Saturday, July 13, 2024

Does Ryanair’s deal with Morocco point the way to more open African skies?

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Could Africa’s skies at last be wide open?” That was the headline for an article I wrote with great optimism. I talked about how Africa could be transformed by low-cost aviation. “Cheap, safe flying may help to realise the potential of a continent shattered by colonialism and corruption,” I wrote.

The occasion was the launch of Stelios’s “son of easyJet” – a Tanzania-based airline called Fastjet. But that was 12 years ago, and the brand has hardly made any impact since.

When Stelios created a great European airline, easyJet, he had just the right idea to exploit a newfound freedom for airlines to fly wherever they wished in Europe.

What Africa as a continent needs is to do the same and democratise flying. With dismal terrestrial infrastructure, travellers are hungry for cheap airfares.

Yet perhaps a new, made-for-Africa airline like Fastjet isn’t the best answer. I detect fresh signs of hope from the incursions by European budget carriers.

Now, at least one African nation has embraced low-cost aviation to the extent that it has enabled Ryanair to set up a domestic operation.

The visionary country: Morocco. Looking online now for a flight 24 hours ahead, I could fly from Tangier on an 80-minute Marrakech express flight for the equivalent of £36. That is pretty good for a late-booked 300-mile flight.

To be fair, neighbouring Algeria has similarly good deals for the slightly shorter link between its two main cities, Algiers and Oran, on Air Algerie. But domestic flights in Egypt are typically three times more expensive.

Once you get into southern Africa, the fares become astronomical. Even Fastjet wants £155 for a short-notice, 340-mile hop between Harare and Victoria Falls. Mind you, anyone who has driven that slow and perilous road route and who can afford the flight will take it.

But in a continent with a long history of governments stifling competition for their own airlines, how does an Irish carrier get permission to start a domestic operation in competition with state-owned Royal Air Maroc?

“We have a long history here in Morocco,” says Eddie Wilson, chief executive of the airline’s main operating unit, Ryanair DAC.

The airline first arrived in 2006, initially only with inbound flights from Europe. Tangier, in the far north of the country, is now its fourth base. Most of the operation involves flights to and from Europe.

But to use its Boeings efficiently, Ryanair needed to add some short sectors – like that hop down to Marrakech. And the government in Rabat was prepared to listen to an airline that has delivered millions of tourists to Morocco – as well as connecting the diaspora across Europe with their North African homeland.

It all comes down to open skies, says Eddie Wilson. The freedom to fly without restriction is a rare thing in Africa.

When Tunisia reopened to tourism after the Arab Spring, officials sought my advice about the best way to bring business to their beautiful, friendly and fascinating nation.

Open your skies to the airlines of Europe, I recommended, and you will see numbers increase dramatically.

My suggestion was politely declined. “We must look after Tunisair,” they chorused. That has been the mindset of politicians across Africa for far too long.

Eddie Wilson says precious few nations outside Europe enjoy the freedom to fly with whichever airline believes it can compete.

“If we’re going to expand elsewhere in Africa, it’s got to have open skies,” he insists.

The Ryanair boss lists Jordan, Israel and Ukraine as countries whose skies are open. The last two of those are on the Foreign Office no-go list due to continuing conflicts.

Other countries, listen up. This is an opportunity for transformation.

Listen to my interview with Ryanair’s Eddie Wilson for the daily travel podcast

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