AFRICA: Ghana tries to return to the skies

For the third time since gaining independence in 1957, Ghana is moving to create its own airline.  There are major implications for West Africa if it succeeds.

Ghana is taking a third shot at establishing a national airline. A member of the government’s aviation ministry went public with that word last week at Kotoka International Airport in the capital city, Accra.

The country has tried twice before to run a national flag carrier — Ghana Airways (1958-2005) and Ghana International Airlines (2005-10).  Neither could get their finances right and eventually folded.

So now, under current President Nana Akufo-Addo, Ghana is trying again.

A successful national airline would have implications well beyond Ghana’s own borders. West Africa needs an airline of its own with the reach and financial muscle not only to serve the the 15 nations that make up its trade bloc, ECOWAS, but link them directly to the rest of the world.

East Africa has Ethiopian Airlines. Southern Africa has South African Airways. North Africa can count on Egyptair, Morocco’s Royal Air Maroc and from Dubai, Emirates.

West Africa, at present, has…well, nothing.

Nigeria’s Arik Air flies extensively to West African airports, but nowhere else, having suspended its flights to both the US and the UK.  And it has serious money problems of its own.

These days, Ethiopian is what most African airlines want to be when — or if — they grow up.  By far the largest airline on the Mother Continent, it has the most extensive African route map of any airline, period. It’s also one of only seven African airlines allowed to make direct passenger flights to the United States.

The word of Ghana’s airline plans came at a ceremony in Accra last week to welcome the maiden arrival of Ethiopian’s newest long-range jet, the Airbus A350.  It already is one of only two African airlines flying the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Before money and legal problems forced it out of the sky,  Ghana Airways showed what was possible. It served nine West African destinations — Guinea, Senegal, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, the Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, the Gambia and Liberia — as well as Ethiopia, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and Lebanon.

It also served three European destinations — London, Rome and Zurich — and was one of only a handful of regularly scheduled African carriers flying to American airports, New York (JFK) and Baltimore (BWI).

A West African airline with that kind of reach and prestige could  strengthen not only Ghana, but the entire West African region as a destination for business and vacation travel.

Especially if that airline can push its way into the ultra-competitive US market.

Travelers can fly non-stop from the US East Coast to most West African destinations, something you can’t say for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. A flight from Washington-Dulles to Accra is less than ten hours, a flight to Senegal, less than eight. No need to fly first to Europe, no long layovers.

Suddenly, that long dreamed of African vacation becomes a lot more attractive, and getting there becomes a lot less daunting.

For all these reasons and more, as Ghana moves forward toward returning to Africa’s skies, a lot of people will be watching and waiting to see if the third time is the charm.

The current plan is to focus on building its West African route map before looking beyond the continent. That’s probably wise. Still, I’m looking forward to the day when I can bring a tour group from the US to Ghana on a Ghanaian airliner.