As the world begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and air transport operations start to normalize, albeit slowly, regional airports in Africa are expected to begin recovering. According to SITA’s data, Africa continues its strong aviation recovery in October 2021, already reaching 64% of pre-pandemic flight activity before the Omicron variant of COVID-19 slowed down growth.

Forty-three percent of traffic carried by African airlines during 2020 was domestic, while 38 percent was intercontinental and 19 percent intra-African. Increased travel poses a significant challenge and an opportunity for the continent. The challenge will be incorporating stringent health and safety best practices in an already limited and sometimes over-strained space. Passengers and airlines will demand airports to be ready for more efficient, flexible, and safe operations, while airports look for ways to generate new revenue streams.

Hurdles

As passengers return to the skies, airports will once again face the same landside and airside capacity constraints they were experiencing in pre-COVID times, but with the added hurdle of managing the new COVID-era health requirements. To achieve this shift towards recovery, the only path for airports to take is digitalization. Automating some of their processes will help airports quickly restart operations and assist them in coping with future capacity constraints while addressing the need to look for alternative revenue streams.

Transforming the passenger experience, fulfilling travelers’ demand for better efficiencies, and ensuring they feel safe to travel again will remain priorities. Travel expert and a former Managing Director of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Richard Aisuebeogun said for all this to work, regional airports need to react quickly, look at scalable solutions that can future-proof their operations, acquire the technical infrastructure required to decrease operation and maintenance costs, and enhance the passenger experience through automation. Technology, he said, remains essential to the recovery, and airports, airlines, and governments must collaborate closely to aid air transport’s more sustainable and resilient future.

Ethiopian Airlines makes strides, others struggle

Ethiopian Airlines has been the fastest-growing airline in Africa over the past decade or so. It has made ground where many other airlines have struggled by adopting innovative technology that automates the passenger journey and boosts operational efficiency. By September 2020, the airline was already back to 40% capacity. By August 2021, the carrier was doing 65 percent of its capacity.

Earlier this year, SITA announced a new technology deployment offering passengers’ enhanced check-in and bag drop self-services with Ethiopian Airlines at Bole International Airport (ADD). Smart Path Drop and Fly baggage solution, has been implemented in the new extension of the check-in area with international passengers of Ethiopian Airlines benefitting from the service.

Some African airports are also looking to future-proof operations by investing in technology infrastructure and solutions adaptable to fluctuating passenger numbers and changing health regulations. As passenger numbers increase in the recovery, digitally managing travel health credentials will be essential to avoid long lines and crowding at airports. IATA Travel Pass and SITA’s Health Protect solution, and the African Union’s Trusted Travel Pass are all tools that can help governments efficiently and conveniently verify traveler health credentials.

Liberalization

The African Union’s Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) is intended to unlock travel and economic benefits within the continent. An IATA-commissioned econometric study found that the full implementation of SAATM across the continent would bring huge benefits. For example in South Africa, this would create 14,500 new jobs and add $283.9 million to its GDP. The impact is likely to be similar across the continent. Passengers traveling from regional airports also demand the same digital experience and efficiencies they receive at international hubs. On top of that come greater airline expectations, route volatility, space constraints, staff multi-tasking, and a myriad more.

Then, of course, as journeys become more digital, there’s the growing need for seamless interoperation across travel systems and technologies – not just among airports large and small, but also with other modes of transport. From our experience in digitizing the industry – before and during the pandemic – we see common issues facing highly cost-conscious regional airports, with a desire to fund the types of intelligent digital ways of working found in larger airports.

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