Flying into hostile territory: Somalia experiences boom in air travel
being classified as a hostile destination, many carriers, like Turkish
Airlines, are flying to Somalia's capital, Mogadishu
Thursday, August 22, 2013
In Somalia, getting from point A to B can be a perilous business.
Towns are remote, the roads that link them are poor and prone to attack,
while the coastline is manned by pirates.
So why are so many airline operators eager to launch routes to Mogadishu?
Despite Somalia's many
security woes, the aviation industry is experiencing an uptick.
Mogadishu's Aden Abdulle International Airport -- which was essentially
out of commission prior to 2010 following years of civil war,
in-fighting and a reign of terror brought on by Al Qaeda -backed
terrorist group Al Shabaab -- has been expanding.
"Before 2010, there
wasn't really an airport, just a runway. Now, we have 35 flights a day.
The airport is booming," says Sean Mendis, Aden Abdulle's station
Security in the country is an on-going concern, though it has improved.
Al Shabaab was forced out two years ago, allowing some local businesses
to reopen and Aden Abdulle to beef up its security, which is currently
under the purview of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the
Somalia Civil Aviation and Meteorology Authority, the Somali police and
the Somali National Security Agency.
"The airport is very
different from the town. There are 17,000 troops protecting it. We have
four x-ray machines and several security checks passengers have to pass
through before boarding a plane," explains Mendis.
These measures has given
confidence to a range of carriers. Jubba Airways -- Somalia's unofficial
national carrier -- has expanded its network and fleet considerably,
and several neighboring outfits, like African Express and Fly540, have
daily flights throughout the country.
Last month, Air Uganda
started flying three times a week to Mogadishu, and last year, Turkish
Airways became the first major commercial airline to service the Somali
capital in over 20 years. Mendis envisions more international carriers,
particularly some of the Middle East's heavy hitters, launching routes
Still, violence remains an everyday reality. Last month a car bomb was driven into a convoy of AMISOM troops near the airport.
If anything, the country's lack of infrastructure and stability is actually boosting the airline industry.
"The population is
sparsely distributed throughout the territory. Traveling by land is
dangerous -- not just because the roads are bad, but because of highway
robbery. Police checkpoints charge you $50 just to pass through. For
ordinary people, as well as UN peacekeepers, flying domestically is
really the best way to go," says Christos Shepherd, head of business
development and start-up airlines at aviation consulting firm Mango
For big carriers, like
Turkish Airlines, flying to Somalia represents a bigger strategy of
gaining a foothold in Africa as a whole. In 2012, the airline expanded
its network to include 15 destinations throughout the continent.
"The most important
geographic part of the world over the next 100 years will be Africa. In
this respect, any destination (we fly to) in Africa will create more
effective results than, say, a destination in Europe," says Ali Genc,
Turkish Airlines' senior vice president of media relations.
Despite the increase in
competition, airfares remain remarkably high. Even low-cost carriers
charge upwards of $500 for internal flights.
"For the airlines
operating these routes, the costs are very high -- much higher than they
would be flying similar-sized aircraft with the same number of
passengers in Europe, because you don't have the infrastructure, plus
you're paying a premium to pilots and crew for being in a place they
don't want to be," says Shepherd.
According to Ruben Gamero, the director of operations for African Express, combat pay is a common incentive for pilots.
"All operators flying to
Somalia have to be given a special permit, because the country is
considered a hostile destination. We take into account every factor and
calculated risk, and have never been involved in any unsafe or unstable
situation," he says.
Surprisingly for a country whose economy is in shambles, there are plenty of passengers willing to pay the fare.
"Somalis are very
resilient, and they get a lot of money from the diaspora," explains
Mendis, who adds that U.N. and NGO traffic keeps the demand for seats
high. African Express cites 90% occupancy, and Turkish Airlines says the
load factor is increasing.
"Judging by the amount of traffic the airport is seeing, I'd say there's plenty of profits to be had," says Mendis.