Despite global financial turmoil, Africa still enjoys healthy economic growth. South of the Sahara, the continent's output grew by 3.7% in 2015, according to the World Bank. This figure is expected to accelerate to 4.4% in 2016 and 4.8% in 2017.
Robust growth in tourism has contributed greatly to increases in air travel. In 2012, passenger air traffic increased by 7.5%, reaching 163 million journeys. Growth of another 16.7% is expected between 2013 and 2018.
Improved airport connectivity and cheaper fares have provided further impetus, placing pressure on the continent’s airports to show themselves equal to the challenge.
A continent’s response
To handle the steady increase, airports are investing and courting the World Bank and other funding sources to replace, upgrade and maintain an aging infrastructure base.
Among others, ground-based air navigation systems are being upgraded to enhance passenger safety and ensure safe landings. Traditionally, African aviation has had a poor safety record, reportedly suffering nine times as many incidents as the global average. In addition, air traffic management (ATM) practices are being sharpened up to handle higher volumes more efficiently.
Recent developments point to the continent moving in the right direction – 2015 safety figures are better than any of the preceding five years.
A coordinated response to air traffic management has long been lacking in the region, due to frequent leadership changes in various African countries, but moves led by South Africa’s ATNS to create a single upper airspace management control capability in the SADC region is another positive sign.
Many African countries have further embarked on airport expansion plans which are set to revolutionise African aviation. In 2014, 40 new airport projects got under way (Brooks Market Intelligence).
It’s to be hoped that these initiatives are signs of better times ahead – of greater coordination between countries and investing in up-to-date, safer systems on the ground and in the air. As important, airports and civil aviation authorities (CAAs) must invest in the appropriate maintenance of such equipment to ensure its proper and reliable functioning. If not, airports will pay the price with high insurance, aircraft leasing, and overall operations cost – not discounting the massive potential impact on human lives.
What the doctor ordered
These challenges can best be met by providers with the skills, experience, and vendor relationships to offer a full service to Africa’s civil and military airports – ranging from manufacturing to implementation, support and maintenance of cutting-edge as well as legacy aviation equipment.
The credentials most needed are strong OEM relationships for navigational aid systems including radar, instrument landing systems (ILS), runway lights, precision approach systems, direction finders and weather observation systems.
Expertise in systems design, solution integration, installation, maintenance and repairs are further required to meet the complex demands of a diverse installed base. Africa’s needs extend not just to new installations but also to maintenance and repair skills for legacy equipment still so prevalent in the region.
On the other end of the scale are future technologies such as satellite-based navigation systems, which are gradually replacing ground-based systems. Airports need trusted advisors that are keeping an eye on initiatives like the US-based Next-Generation and Europe’s SESAR. There’s no indication that Africa will follow suit, but certain airlines are definitely going for satellite-based navigation.
Another avenue worth exploring is remote-control air traffic control towers, which replace on-site ATC towers through the use of cameras and data communication links. Where budgets are lacking, a central hub managing multiple airfields could provide a uniquely African-suited solution for air traffic control.
Grow and preserve
The providers with vision can assure their future in an expanding African aviation space by keeping an eye not just on the future, but also on the past. In other words, the winners will both investigate where they can add value with future technologies and provide help with sweating existing assets.
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