The African market continues to pose challenges even as it grows. EVA spoke with Krimson Aviation’s Dawit Lemma, James Foster at Vertis Aviation and Satcom Direct’s Evgeniy Pashkov to better understand the story in the air and on the ground
“It’s not just in operational terms, but also from a regulatory and security standpoint, that everything in Africa is fluid,” says Dawit Lemma, CEO at Ethiopian services provider Krimson Aviation. “It keeps us on our toes! We make no assumptions that just because an operation happened a particular way yesterday, it’ll be the same tomorrow.”
It presents challenges that Krimson continues to meet head on. In the past two years it has expanded from Lemma and two staff, to the 12 employees he has today. Between them, they support flights not only in Ethiopia, but 12 other countries across Africa, using carefully audited local vendors.
Among the company’s new initiatives, its Koncierge brand unfortunately launched immediately before the COVID outbreak but has nonetheless led to a new hire. Lemma explains: “Our core business will always be flight support, but we’ve brought in house the third party services – including meet and assist, hotel booking, transportation and tours – that we used to organise for crew and passengers.”
Krimson has also added a dedicated Aeromedical capability recognising, Lemma says, the complexities of operating air ambulance flights in Ethiopia. “Aeromedical flights are not recognised under the country’s regulatory system and most of the aircraft come in from other countries. In fact, medical evacuations require even more paperwork than usual and that’s not good when a life is on the line.
“We’ve worked with an Ethiopian operator so they can do a local evacuation and perform a wing-to-wing transfer to a visiting jet at Addis Ababa. We helped the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority establish procedures to smooth the process and, over time, we became the ‘go to’ company for medical evacuations in Ethiopia and, to some extent, the wider region. Now we’re developing a dedicated aeromedical team and the first thing they did was establish relationships with the local hospitals.
In Africa, just as it has in Europe and the US, the COVID pandemic has shone a spotlight on business and general aviation. But here, business aviation doesn’t necessarily mean a jet or turboprop, since it encompasses every aircraft used in business, even if that’s a piston single used by a farmer or doctor to travel between rural villages and town.
“Governments realised they could move people on essential trips using business aviation and it didn’t have to be in a big cabin jet, it could be a helicopter, a Cessna 172 or a Caravan. It opened a lot of eyes and going forward it will open new opportunities in Africa,” Lemma says. Indeed, as an African Business Aviation Association board member, he sees this type of flying as the foundation of the industry’s expansion on the continent, but also emphasises that Africa is no longer a ‘dumping ground’ for old bizjets – “We’re now comparable to Latin America in terms of new jet orders.”
Flying in Africa
Business and VIP aviation providers have done an exceptional job coping with COVID. But, as if global pandemic was insufficient a challenge, for those operating in and around Africa and the Middle East, security concerns and unrest mean these are particularly troubled times.
James Foster, Chief Operating Officer at Vertis Aviation, says: “Business aviation was already set up to deal with unexpected or unscheduled events, whether a result of geopolitics, international meetings or even sporting events – you don’t know at the beginning of a tournament which teams will be in the final, for example. It means customers going to the same events with varying requirements and for quite different reasons.
“We adapted to the uncertainty and lack of traditional seasonal travel requirements that COVID caused quite quickly, but the changing restrictions in Europe and elsewhere were more of a challenge. Travel in Europe is generally without restriction and we needed to ensure that customers were aware regulations could change while they were away and affect their return journey.”
Challenges are less unusual for travel in Africa, however, where some level of restriction is not unusual, whether it’s between borders, lack of infrastructure or simply because commercial air services aren’t available. Vertis saw demand for flights into the region remain strong and at the pandemic’s 2020 peak, it was responsible for most of the international private traffic serving the continent.
Telling customers their chosen destination isn’t a wise choice because of security concerns or COVID restrictions is, Foster admits, “pretty hard from a commercial point of view, because we always want to find a ‘yes’ solution. But once we’d factored in safety and border issues, we lost some flights because we felt we had to tell customers ‘no’, albeit in the knowledge they might get that flight elsewhere because some people would say ‘let’s take the flight and see what happens’.”
Africa has always been a key market for Vertis, a message reinforced when a Ghana-based Challenger 604 joined its Virtual Charter Management Programme earlier this year. “Two of our founders are from Africa, so the region is part of our heritage and we’ve always had a presence in Africa, building on our initial locations in the south and west. The Challenger is helping us serve the demand that was already in the region,” Foster explains.
Onward journeys often require a little more planning in Africa than elsewhere and Foster says changing situations are a particular challenge. “Generally speaking, far less of the traffic is for leisure. Instead it could be people visiting a mine, a production facility, or governmental, and those types of mission, often multi-country, are far more complicated in Africa than in Europe.”
He also echoes Dawit Lemma’s views on the African definition of business aviation, which frequently has more relevance to reaching an inaccessible location than to luxury travel. Flying could shrink a visit timeline by road from days to a single day, for example, often with much improved security.
Africa may well be burgeoning as a business aviation market, but the unique requirements of this vast continent will only ever be satisfied by a diverse range of aircraft types. At the same time, passenger expectations for inflight connectivity are high and delivering on that expectation across a disparate selection of aircraft types and sizes presents a considerable challenge.
Evgeniy Pashkov, Regional Director, Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa at SD, says the African business aviation connectivity market is evenly split between private and corporate users, and government operators, including head of state transportation, border patrol and military flights. Among the primary challenges, he identifies a lack of connectivity options for light to mid-size jets. “Many of these types of aircraft operate private and official flights in the region and SD is aiming to support their requirements. Our new Plane Simple antenna series, for example, will provide access to more bandwidth, realising additional connectivity options for more aircraft, including light and mid-size jets. We know the African business aviation sector will welcome the many opportunities this advanced technology hardware will bring.”
Right now, most of SD’s customers in Africa use Inmarsat SwiftBroadband, but Pashkov identifies an increasing number of inquiries regarding possible upgrade paths. “There are multiple options for GEO [geostationary orbit satellite] supported coverage in Africa, with both Inmarsat JX and Intelsat FlexExec offering great service. But we promote an agnostic approach to satellite solutions and welcome more choice for our customers, and the entry of multiple new LEO [low earth orbit] and MEO [medium earth orbit] satellite operators into the segment holds promise for even more coverage. Consistency and reliability of the user experience across the whole mission, not only parts of it, is our most important focus.”
Getting that connectivity onto the aircraft requires an antenna and Pashkov believes the Plane Simple antenna series, designed specifically for the business aviation sector, will bring reliable connectivity to a much broader range of aircraft than ever before, at competitive price points attractive to African customers.
“The combination of these antennas with existing and future satellite constellations will go a long way to removing many of the connectivity access limits across a wider range of aircraft sizes. The smaller form antennas may be fitted onto aircraft including the Cessna CJ3, Embraer Phenom 300 and Pilatus PC-12, which will enable many more owners and operators to maximise the benefits of powerful connectivity.”
It’s fair to say that for SD, connectivity is an enabler to achieve the customer’s aims, while its own services – exemplified by SD Pro – and those of third parties, are what enables customers to realise its value. “Our agnostic architecture enables customers to ‘plug-in’ third-party systems to optimise the data that their aircraft generates,” Pashkov explains. “We continue to add to this portfolio of third-party integration since we believe if we can deliver rich, validated, real-time data to the customer through our infrastructure, we can make the ownership experience better all round in terms of safety, efficiency and budgeting.
“This is helping advance African business aviation precisely because it is moving straight to the digital world. African regulators are increasingly sophisticated and African nations are often early adopters of technology. Look at the land communications sector. Mobile phone commerce was immediately successful since there was no need to switch mindset from a landline. To some extent this is replicated in the aviation industry, where a growing number of aviation users and stakeholders want to optimise the technology available. This is what makes it such an exciting place to be doing business right now.”