A TAAG Angolan Airlines flight that crashed in M'banza Congo, Angola in June 2007
If there is one thing that suffered during Africa’s “dark decades”, the first three decades of independence it is African aviation. For decades leading to and shortly after independence, aviation in Africa was under Western expatriate management or where the country was aligned to the East under Russian/Eastern bloc management. Air Zaire was mostly run by Belgian expats;Kenya Airways was for a long time under expat management, Nigerian Eagle Airlines(Virgin Nigeria) has been under expat management and so has Air Uganda. Where transition took place to indigenous management; it was less than seamless.Lack of preparedness. Lots of appointments to management were laced with political patronage, from civil aviation authorities to airline management. And in some cases a classic touch of buffoonery was added like in Air Zaire where dictator Mobutu used the airline’s two biggest aircraft for escapades, leaving passengers stranded for upto 48 hours!Mobutu even built an airport next to his palace!
Aircraft from the Eastern bloc were relatively cheap and were widely used in Africa to transport troops, cargo (minerals) and passengers but due to their poor safety records; they soon distinguished themselves as the flying coffins of Africa. Aircraft models such as Antonov, Ilyushin, Tupolev, LET410 UVP, the C208B Grand Caravan have caused numerous disasters in the African Sky.
One aircraft that truly deserves the “flying coffin” tag is the Antonov! In fact, the Antonov is more associated with Africa more than even the Ukraine where Oleg Antonov founded the aeronautical company 58 years ago.A friend on Twitter said that passengers on Egypt Air referred to the airline as “Insha’Allah Airlines” or “If God Wills Airlines”.Some airlines have even more 'glorious' names like "One Way ticket to hell"
The Antonov has been widely used in Angola, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone,Gabon and countless other hopeless African nations. The main advantage was that they were very cheap, available from the Eastern bloc and could be easily secured if you had great contacts from the East and with some well connected “dogs of war”. A war lord who controlled vast mines in the Congo could easily afford an Antonov to fly his troops on killing missions or get minerals from deep in the forest to Bukavu or Goma, for transit through Kenya to the port in Mombasa.They were very much a good cause for military casualties, sometimes outdoing the enemy fire! Governments short of cash to afford more reliable and expensive Western models and busy fighting insurgencies intent on overthrowing their greedy regimes also relied on the good old Antonov.
The Antonov is still very much in use in some parts of Africa; a great cause of headache for IATA and AFRAA who are horrified by its safety records! But there is a bright light at the of tunnel.One bright spot is that the criminal regimes that once ruled Africa have mostly given way to more democratic regimes, imperfect democracies, but democracies all the same. And with that comes the opportunity for more oversight, transparency, enforcement of aviation regulations and more funds available for infrastructure upgrades and expansion since there is less siphoning off of money by criminals.
Another good trend is the continued growth of Africa’s World Class airlines: South African Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways. They are some of the best managed companies in Africa, employ thousands and though they are still fully or partly owned by governments, their management and performance have defied lots of odds and stereotypes. And as Angola cements its position as Sub Saharan Africa’s new economic powerhouse, TAAG Angola will in the near future be one of Africa’s safe and best performing legacy carriers. There is also the continued growth of quality budget airlines like Fly540, Kulula, Mango Airlines, and SAA Express especially in Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria.
The increased trend toward fleet modernization means ageing aircraft are quickly being discarded.AFRAA estimates that nearly a third of Africa wide fleet of over 750 aircraft are more than 20 years old; however, of the 480 strong fleet of AFRAA member airlines, only 6 are ex-Soviet! A death knell to the Antonovs!
IATA has also launched some ambitious safety initiatives in Africa to help African airlines improve safety and achieve IOSA Certification. As IATA CEO Giovanni Bisignani once advised African aviation stakeholders, “being in the IOSA is a strong argument that you have met the highest standards in safety”. Other IATA initiatives include providing airlines with a free Flight Data Analysis tool for three years, building a safety culture and leadership with African Airlines; safety auditing leading to IOSA Certification, addressing skills shortage through operational training programs and working with African aviation authorities and governments on improving infrastructure.
African airlines are still some of the most unsafe in the world but there is lots of improvement and a culture of safety is slowly growing in major African carriers.