Airline industry: Emirates capitalises on Dubai hub, Africa remains strategic

By Nelly Fualdes
Posted on Wednesday, 29 June 2022 15:12

Aeroplanes from EL AL, Singapore Airlines, Croatia Airlines and Emirates lined up at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. ©Laurent GRANDGUILLOT/REA.

Growing demand on the continent and the decline of South African Airways are opening new opportunities for the Gulf carrier, which has restored its entire pre-Covid-19 African network.

With a strong rebound in demand for 2021-2022, African routes fully reopened since February, and an ambition to accelerate operations on the continent, Badr Abbas, Emirates senior vice-president in charge of Africa’s commercial operations, is both positive and on the offensive.

“Africa accounted for 8% of our 2021-2022 revenues [$18.1bn, according to results published in early May], despite the extension of restrictions in key markets such as South Africa, and we expect this [revenue] to increase this year, with the lifting of these restrictions,” he told us at the end of May.

Connecting ‘Africa to the rest of the world’

While Emirates, like its direct competitor Qatar Airways, has built its presence on the continent thanks to its Dubai hub’s ideal position between Africa and Asia, restrictions and quotas persist for flights to Asia, particularly China. However, the airline has played its card as a connector to other destinations: Europe, as well as the US. Although he hopes to see regular flights to Shanghai and Hong Kong resume soon, Badr Abbas notes that London, New York and Paris have performed well.

Without forgetting Dubai. “Dubai opened up while many countries were still closed. As a result, demand to the destination has increased considerably, and demand from Africa has been particularly strong,” says the company executive. Bookings are already strong for the September-January period, he says, allowing the Gulf carrier to pursue its ambition to “continue to be the leading provider of connectivity between Africa and the rest of the world”.

Post-pandemic opportunities

Even though Emirates still suffered a loss of $1.1bn on its latest balance sheet (compared to $5.5bn the previous year), its top executive sees the post-pandemic environment as “a huge opportunity for growth”. Its revenues in the zone increased by 52.6% in one year, from 3.1bn dirhams ($843m) on 31 March 2021 to 4.7bn dirhams on 31 March 2022.

An Emirates plane grounded during the Covid-19 pandemic at Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle international airport. ©Laurent GRANDGUILLOT/REA

“Like Doha and Addis Ababa, Dubai is a hub to be reckoned with when it comes to connecting Africa to the rest of the world,” says Alexandra Guillot, a French consultant specialising in the African aviation industry. This is more so because with the near-total cessation of South African Airways’ international operations and the bankruptcies resulting from the Covid-19 crisis (Air Namibia, Comair-Kulala), “the continent is cruelly lacking in flights and connectivity. However, in order for Emirates to realise its desire to develop on the continent, it must still develop enough routes to establish itself as a credible alternative to the Ethiopian flag carrier for Africans wishing to travel in Africa”, says the Cape Town-based expert.

Code-sharing over investment

The continent, “very poorly served by air services”, represents a “strategic focus” for the future of Emirates’ network, says Badr Abbas. To the question of Emirates’ oversized fleet (for the moment exclusively composed of A380s and Boeing 777s) compared to the needs on African routes, he replies that this growth will also pass through the networks of its partners, with whom it has increased code-sharing agreements.

Although Emirates has already tried to invest directly in African companies – with Senegal Airlines from 2009 to 2016 or with the Angolan TAAG from 2014 to 2017 – it was a failure each time, and the company does not plan to renew the experience in the short term. Emirates also favours code-sharing, “which does not require working together or sharing staff”, says Guillot, who cites “cultural differences that are too strong” between continental and Gulf airlines.

We see potential in all the cities we serve today

On 10 May, Emirates officially signed an agreement with Royal Air Maroc. In early June, another agreement of the same type, with South Africa’s Airlink, came into force. Air Mauritius, FlySafair, Ghanaian Africa World Airlines (AWA), South African Airways (SAA) and its compatriot CemAir are also privileged partners of the UAE airline.

‘No question’ of giving up any of its 28 African destinations

The company has nevertheless ordered some 30 Boeing 787s and 50 Airbus A350s, which “will be a good complement to our existing fleet by giving us more flexibility, and will allow us to serve more African destinations”. The A350s will not start to be delivered until 2024. As for the B787s, there have been successive delays with their delivery, so Emirates will no longer be announcing a firm date, but it will not be before 2024 either. Not to mention that with around 300 seats, the aircraft on order are still oversized compared to the majority of the continent’s needs.

However, unlike other airlines that have taken advantage of the pandemic to scrutinise the profitability of their routes to rationalise their network and ruthlessly eliminate any route that is not profitable, there is no question of Emirates giving up a single one of its 28 African destinations in 21 countries. “We see potential in all the cities we serve today,” Abbas says.

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