Africa Then Versus Now, In the Eyes of a Pan Am Vet (Guest Post)

Cranky is on a much-needed vacation and won’t be responding to emails this week. Fortunately, before I started drinking too heavily, I put some posts live. Today, we’ve got a guest post from a guy who helped open up Africa for Pan Am and is now doing the same for Delta.

People often ask me what has changed in Africa over the last 25 years to make it possible for Delta Air Lines to fly to a continent that my former employer, Pan Am, largely abandoned in the 1980s. How could it be financially prudent for a major airline to invest large aircraft and resources in a continent with a gross domestic product equal to a fraction of U.S. GDP, they ask?

Vastly improved technology, stronger, consolidated global airlines and accelerating economic growth across Africa are the simple answers.

Pan Am Routes

When I began my aviation career with Pan Am in Johannesburg in 1973, Africa was still a wild frontier for Western-style commerce. Phone lines were unsecure and unreliable. Computer systems were not connected. And airport infrastructure was generally not available unless you bought it or built it yourself.

To illustrate this point, Pan Am owned Intercontinental Hotels and constructed new properties around the globe to provide appropriate crew and passenger accommodations in many of the new cities it served.

And even after 30 years of air service development, in the 1970s many flights arrived from points across Africa with little advance notice of how many passengers were on board or how many customers would be making connections. Reliable data services simply were not available between the opposite coasts of Africa in those days.

Today, many of the age-old African political and infrastructure challenges remain. But new technology, improved communications and intra-Africa geopolitical improvements are making it possible for air travel to advance the pace for expanding global commerce on the continent.

As an example, this month Delta is returning to Monrovia, marking the first time U.S. airline service has existed in this market since the mid-1980s. When Pan Am served Liberia in the ’70s, we had to physically drive between the airport at Robertsfield and our commercial office in Monrovia to transfer information because we had no reliable way to communicate between the city and the airport.

Now, it is possible to use a Blackberry to stay connected to the world as we zig zag across Liberia or any country in Africa developing service. Improved intra-Africa airline service by the likes of Kenya Airways also make it possible to do business in many parts of the continent without making circuitous flight connections back through Europe as we had to do in the early days.

Advances in aircraft also have made Africa a more attractive theater for global aviation. When I started with Pan Am we never imagined the possibility of a Boeing 777-200LR aircraft flying nonstop in both directions between Atlanta and Johannesburg. And, in 1941, my predecessors certainly couldn’t have imagined these types of advances when they launched Pan Am’s first scheduled commercial service from New York to Senegal with intermediate stops in Bermuda, the Azores and Lisbon. Operated with Boeing 314 Flying Boat aircraft, the total travel time on this route exceeded 60 hours. Yes, 60 hours.

Pan Am Africa Schedule

Today, Delta operates the same New York-to-Dakar route nonstop using Boeing 757 jets with a flight time of just over eight hours – not the three days required for the original Pan Am flight.

Pan Am served more than a dozen cities in Africa at its height, but the trail blazed to reach that point took more than three decades. In three years, Delta has grown to serve seven destinations in Africa with plans to grow to at least 10 once additional government approvals are received.

As our example shows, airlines that reach the market first, make lasting investments in infrastructure, customer service and pan-regional partnerships will create the most value for their customers and, most importantly, the African nations that so badly want to boost their economic outputs.

Growing relationships with carriers like Air Nigeria and Kenya Airways are indicators of the investments we must make beyond the airfields we serve. And the relationships the industry is building with governments across the continent mark a critical step in advancing the growth of Africa’s own aviation infrastructure in the years to come.

While I won’t be here to see the next 40 years in Africa, I’m sure they will be even more exciting than the last. There are very few places left on the globe with such promise of development as Africa. And this bodes well for airline managers everywhere.

Jimmy Eichelgruen is Delta’s regional sales manager for Africa. He is based in London but spends most of his time on planes flying to and from points across Africa. He began his aviation career in 1969 with South African Airways and in 1973 joined Pan American Airways as a sales representative advancing to Director of Sales – Africa with assignments in Johannesburg, Nairobi, Monrovia and Abidijan. He became part of Delta’s London office when the airline acquired Pan Am’s trans-Atlantic routes in 1991.

Images are from the author

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