According to "The Air Transport Industry and Aviation Ground-Handling Services in South Africa 2022" report, the cargo air transport industry has been brought to the brink of collapse during the two years of the pandemic. Its recovery, although underway, has been hampered by high fares due to the collapse of airlines which has reduced the industry’s capacity, and soaring fuel prices.

Yvonne Makolo, CEO of RwandAir and first female Chair of the IATA Board of Governors (2023-2024) in an International Air Transport Association (IATA) report said, “Africa stands out as the region with the greatest potential and opportunity for aviation. The ‘Focus Africa’ initiative renews IATA’s commitment to supporting aviation on the continent. As the incoming chair of the IATA Board of Governors and the first from Africa since 1993, I look forward to ensuring that this initiative gets off to a great start and delivers benefits that are measurable.”

Focus Africa is a collaborative endeavour that brings together resources from throughout the aviation value chain to address significant obstacles impeding Africa's aviation growth. Focus Africa aims to create a safer, more secure, and better-connected continent, powered by a diversified, talented workforce, in order to unleash aviation's potential and unlock the commercial and economic possibilities that will enable the sector to flourish across the continent.

Ground Handling at African Airports
At the IATA Ground Handling Conference held in May in Abu Dhabi, UAE, Monika Mejstrikova, Director of Ground Operations, IATA spoke about the importance of ground handling priorities, global standardisation of process and digitalisation, automation and more at the event.

“Standardisation boosts efficiency and more importantly, boosts safety. Global standards are the key, and IATA's Ground Operations Manual (IGOM) is the comprehensive industry manual that defines these standards," said Mejstrikova.

“Ideas on my mind to address standardising ground handling include having a policy framework that supports competitive GHAs and not monopolistic tendencies. I would recommend self-regulation of GHAs and regulation only if self-regulation doesn’t work out. A policy framework will guide GHA requirements and conformance to best practices. Another way to address these challenges is for GHAs to consider equipment pooling. Some ground support equipment (GSE) is very expensive to purchase and maintain; by pooling, GHAs will reduce investment costs and deliver quality service,” said John Nalianya, Head-Passenger Services, Kenya Airways.

“In some states, the government runs GHAs as monopolies without making any investments; such governments need to properly equip GHAs with equipment and adequately train their manpower to meet international standards. Lastly, IATA has created a mechanism for standardising GHA operations through an audit programme known as IATA Standard Audit for Ground Operations (ISAGO). If all GHAs genuinely operate at the ISAGO level, the quality of service will be greatly improved.”

"As growth happens, the ground handling industry must be prepared to handle emerging trends from airlines that want lower handling costs, self-handling, and going green initiatives that require GSE that use solar or fossil fuels"

- John Nalianya, Head-Passenger Services, Kenya Airways

The ground handling industry in Africa is anticipated to grow significantly as a result of the projected demand for air transport, consequently improving intra-African and worldwide commerce and trade. Mejstrikova believes that the ground-handling business has a considerable chance to embrace digitalisation and automation.

“Consistent investment in infrastructure, equipment and technologies is essential to remain competitive and resilient in today’s rapidly changing environment. dnata is investing in a state-of-the-art facility to offer cargo services at Zanzibar’s Abeid Amani Karume International Airport (ZNZ), which is scheduled for completion in 2024, will comply with the highest industry standards ensuring efficient and safe handling of a broad range of cargo, including perishables, pharmaceuticals, dangerous goods, live animals, aircraft engines and vehicles,” said Tom Alwyn-Jones, Managing Director, dnata Zanzibar.

Mejstrikova noted how complicated ground operations are, and how delays are the bane of every turnaround coordinator's existence. However, with developments in technology and communication, it is possible to eliminate delays and make operations safer and more efficient.

“For instance, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) can relieve people from performing physically challenging tasks, like moving luggage into a flight container or onto a baggage cart. And AI can analyse ground operations data and instantly alert crew members to take necessary action making processes more efficient,” said Mejstrikova.

By creating new job opportunities and career routes, revolutionising the industry with automation and new technologies may attract a new wave of talent.

Improving Aviation in Africa
Demand for air transportation in Africa is likely to rise further, owing to the continent's rising economic prosperity, increased commerce, and more cargo connectivity.

Infrastructure limits, high prices, a lack of connection, regulatory barriers, slow adoption of global standards, and talent shortages all have an impact on the growth of the aviation sector in Africa For the year 2020-2022, the continent's airlines lost a total of $3.5 billion. Furthermore, IATA anticipates additional losses of $213 million in 2023.

Focus Africa is set to increase efforts and activities in six important areas to allow concrete and lasting improvement in response to African aviation's critical concerns, such as promoting the development of efficient, secure, and cost-effective aviation infrastructure, improve operational safety by implementing a data-driven, collaborative approach, promote intra-African market liberalisation through the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM), accelerate the acceptance of current retailing standards and the deployment of secure, effective, and cost-effective financial services, assist Africa's aviation sector in meeting the "Net Zero by 2050" emissions objectives and promote aviation as a career path to ensure a steady supply of diverse talent ready to meet future industry needs.

“The tasks for Focus Africa are not new. Work is already underway as part of the work of IATA and other stakeholders in Africa. But after the financial trauma that the pandemic brought to African aviation, we are at a unique time of rebuilding. By launching Focus Africa now, we can ensure that the recovery from Covid-19 moves aviation to an even better place than we were in 2019,” said Al Awadhi, IATA Regional Vice President for Africa and the Middle East.

“Africa accounts for 18% of the global population, but just 2.1% of air transport activities (combined cargo and passenger). Closing that gap, so that Africa can benefit from the connectivity, jobs and growth that aviation enables, is what Focus Africa is all about,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General in an IATA report.

Recovering from Covid-19
According to IATA, Africa is in the process of recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic. Air cargo is up by 31.4% from last year, while air travel is up 93% from last year. The full recovery of air travel is projected in 2024. The African ground handling market has improved in the previous year and appears to be on the mend, with a full recovery projected in the next months. But there are a few challenges that the continent is still facing!

“Unlike other parts of the world where manpower loss is the biggest challenge, Africa’s challenges are different. Some equipment was parked for a long time and required major overhauls for it to be at peak performance. Covid-19 had a positive opportunity in increased cargo services to transport essential medical supplies and food across the globe; this was a temporary reprieve to the ground handling agencies (GHAs) who had to handle cargo or freighter aircraft at the time,” said Nalianya.

Apart from the recovery, the continent is moving forward with new alliances and increased cargo capacity in many different parts of Africa.

"Consistent investment in infrastructure, equipment and technologies is essential to remain competitive and resilient in today’s rapidly changing environment"

- Tom Alwyn-Jones, Managing Director, dnata Zanzibar

Qatar Airways Cargo began twice-weekly flights from Doha to Kigali in March, with each aircraft carrying up to 100 tonnes of freight. The first route was inaugurated between Kigali and Lagos (four times per week).

dnata began ground handling services at ZNZ's new international terminal (T3) with partners Emirates Leisure Retail and SEGAP (a joint venture between Egis and AIIM) in 2022. Over $10 million has been invested by dnata, Emirates Leisure Retail, and SEGAP, which has resulted in the creation of 500 local employees.

Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) has granted Menzies Aviation a five-year contract to offer ground handling services at nine South African airports. O.R. Tambo International Airport, Cape Town International Airport, King Shaka International Airport, Dawid Stuurman International Airport, Bram Fischer International Airport, George Airport, Kimberley Airport, King Phalo Airport, and Upington International Airport have all granted Menzies operating licenses.

On the routes of automation and digitalisation, airlines operating in Africa have started partnering with companies for faster and smoother processes with the help of digitalisation.

Etihad Cargo has joined the AI space with the debut of an innovative AI-powered solution to change airfreight operations and increase cargo capacity on flights. The deployment of AI capabilities will allow the carrier to increase cargo volumes by optimizing capacity on every flight throughout its network.

Ethiopian Cargo and formed a partnership in May this year to provide the Ethiopian national carrier's capabilities for fast booking on the air cargo booking marketplace. will revolutionise freight forwarders' access to Ethiopian Cargo services and acquire's extensive digital sales skills to enhance and accelerate its digitalisation journey.

Balance between high quality and low price
According to AFRAA, ground handling standards at African airports vary widely, owing in part to a lack of or poor inspection by competent authorities. Similarly, many airports' infrastructure and facilities for processing passengers/cargo are poor, antiquated, or restricted. As a result, many airports have inadequate quality standards while charging exorbitant handling costs.

African airports have some of the highest handling charges and taxes in the world. We asked industry experts how to balance great handling quality with a low price.

“Clearly defining airport standards that need to be adhered to by ground handlers. Frequent inspections and audits by the airport operator and other industry players. ISAGO is one such platform that can be adopted as a uniform standard of accreditation that authorities need to use as a benchmark. Avoiding government interference on pricing. The unfortunate part is that the most priced monopolistic ground handlers have the worst quality of service. Investing in manpower to provide quality customer service,” said Nalianya.

The high cost of ground services and taxes arises due to a lack of competition as the facilities are managed by the national carrier or a state-owned organisation. A combination of ‘smart’ infrastructure is needed to support the role of the private sector in developing African airports.

“We firmly believe that quality and safety are paramount in every aspect of our operations. We are confident we offer competitive charges and the highest possible quality for the airport we operate in Zanzibar. We work closely with local stakeholders to deliver the highest possible standards of compliance across everything we do, having recently received RA3 certification for our current cargo facility, a first in Zanzibar,” said Jonas.

Ground Handling Potential
According to IATA, Africa has a strong basis for increasing aviation's contribution to its growth. Prior to Covid-19, aviation in Africa provided 7.7 million employment and $63 billion in economic activity. Projections are for demand to triple over the next two decades.

“The African aviation market is largely untapped. As the sector grows, the ground-handling market will also grow. Experts predict triple-digit growth in the African aviation industry over the next two decades. According to Times Aerospace, IBA predicts that African airline traffic will recover to pre-Covid levels by 2024 and that it will surpass 140 million passengers carried by 2030. As growth happens, the ground handling industry must be prepared to handle emerging trends from airlines that want lower handling costs, self-handling, and going green initiatives that require GSE that use solar or fossil fuels,” added Nalianya.

Africa has enormous potential for aviation. Africa now provides just around 2% of total worldwide travel, while having 17% of the world's population. The continent's air connection may be greatly enhanced.

“As the world’s second-largest continent, there is huge potential across a number of sectors that varies by each market. For us, we are committed to making Zanzibar one of the most admired airports in Africa, delivering a customer experience that helps grow the tourism industry and reputation as a destination of choice,” added Jones.

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