the sector has to reduce its high taxes, liberalise regulations and in fact bring into reality the Yamoussoukro Declaration‚ which was adopted in 1988.
It committed African governments to an open skies policy but has not been implemented as planned.
Yet it is not all doom and gloom and Africa has decided to take action on safety.
Last year countries adopted an African Strategic Safety Improvement Action Plan for the three-year period to 2015 and the plan was endorsed by the African Union in January.
The aviation industry supports some seven million people on the continent and, according to Iata, last year demand for international flights grew by more than 7% in Africa compared with 6% globally.
With African economies continuing to grow, this is an area that is set to boom... if only we can deal with the safety issues.
And needs must, I shall no doubt be back in the air soon.
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