In April 2006, South African Airways joined Star Alliance. Egyptair followed in July 2008 and just a couple weeks ago, Ethiopian was accepted as a future member. Now the three airlines are coming together to look at a joint venture in Western Africa. If this happens, these Star Alliance carriers will cover the African continent like nobody has before.
I was so interested in the combined coverage of these airlines in Africa that I went over to the Great Circle Mapper and put their route maps together. I excluded domestic flights within Egypt, Ethiopia, and South African just to avoid too much clutter on the map, but the result is still incredibly impressive.
One thing to keep in mind here is just how big Africa actually is. The distance between Egyptair’s Cairo home to Ethiopian’s Addis Ababa base is about the same distance as from Atlanta to Salt Lake City. And then from Addis down to South African’s Johannesburg base is actually just a bit farther than JFK to LAX. This continent is enormous, and the three hubs are well-positioned to cover it already.
As you can see, Egyptair serves Europe well from its Cairo base in Northern Africa. After all, its Airbus narrowbody fleet can do that easily. It also has good coverage in the Middle East and in major Asian destinations. Ethiopian has its focus on Central and Eastern Africa with excellent service to the Arabian Peninsula. There are also limited connections to Europe and Asia. Meanwhile, down in Johannesburg, South African covers Southern Africa well but it also operates more of a long haul operation touching the other continents. On a map, this looks like an African powerhouse, but there is one hole.
Yes, Ethiopian serves a lot of West Africa but most of those flights are from an East Africa perspective. What’s missing is a way for those people in West Africa to fly between cities in West Africa as well as connect into the broader network. And that’s why the three airlines are coming together to talk about a joint venture to do just that.
West Africa has had its share of failed carriers. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to find a single one that’s a sustainable success. Sure there are airlines like Arik Air in Nigeria trying to make a go of things, but it just hasn’t been around very long. The airline has had an aggressive expansion, so I want to see a lot more age on it before declaring it a success. For the most part, West African airports are haunted by the ghosts of failed airlines.
So can Ethiopian, Egyptair, and South African finally unite the continent and offer a reliable, solid product throughout? Let’s be blunt. It’s a long shot. There’s a reason that airlines haven’t survived in West Africa, and it’s not all about bad management. It’s a tough political game there, and many have failed to play it well. In fact, with shifting regimes, it’s unclear if it’s even possible to play it well for extended periods of time. But I still like the initiative here, and I certainly welcome the idea of a safe, reliable carrier giving options for travel throughout Africa.
While SkyTeam member Kenya Airways also has a solid operation in Nairobi, there just really aren’t many other options for good bases of operations on the continent. Star Alliance really has a huge advantage here, and I can’t see that changing.