South African Aviation Sector Post-Covid Provides Major Opportunities

African recovery and return to economic growth following the Covid-19 pandemic presented a significant opportunity to the general aviation sector across the continent, but particularly in South Africa, SA Flyer editor Guy Leitch pointed out when he was addressing the Commercial Aviation Association of Southern Africa’s virtual 2020 symposium.

SAFlyer and FlightCom editor Guy Leitch

“South African general aviation is the single largest repository of aviation sector expertise in Africa,” he highlighted. “Intra-African connectivity is the big opportunity.” This opportunity was open to both the general and commercial aviation sectors.

Even before the pandemic, both the commercial and general aviation sectors in Africa had faced a number of major challenges. The biggest single one was the lack of air transport liberalisation across the continent. But other major challenges included limited air traffic management services and inadequate airports. Symbolic of the constraints on African aviation was the fact that, in most African countries, the national aviation regulators employed more staff than there were pilots registered in those countries.

The pandemic had severely disrupted the continent’s air transport links. Yet aviation was essential for Africa’s economic growth, because of the inadequacy of its terrestrial transport infrastructure (roads and railways). This opened opportunities for contract operations (such as flights to and from mines, for medical evacuation and, in the near future, Covid-19 vaccine distribution), VIP flights and charter operations. 

Further, the development of smaller single-aisle airliners, such as the Airbus A220-family and the Embraer EJet and EJet-E2 families, provided opportunities for African commercial aviation. These aircraft made previously uneconomic intracontinental routes commercially viable. 

Another opportunity across the continent was provided by uncrewed aerial vehicles or drones, which were “really starting to happen”. This development was supported by “progressive” aviation regulators in a number of African countries. Unfortunately the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) was still “way behind the curve” in this sector.

Nevertheless, SACAA was one of the strengths of the South African aviation sector. Although subject to criticism (not least by Leitch himself) it was fundamentally an effective, well-administered, honest organisation whose staff were eager to help. And South Africa might still be the only African country with more registered pilots than regulators. 

Another great strength was the training sector. Which was just as well, because the country would soon face a pilot shortage, as some 20% of South African pilots were due to retire over the next 12 to 18 months. Nor was this country the only one facing a wave of pilot retirements. With its good quality flying schools, English-language proficiency, and usually excellent weather, South Africa was well placed to turn this challenge into an international opportunity.

Will general aviation recover post-Covid? A Beech B58 Baron at Wonderboom. Credit Janet Kemsley.

Other challenges were that the maintenance, repair and overhaul sector was also losing skills, again owing to many expected retirements in the coming months. And many airlines across the continent lacked good management. 

On the other hand the South African aviation sector had other key strengths. These included quality assurance, consultancy, and aviation ground support infrastructure, including air traffic management and airport management and operation. For Leitch, the future of the country’s general aviation sector was “to deliver the post-Covid-19 African growth and recovery story”.

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