Airlink aims to be Africa’s Second Largest Airline

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Airlink’s new logo of a sunbird adorning the full size of the tail being applied to its 50 Embraer jets marks a decisive step in the company’s history.

Previously the bird only flew over the top half of the empennage, inserted into the tail design of South African Airways (SAA), as Airlink had been operating as a franchise under the roof of the national carrier from 1997.

However, in 2020, the partnership ended and a new age has begun. For the first time in its over 20 year history, Airlink competes in its own right and branding. It does so not as an inexperienced start-up, but rather from a position of strength.

According to airlineratings.com, the number of flights offered, about 210 a day on 63 routes, with destinations served in 14 countries, it is now Africa’s second-biggest airline after Ethiopian Airlines, ranking ahead of Royal Air Maroc and Kenya Airways. Counting the number of seats offered, it ranks third behind Ethiopian and Egypt Air.

Before the pandemic, Airlink carried 2.2 million passengers in 2019 still as part of SAA’s network, while in 2022, over three million customers are expected. Quite remarkable for a regional carrier with over 50 jets in its fleet all of which are made by Embraer and none has more than 98 seats.

This achievement is in no small part thanks to efficient leadership over the years by its co-founder Rodger Foster. Private shareholders, among them Foster himself owning 23 per cent of shares, ensured that Airlink has been constantly profitable for over two decades until the pandemic hit.

Rodger Foster; Credit Airlink

One of the reasons is Airlink operates a tailor-made network of destinations that see actual demand, rather than an overblown intercontinental system such as SAA did and serves them with smaller aircraft that are easier to fill.

“Our objective is to be sustainably viable,” says CEO, shareholder and co-founder Rodger Foster in an interview with Airlineratings.com in Johannesburg.

Right now he pursues this objective in a new setting. “Of course it is a challenge, after 30 years, to start as a new brand in our own right, as since 1997 we have been identified as SAA because of our franchise partnership,” says the youthful-looking 67-year-old. “This is a new chapter for us and it is exciting because we got our own brand and we now got relationships with all the world’s biggest airlines.”

As a member of IATA and IOSA-safety-audited, Airlink has inked code-share deals with Emirates and United Airlines and in addition, there are interline agreements with 19 global carriers, among them with British Airways, Virgin, Delta Air Lines, Air France/KLM and Lufthansa.

Instead of joining fare wars, it can’t win on such contested South African domestic routes as Johannesburg to Cape Town with currently seven competing brands, Airlink pursues more lucrative international routes – if it can get the respective traffic rights. This remains a constant problem, highlighting the ongoing fragmentation of African aviation and the lack of opening up of markets. “That’s why Africa only accounts for two per cent of worldwide air traffic, there is only lip service being paid to aviation liberalization in Africa so far,” contends Rodger Foster.

There are several international treaties in place about open skies above Africa and other forms of bilateral liberalization, but in fact, everything is still highly regulated and tied down by bureaucracy.

“There are 200+ airlines in all of Africa, all trying to find an existence with the average population of about a billion people being very poor. How do we justify keeping over 200 airlines going? Every country must have at least one, is the assumption. How bizarre, that has to be rationalized,” demands the South African airline veteran. “For the industry to survive and grow in Africa we got to recognize that there needs to be critical mass for each of those operations, efficiencies of scale, and none of the airlines in Africa at the moment has that. As the only exceptions possibly Ethiopian has got scale, and maybe Airlink is getting towards scale,” observes Foster.

The Airlink boss is a 100 per cent Embraer devotee. He intends to go forward with the existing fleet inventory, comprising of 17 E190s and three E170s alongside the ERJs, and also keep the Brazilians as his exclusive supplier.

“We can imagine flying the Embraer E2 jet family in the long term, but any change of aircraft type needs to have the support of the right balance sheet,” cautions Foster.

 

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