Over the past couple of decades, one of the symbols of China and Africa’s ever-growing relationship has been the frequent visits of high-level officials between the two regions.
It is a tradition that Chinese foreign ministers’ first trip abroad each year is to Africa: Xi Jinping visited Tanzania and South Africa in his first international trip as president, and African leaders are often invited to Beijing to meet and do deals with their Eastern counterparts.
But coordinating these trips is not always straightforward, and the flights are not always direct. When Kenya’s former prime minister Raila Odinga visited the Chinese capital in March, for example, his delegation had to endure a tedious wait as they stopped over in Dubai in the absence of direct flights.
However, this situation could be set to improve. Two airlines from mainland China have announced direct flights to continental Africa for the first time.
China Southern Airlines, based in Guangzhou – a city dubbed “Chocolate City” because of its large community of African traders and students – will start thrice-weekly flights to Nairobi from 5th August. Last year, it launched weekly flights to Mauritius from Shenzhen.
Following suit will be Air China, headquartered in Beijing, with direct flights to Johannesburg from 30th August and to Addis Ababa from 26th October.
The trend of Chinese carriers flying direct to Africa has been a long time coming. Although China has air transport agreements with 23 African countries, the only Chinese players servicing this sector have been the Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific and its budget carrier Dragon Air.
By contrast, eight African airlines operate 52 flights a week on the route, while three Middle Eastern firms – the UAE’s Emirates and Etihad Airways, and the Doha-based Qatar Airways – also chart the journey. Ethiopian Airlines, the first African carrier to start flights to China in 1973, has been the most prominent amongst these, running uninterrupted services and adding new destinations.
“China is the most important market for us,” says Konjit Tedla, Ethiopian Airlines’ regional director for China, Mongolia and North Korea. “We have already launched 28 flights per week from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong to Addis Ababa and plan to add one [more] destination in west China.”
Chinese airlines have watched other players like Ethiopian Airlines take the early risks but have now decided to step in themselves. China Southern’s decision to fly to Mauritius, for example, came after Air Mauritius started flying to Shanghai in 2011, found the signs promising and added Beijing two years later.
However, the increase of routes between Africa and China has not been a completely smooth journey.
For instance, Kenya Airways announced plans to start flights from Nairobi to Beijing and Shanghai in 2014, but are still yet to take off.
Meanwhile, South African Airways started Johannesburg-to-Beijing flights with great fanfare in February 2012, but this year said it was axing the route, which would be taken over by its Star Alliance partner Air China.
And this move could come unstuck too in the face of some South African domestic problems.
“Air China has allegedly cancelled the launch of its much-anticipated direct flights to South Africa due to South Africa’s new visa regulations, which [came] into effect on 1st June,” said James Vos, a South African opposition MP and shadow minister of tourism, in a press statement. “According to reports, Air China cited safety and security concerns following recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa as well as new onerous visa regulations as a deterrent.”
Neither the airline nor the South African authorities have confirmed or denied the cancellation, but given China is one of South Africa’s largest tourism markets, and with South Africa celebrating the Year of China with a series of events this year, officials on both sides are presumably hoping to defuse the crisis.
Birds of a feather
The Chinese business community has a special interest in more Chinese airlines entering the fray successfully.
“It would be good for business and tourism and it would save time and money,” says He Liehui, chair of Touchroad International, a Shanghai-based group of companies with diverse projects across Africa. “Besides, Chinese travellers would have greater comfort levels flying with Chinese airlines where the staff speak Chinese.”
He, who flies to Africa almost once a month, believes the new players should have taken the plunge earlier.
Walter Ruigu, managing director of China Africa Merchants Advisors, a trade and investment advisory firm based in Beijing and Nairobi, is similarly hopeful about the potential for helping traders and businesspeople, but is cautious about the profitability of different routes.
“As for better connectivity, it will depend on where you are flying,” he says. “China is big and the routes are complicated. Therefore codeshare arrangements between airlines [whereby carriers share flights] will dictate which airline passengers will choose. We have to wait and watch.”
Will Horton, a senior analyst with the Sydney-headquartered CAPA Centre for Aviation, agrees that profitability will be a challenge and believes cooperation will be key.
“These new flights from Chinese airlines are typically being asked for by the government. Partnerships will be necessary for these routes. China Southern cannot rely on the Nairobi market. It must work with partner Kenya Airways.”
Ethiopian Airline’s Tedla also believes codeshares will be important and welcomes the new possibilities opened up by Chinese airlines flying direct routes.
“Codeshare can benefit us in China’s domestic network and Air China in Africa’s,” she says. “It is good to see more airlines flying to Africa, which is a sign that the market is increasing very fast. It is more an opportunity for us.”