Established in 2000 by a banker, Astral Aviation is a private airline which has travelled the difficult roads to attain success in the African aviation industry. Sanjeev Gadhia, CEO and co-founder, who heads as the vice chairman and secretary general of TIACA and vice-chairman of African Airlines Association’s Cargo Task Force, reveals about the company’s plan to add second B767-200F in the middle of the year in addition to B757-200F, B727F and BAE ATP which are joining the fleet in 2021. Even it plans to set up hubs in West and Southern Africa, which will enable intra-African cargo network.

“The 20-year journey had its ups and downs, but we have enjoyed every step of the way, as it’s those steps that make the journey memorable, and we continue taking the steps, as our journey is still not complete,” says Sanjeev Gadhia, CEO and co-founder, Astral Aviation.

Completing two decades in the African aviation industry, the journey of the Nairobi-based airline was indeed very challenging in one of the most difficult regions with the highest rate of airline failures, poor safety record, high taxes, political and security risk and with no government support.

Gadhia’s idea of starting a cargo airline in the year 2000 was based on the realisation that Africa lacked dedicated cargo airlines, due to the perception that cargo was secondary in revenue and could be carried on the belly of a passenger aircraft. Hence, due to the lack of freighter aircraft in the continent and high demand for humanitarian cargoes, Astral was born as Africa's first dedicated cargo airline with wet-leased aircraft. The airline took off to operate charter flights, which was a very successful business model as it was able to transport various types of cargo including humanitarian, perishables, mining, and project cargoes within Africa.

Astral's first B767-200F.

Eight years later, the airline diversified into scheduled flights following its designation status, with dry-leased aircraft, and thereafter developing an intra-African network, which currently stands at 15 scheduled destinations and 50 charter destinations with a fleet of 14 freighters. The fleet consists of B747, B727, McDonnell Douglas DC-9, BAE ATP, Fokker 50, and Fokker 27 freighters operating out of bases in Nairobi and Liege.

“Astral will be setting up a hub in Sharjah, which will be followed by expansion into China in mid-2021."
Sanjeev Gadhia, CEO and co-founder, Astral Aviation

“When we started Astral, the market was entirely dominated by foreign airlines with very little co-operation from local airlines, due to the lack of credibility in the aviation sector in Africa. Following a breakthrough with Martinair Cargo in the first year of operations with four successful charters for telecom cargoes into Reunion Island, we established credibility which remains to date, with over 25 interline agreements with all the major global and African airlines,” he observes.

Gadhia, a banker by profession, was able to instil financial discipline in the airline with a low level of debt, in addition to a strong executive management team till today with the highest staff retention rate in the continent.

During the pandemic, the airline served 42 countries out of 54 in Africa. Hence, its objective is to offer air transport solutions for vaccines on its entire fleet, to every country in the continent. Due to the size of the continent, a single cargo hub will never be sustainable; hence Gadhia plans to set up hubs in West and Southern Africa, which will enable intra-African cargo network.

This New Year, the carrier welcomed its first B767-200F which will initially operate a thin scheduled network from Nairobi to its new hub in Sharjah and Johannesburg with charter opportunities Ex Sharjah and Nairobi. The priority will be given to vaccine charters especially to and within Africa as the B767-200F with its 40 tonnes payload and 350 cubic metres volume is one of the perfect freighters for point-to-point and hub and spoke flights. The aircraft is delivered by Cargo Aircraft Management (CAM), a subsidiary of Air Transport Services Group (ATSG) under a five-year lease. This is the first aircraft ATSG has leased to Astral.

“We will take delivery of a second B767-200F in the middle of the year in addition to B757-200F, B727F and BAE ATP which are joining the fleet in 2021 with the view of increasing the fleet to 20 freighters with fleet diversity from 6 tonnes, 14 tonnes, 22 tonnes, 30 tonnes, 40 tonnes and 100 tonnes,” Gadhia notes.

The Nairobi hub is connected to over 30 countries in Africa within four hours and is near India which makes it an ideal hub for the transhipment of Indian vaccines for Africa. Speaking on Covid-19 vaccine shipment, Gadhia says, “The team in Nairobi is equipped with the handling of vaccines as we have been flying vaccines for the past 20 years and have participated in every major immunisation project which includes the Ebola epidemic in West and Central Africa, in addition to Polio, Cholera outbreaks, to mention a few.”

In addition to operating flights for vaccines, Astral promotes the consolidation and storage of vaccines at Nairobi hub which has a cold-storage facility with 100,000 square feet or 9,000 square metres of airside capacity, and value-added services such as re-icing and temperature monitoring of pharma including vaccines.

Astral will be setting up a hub in Sharjah, which will be followed by expansion into China in mid-2021. However, the fleet and expansion network will be based on a cautiously optimistic strategy considering the impact of the global recession caused by the impact of Covid-19. Hence, the priority will be given to vaccines due to enormous challenges in the air transport of vaccines in Sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile, Astral is a familiar name among humanitarian shipments to Juba and Yemen for polio immunisation, responding on the capacity crunch which it will face due to Covid-19 vaccine shipments, Gadhia responds, “We have had a policy to never say no to the carriage of pharma including vaccines, as it always takes priority due to the human factor. We will continue to provide capacity for other immunisation programmes which includes Ebola, Cholera and Polio which continue to emerge in different regions in the continent.”

Not only Astral created a revolution in Africa with a cargo airline, but also formed a drone company for cargo movement – Astral Aerial Solutions, with the mantra – ‘Accessing the Inaccessible, Connecting the Disconnected, Reach the Unreachable’.

Gadhia observes, “In Africa, innovation is not a choice but a necessity. We faced many problems with the airline but realised that we had to innovate to solve some of the complex problems caused by the last-mile delivery of cargo after it leaves the airport arising out of a lack of infrastructure and accessibility which results in cargo reaching the end destination very late. Our objective is to integrate our cargo drones into our aviation supply chain, which enables us to develop a platform for last-mile delivery to be performed by a cargo drone, which has never been done by any airline in the world.”

On the other hand, Astral is in discussions with potential strategic investors who have expressed an interest to acquire a minority stake in the airline. Astral Aviation is also a member of Neutral Air Partner, International Stability Association, Pharma.Aero and the Humanitarian Logistics Association.

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