Monday, July 23, 2012

► CONGO (BRAZZAVILLE): New regional carrier Air CEMAC eyes a January 2013 launch date.

Air CEMACFollowing a recent meeting of Civil Aviation Ministers of the Economic and Monetary Community of African States (CEMAC) consisting of Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Congo (Brazzaville), Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Chad, a decision was reached in which Air France was chosen as the airline's new strategic and financial partner replacing South African Airways (which was terminated in February owing to "deep differences of opinion") who themselves had replaced Royal Air Maroc and Brussels Airlines.

Of late, Air France has been moving to consolidate its foothold in Francophone Africa by setting up a number of joint ventures with carriers in West Africa most notably Air Mali, Air Burkina and soon-to-be Air Cote d'Ivoire. Unofficial reports state that Air France will have a 34% stake in the new airline.

Air CEMAC has been a paper airline since its inception 12 years ago, but has now given January 2013 as its target launch date with its intended network set to consist of all the CEMAC member states. Its standing mandate is not to simply generate a profit, but to provide much needed air services between neighbouring countries in a region long starved of reliable air service.
""It is an unimaginable challenge to travel from any African country to the Central African Republic (CAR) or Chad, it takes several days. The mega carriers that are operating there are not there to link African countries but to pick passengers," said AFRAA Secretary-General Christian Folly-Kossi, who also attended the ministerial meeting.

The Central African region is poorly served with flights, as other members of CEMAC, one of Africa's best examples of a working monetary union, using the CFA Franc.

In recent weeks, Folly-Kossi's concerns have proven to be right, with Chadian carrier Toumaï Air Tchad (9D), along with several smaller carriers, being grounded by Chadian authorities over safety concerns, leaving passengers wanting to travel to and from Chad dependent on either Ethiopian Airlines or Kenya Airways, both of whom charge significantly higher fares than their Chadian competitor.

Air Cemac
An artist's impression of an Air CEMAC A330 (PatrickAviation)
Still, whilst the market certainly exists, there is still one last bureaucratic hurdle that remains to be cleared before the actual go ahead for Air CEMAC can be given: the consents of all Heads of State of CEMAC, whose next meeting is scheduled for later this week in Brazzaville, Congo the headquarters for Air CEMAC, and Air CEMAC's largest backer thus far, having availed some USD$20million to the airline.

Prior to its divorce with SAA, Air CEMAC was said to be considering the use of Ethiopian Airlines' successful West African subsidiary ASKY Airlines as a possible model, though with Air France now on board, those plans are uncertain.

But, will Air CEMAC succeed where so many other African trade bloc based airlines have failed vis a vis - West Africa's Air Afrique and East Africa's East African Airways? And with the advent of low cost carriers like Fly540 and the soon to be launched FastJet, will the governments look to protect Air CEMAC's interests over those of a healthy, competitive aviation industry? 

Of primary concern is how it will integrate with already established national carriers for member states such as Cameroon's Camair-Co, Equatorial Guinea's CEIBA Intercontinental and Gabon's Gabon Airlines, given that these airlines already have a hard enough time trying to remain financially viable without any real regional competition.