The conquest for the African airspace: The movers and shakers – Part I


Intercontinental point-to-point air connectivity


This is the first part of a two-part series, where we explore the African airspace market, the movers and the shakers.

Overview of Africa

With an estimated total land area of 30.4 square kilometers (11.7 mi2), including adjoining islands, Africa covers approximately one-fifth (20%) of the planet’s total land area and 6% of its surface area, making it the second-largest continent in terms of size after Asia. To provide some context, the continent measures around 8,000 km (5,000 miles) from its northern extremity at point Al Ghiran in Tunisia to its southern extremity at Cape Agulhas, South Africa, and about 7,400 km (4,600 miles) from its extreme western end, at point Almadi in Senegal, to Raas Xaafuun point on the eastern extremity located in Somalia, with a total coastline length of 30,500 km (18,950 miles). The continent’s highest elevation is at Kibo summit on Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which stands at 19,341 feet (5,895 meters) above sea level (asl), while the continent’s lowest elevation is -509 feet below sea level at Lake Assal in Djibouti.

As of April 2023, the population of Africa stood at 1.4 billion according to UN estimates, which equates to approximately 17% of the total global population, placing it second behind Asia. In terms of culture, Africa is arguably the most diverse continent, with around 3,000 tribes speaking about 2,000 languages and dialects. These diverse cultures are spread out across 54 sovereign African countries, with 48 being located within mainland Africa, while another six (Madagascar, Seychelles, Mauritius, Comoros, Cape Verde, and Sao Tome & Principe) are island nations. There are two areas under dispute – the ‘autonomous’ region of Somalia, known as Somaliland, and the Moroccan-administered region of Western Sahara.

The African Airspace

Given the heterogeneous nature of the African continent, the distances between cities and variations across countries in terms of levels of economic development and degrees of political stability differ markedly. Consequently, individual countries’ GDP is impacted, which in turn affects the propensity of citizens to travel between these countries. Despite the vast geographical expanse of Africa, there are few good roads or rail networks linking the four extremities. As a result, surface modes of transportation are limited to a high degree. Air transport is therefore seen as the only viable option for moving people and freight.

However, African airspace is fragmented, with about 37 flight information regions (FIR). FIRs are specified air navigation regions within which flight information and alerting services are provided. The objective of FIRs is to enable seamless air connectivity between a network of nodes operated by airlines.

When evaluating Africa’s air connectivity, which according to IATA reflects how well a country is connected to cities around the world, it is clear that the continent lags far behind in air passenger transportation. Despite making up more than 16% of the planet’s population, the continent only caters to a meagre 3.1% of the world’s airline passenger market. This air connectivity is primarily driven by international tourism, and the major tourist destinations such as Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and South Africa are consequently the leaders with regards to air connectivity. Moreover, inter-continental country-to-country pairs also play a crucial role in this regard.

A brief history…

Prior to gaining independence, the earliest recorded air service connectivity in Africa was established by colonial governments in the early 20th century. This connectivity still influences inter-continental air travel to a certain extent. After the Wright brothers successfully completed the first controlled heavier-than-air motor-powered flight from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in the USA on December 17th, 1903, it was quickly recognized that the value of aircraft was more useful for military operations, or “airpower,” rather than for civil aviation. Its use in the two World Wars is well-documented. The first recorded use of an aircraft in Africa for war was in Turkish-controlled Libya by Italy in 1911. During the subsequent periods, the aeroplane was extensively utilized as an agent of war by the great powers during what was known as the “Scramble for Africa.”

The major colonial powers of Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Portugal viewed the establishment of aerial connections with their colonies as of great importance. Even today, these powers (or former) continue to substantially control the African airspace in terms of country-to-country pairing with their former colonies. Before the First World War, the advent of the aeroplane as a medium of transport was seen by the great powers as an agent of empire-building in Africa and elsewhere, according to a study by McCormack. These aeroplanes were then organized into airlines and were thrust into the limelight as a means of projection of power, prestige, and subsequently as instruments for political and economic influence by the European masters.

However, the airlines were no longer viewed as agents of war, but rather as agents of peace and hope. They consecutively formed the backbone that shaped the African air transport development of today. According to McCormack, colonial Africa was provided with the fundamentals, including routes and terminals, wireless and meteorological organizations, and experienced personnel upon which independent Africa was to build.

International civil aviation in Africa grew between the two World Wars, first as a means of transporting mail (airmail). Great Britain was the biggest contributor to the development of African air connectivity, primarily because it oversaw the largest empire known globally at the time. British Africa was a large and integral part of this empire. However, overseeing the empire posed a significant challenge because Great Britain was an island nation lying west of mainland Europe and a significant distance away from its nearest colony or dependency. Unlike the other European powers, Great Britain did not only have the Mediterranean Sea to cross but also a vast and challenging continent with varying climates and terrain to navigate to get to its furthest colony of South Africa.

Accordingly, the British imperial air policy to develop imperial air routes was prioritized and first came into effect with the development of a route to India around 1918. The first documented inter-continental non-military flight to British Africa was by an Imperial Airways route survey flight that took almost four months, from November 16th, 1925 to March 13th, 1926, from the UK to the South African city of Cape Town, with stopovers in the modern-day countries of Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Countries intercontinental connection

According to airline schedule data, currently, fifty (50) African countries have air connections to at least one other country outside of Africa (refer to map below). However, four sovereign nations, namely Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, and Malawi, are not connected with any other country on an inter-continental level. It could be argued that Eswatini and Lesotho are exempt due to their geographical size and population, as they fall within the legal boundaries of South Africa, a dominant player in the continent’s aviation market. Therefore, South Africa may sufficiently cater to the air connectivity needs of these two countries. However, for countries such as Botswana, which boasts a vast geographical area, or Malawi, with a population of over twenty million people, the lack of direct intercontinental air connectivity raises concerns regarding the overall African intercontinental scheduled point-to-point air connectivity.

Map 1. Inter-continental connected countries

Countries with the most direct Inter-continental connectivity

Upon conducting a more in-depth analysis of scheduled intercontinental country-to-country air pairs in Africa, a significant disparity arises between the various regions on the continent. Additionally, there appears to be a stark contrast between the more and less developed countries, providing evidence of the strong correlation between air connectivity and a country’s level of economic development. For example, Malawi, considered one of the world’s least developed countries, lacks direct scheduled country-to-country air connectivity with the outside world, serving as a testament to the close link between aviation and a country’s level of development.

African countries are typically divided based on the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) to which they belong. For better discernment, the countries have been classified into five regions based on their geographical position within Africa. These regions include Eastern Africa, Central Africa, Northern Africa, Southern Africa, and Western Africa.

Of the aforementioned regions, countries located in northern Africa are found to be the most connected to countries outside of Africa. Egypt holds the top position in terms of intercontinental country-to-country air pairs, directly connecting with 47 countries outside of Africa. Ethiopia follows with 38, Morocco ranks third with 29, Tunisia fourth with 20, Algeria with 18, and South Africa in sixth position with 17 countries connected outside of Africa (see Figure 1). The other major countries, ranked by the number of scheduled country-to-country intercontinental air connections, include Kenya and Mauritius in seventh position, with both countries directly connected to 12 countries. Nigeria and Tanzania follow in ninth position with 11 countries, while Angola, Ghana, and Sudan conclude the top ten with direct air connections to 10 other countries outside of Africa.

Figure 1. Intercontinental country-to-country air pair (Top 20)

Nonetheless, in terms of the number of scheduled intercontinental routes, Morocco stands out with over 250 routes, leading the pack (refer to Figure 2). Egypt and Tunisia are the only other countries with more than 100 direct intercontinental routes. Notably, Ethiopia is the only sub-Saharan country that has more than 50 scheduled point-to-point routes to and from destinations outside of Africa.

Figure 2. Distribution of inter-continental routes per country (Top 20)

Upon exploring the total number of non-African countries with direct air connectivity to the continent, it was discovered that 67 countries are connected. The majority of these countries (32) are from Europe, followed by countries from the Middle East (12). Argentina and Brazil are the only countries from South America with direct air connectivity to Africa (See Map 2). As expected, almost all the former colonies are still directly connected to their former colonial masters.

Map 2. Destination of african inter-continental routes

Of these countries, Turkey has the highest number of direct country-to-country scheduled air connections to Africa, as it is directly connected to 38 African countries. France closely follows with 34 countries, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) comes in third with 24 countries. Belgium is fourth with 22 countries, while Qatar rounds up the top five with 20 countries. It is essential to note that this air connectivity is not directly related to the airlines domiciled in these countries. For instance, more airlines connect France to countries in Africa other than Air France, while Qatar’s connection to Africa is primarily through its flag carrier, Qatar Airways. Additionally, several cities in France have scheduled point-to-point air connectivity to Africa, specifically the northern Africa bloc. This reveals that France is the most visited last destination point from the continent.

If we anchor the analysis based on the language of the former colonial master, countries that have Portuguese as their official language are all directly connected to Portugal. The same case applies to Francophone-speaking countries with France, Anglophone speaking countries with the UK, and most Arabic speaking African countries with Middle Eastern nations.

To ingress a bit, if we exclude the five northern countries of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia from the analysis, sub-Saharan countries are directly connected to only 44 countries overall. This provides an indicator of how dynamic and liberalized the northern African airspace is. For example, six airports from both Egypt and Morocco receive or operate flights that originate or are destined for destinations outside the continent (See Figure 3). Tunisia has five airports, while Nigeria has four.

Figure 3. Airports serving inter-continental schedule air services per country (Top 20)

Even though this information gives a clue of how a country is connected to countries outside of Africa, it is not enough parameters to gauge a country’s point-to-point air connectivity. Somalia, for instance, has three airports with direct scheduled airline connections, albeit to only three other countries outside of Africa. Meanwhile, Bole International, Ethiopian’s main airport in Addis Ababa, despite being the only airport providing point-to-point air connectivity in the country, is more connected than any other airport south of the Sahara, thanks to Ethiopian Airlines’ broad route network.

Inter-Continental Airline African Market share

When examining airline companies that offer direct intercontinental scheduled air services to Africa, a total of 132 airlines have been identified. Of these, 75% are member airlines affiliated with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) (refer to Figure 4). An analysis of the origin of these airlines’ hubs reveals that those originating from Europe dominate the African skies. Out of all airlines providing scheduled direct connectivity to countries in Africa, 56 are based in Europe, with Turkish Airlines ranking at the top (refer to Figure 5).

Figure 4. Distribution of airlines IATA members

Airlines with their hubs located in Africa rank second, contributing to 37 airlines, equivalent to around 28% of the total number of airlines. Among them, 21 airlines originate from North Africa, led by Royal Air Maroc and EgyptAir, indicating the dominance of this region. Meanwhile, the Eastern African bloc contributes 10 airlines to the intercontinental market, led by Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways. Western African regions contribute three airlines, namely Nigerian Air Peace, Senegalese carrier Air Senegal, and Cabo Verde Airlines from Cabo Verde.

Figure 5. Distribution of airline per hub-origin

In contrast, the Central and Southern African regions contribute the least, with each region providing only two airlines that offer scheduled air services outside the continent. These airlines include STP Airways and TAAG Angola Airlines from Central Africa, and Air Madagascar and Airlink from the Southern African bloc. Notably, Airlink, whose hub is at O.R Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, and whose only international scheduled destination is to and from the British overseas territory of Saint Helena located in the South Atlantic Ocean. South African Airways, once a leading carrier on the continent, currently only provides scheduled regional intra-continental air services, making Airlink the only carrier from South Africa flying to a destination outside of the continent.

Qatar Airways, the Qatari flagship airline based at Hamad International Airport in Doha, leads 20 other carriers from the Middle East that provide scheduled direct point-to-point air connectivity to Africa. Additionally, three airlines from North America – Air Canada, Delta, and United Airlines – offer direct scheduled services to Africa. Several African airlines, such as Air Algerie, Air Senegal, EgyptAir, Ethiopian, Kenya Airways, Royal Air Maroc, and Tunisair, provide connectivity between North America and Africa. However, it is worth noting that there is no direct air connectivity between sub-Saharan countries and Canada.

Only two South American countries, namely Brazil and Argentina, offer scheduled point-to-point air connectivity with countries in Africa. These air routes are served by Ethiopian, TAAG Angola, and LATAM Brasil, with the latter being the sole South American airline to provide scheduled air services to Africa. In contrast, Australia is directly connected to two countries on the continent. Qantas offers direct services to South Africa, while Air Mauritius provides air connectivity to the island nation of Mauritius.

The East Asian carriers that offer scheduled air services to Africa include Air China, Cathay Pacific, China Southern, and Sichuan Airlines. Meanwhile, Air India and Sri Lankan are the only carriers from South Asia, and Singapore Airlines is the sole carrier from Southeast Asia that provides scheduled services to at least one other country in Africa. The African carriers with scheduled services to East Asia are Air Algerie, Air Mauritius, Air Tanzania, Air Madagascar, Air Peace, Ethiopian, EgyptAir, Kenya Airways, and Royal Air Maroc. Moreover, eight African carriers – Air Mauritius, Air Seychelles, Air Tanzania, Ethiopian, Egyptair, Kenya Airways, Rwandair, and Air Peace – offer air connectivity to South Asia. Finally, Air Mauritius, Ethiopian, and EgyptAir are the only African carriers that provide scheduled services to Southeast Asia.

Egypt currently boasts the most carriers (56) connecting its six airports to destinations outside of the continent (refer to Figure 6). Morocco follows with 37 airlines, while South Africa takes the third spot with 21 airlines flying scheduled passenger services to cities outside of the continent. It is not surprising that Ethiopia does not feature in the top ten in terms of distribution of air carriers, due to the dominance of Ethiopian Airlines and its widespread route network, which makes this market uncompetitive for other airlines. It is noteworthy that Sudan remarkably ranks sixth with 17 airlines servicing intercontinental point-to-point routes. This indicates the level of air connectivity disruption caused by the ongoing conflict in Sudan.

Figure 6. Distribution of air carriers operating inter-continental schedule services per country (Top 20)

Leading airlines providing point-to-point Intercontinental air connectivity

If we examine in detail the non-African airlines that provide the most scheduled air connectivity between countries to and from Africa, Turkish Airlines emerges as the frontrunner (see Map 3). Operating out of its hub in Istanbul, Turkey, the airline offers direct connections to 38 out of the 54 sovereign African countries. Air France comes second, connecting 31 African countries directly from its hub at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, France. Qatar Airways takes third place with direct connections to 21 countries from its hub in Doha, while Emirates comes fourth with 19 countries, and the Belgian flag carrier, Brussels Airline, rounds up the top five with direct connections to 18 African countries. Honourable mentions include Germany’s Lufthansa, Portugal’s TAP Air Portugal and Saudi Arabia’s main airline, Saudia, which provide direct connections to 10 countries. British Airways, based in the United Kingdom, flies directly to eight countries, and the world’s oldest airline, KLM, offers direct connections to seven African countries from the Netherlands.

Map 3. Leading non-African airlines providing point-to-point air connectivity to Africa

It is worth noting that Ethiopian Airlines operates direct flights from its hub at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa to 37 countries outside of Africa. EgyptAir closely follows, connecting Egypt to 32 countries outside of Africa. Royal Air Maroc comes in at a distant third, with the flag carrier offering direct air connectivity to 19 countries from Morocco. Algerian national airline Air Algerie follows closely, providing direct air connectivity to and from Algeria to 17 countries. Tunisair completes the top five airlines, connecting Tunisia to 12 countries inter-continentally. In comparison, Kenya Airways, which is ranked sixth in terms of inter-continental country-to-country scheduled air connectivity, only connects the eastern African nation to seven other countries outside of Africa.

However, if the analysis is based on the number of inter-continental routes served, it is noteworthy that the Irish ultra-low-cost carrier, Ryanair, holds the lead with the most routes (approximately 98) to only one country in Africa, namely Morocco (See Figure 7). To provide some context, Ryanair offers direct connections from the Moroccan city of Marrakesh to nine cities in France, eight cities in Spain, six cities in Italy, and four cities in Germany, among other destinations throughout Europe. Additionally, Ryanair offers direct connections to four other cities in Morocco, including Agadir, Fes, Rabat, and Tangier.

Figure 7. Top airlines per number of scheduled routes to-from Africa


In conclusion, it is important to note that the African airspace is highly regulated and restrictive due to varying levels of economic development, political stability, and government protectionism, particularly towards national carriers. These challenges have hindered the growth of air connectivity in the region. African countries are therefore compelled to negotiate their own individual air service agreements, commonly known as Bilateral Air Service Agreements (BASAs), despite belonging to the same economic bloc. However, these BASAs are often restrictive, controlling factors such as the number of airlines a country designates, frequency, capacity, routes flown, ticket prices, and fifth freedom traffic rights, thereby safeguarding their domestic carriers. The establishment of multilateral air service agreements and open skies agreements have been identified as solutions to spur air connectivity. The Morocco-EU agreement of 2006 is an excellent example of such an agreement, whose effects are explored in this article. Ultimately, Morocco has emerged as the leader in the region, with the most dynamic and vibrant airspace in Africa.

The lack of political goodwill and regulatory framework has impeded safety oversight in certain countries, leading to a high number of air accidents and incidents in Africa on a global scale. In fact, out of a list of 22 countries that have been completely banned or subjected to restrictions when entering the airspace of any European Union (EU) member state, 12 of them are located in Africa. This represents approximately 55% of all countries that are banned or restricted.

Moreover, only seven African carriers have received approval to operate scheduled services to the USA. These carriers include Air Algerie, Air Senegal, Egyptair, Ethiopian, Kenya Airways, Royal Air Maroc, and Tunisair. Additionally, the countries of Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Togo, and Tunisia are the only ones permitted to receive or operate direct flights to or from the USA. Although this accounts for only 16% of the continent’s total number of countries, it constitutes almost half (about 47%) of Africa’s entire population.

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