How a US-based airline with no experience in Africa became America’s air bridge to the Mother Continent.
Back in 2006, someone on a trivia Web site asked: “Which US airline will be the first to serve Africa?”
The answer, at the end of that same year, turned out to be Delta.
They currently operate some 60 direct flights a week from the continental United States to:
- Abuja, Nigeria (the national capital)
- Accra, Ghana
- Dakar, Senegal
- Johannesburg, South Africa
- Lagos, Nigeria
- Monrovia, Liberia
By the end of 2010, Delta had flown 2 million passengers to and from the Mother Continent. This is the corporate equivalent of going from zero to 60 mph in about three seconds.
So why did Delta charge into a market the rest of the US airline industry was avoiding?
First, there’s the market itself, which we examined earlier.
According to Olivia Cullis, a Delta spokeswoman in London, African air traffic is expected to grow at more than 5 percent a year for the next the 16 years.
Even so, it took dire circumstances to force this move.
The airline filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection following the 9/11 terror attacks, but the real trigger was an obsolete business model.
For decades, Delta had been the airline of the Southeast, flying people around the region via their Atlanta hub. And as they got bigger, so did their jets, including the ill-starred Lockheed L-1011 TriStar.
When low-fare competitors like Southwest, Spirit and AirTran started showing up with smaller planes that were cheaper to operate, the proverbial handwriting was on the wall.
Only after 9/11 had pushed them to the brink of insolvency, however, did Delta grudgingly begin to read it.
Looking for markets without all those pesky little low-fare airlines, their eyes fell on international routes — and Africa was wide open.
A region with 12 percent of the world’s population but less than 1 percent of its air traffic? What would you call it?
Better still, they didn’t need to spend tons of cash for the wide-bodied jets needed for trans-Atlantic flights. They already had them.
Ms. Cullis describes what happened next:
“We started our service to African initially between Atlanta-Dakar-Johannesburg route. The route had performed extremely well for our codeshare partner at the time, South African Airways.”
It performed so well for Delta that they decided to go it alone.
“SAA was carrying thousands of Delta customers and it made good sense to add our own flight and provide our own long-term commitment between South Africa and Atlanta. The flight did extremely well and there started our Africa strategy, which has grown steadily ever since.”
You could say that:
- 2007: Delta opens a route to Lagos.
- 2008: Delta agrees to open service to Monrovia.
- 2009: Delta begins exploring a possible partnership with an African airline, Nigerian Eagle.
- 2010: Delta flies its 2 millionth African passenger
- 2011: Delta agrees to operate scheduled flights between the US and Luanda, capital of Angola.
Meanwhile, Delta is out from under Chapter 11 and back in the game.
This story, however, is still being written. Sixty flights a week to a region the size of Africa is far better than zero, but still not that many.
Go on Delta’s own site and you’ll see that the bulk of its US-Africa flights are still code-shares with other airlines, mainly Air France and the Netherlands’ KLM.
That often means a layover, sometimes even a full day, in a place like Paris.
(Then again, there are worse things in life than being forced to spend a day in Paris…)
Currently, Delta isn’t adding new African routes. If this market is so great, you ask, why aren’t they expanding in it?
The short answer is, Africa is still Africa. Olivia Cullis again:
“Today, many of the age-old African political and infrastructure challenges remain. In terms of setting up new routes, there are still a number of political hurdles to overcome, and the bureaucracy involved is also very considerable.”
There’s also the T-word. You know, the whole terrorism thing? If the federal government isn’t happy with a country’s airport security, our friends at Homeland Security can veto a US airline’s plans to fly there.
Then there’s cost. While trans-Atlantic flights to Europe can be had for under $1,000 round-trip, Delta’s direct flights to Africa can top $2,000…in Coach.
If you want something more comfortable than Sardine Class, you may find yourself spending two or four times that amount.
And you may ask yourself, “How can I afford this?”
Still, for the US airline industry, it’s a beginning. They see the possibilities for bringing American travelers to Africa. And Delta is going for it.
These days, however, they’re no longer going for it alone.
And that’s next.
THE RISE AND FALL OF PAN AM
Prior to Delta, the only other US-based airline to fly a regular schedule anywhere in Africa was Pan American World Airways.
Between the 1930s and 1960s, Pan Am pretty much defined international air travel. The main reason we have jumbo jets today is because PanAm went to Boeing and said they needed one.
That’s how we got the Boeing 747.
Then came the 1973 fuel crisis, and more competition from US airlines. Other countries started subsidizing their own carriers while hitting Pan Am with exorbitant landing fees. The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 scared off passengers.
The company folded in 1991. US airlines would ignore Africa for the next two decades.