Chris Zweigenthal

Never has anyone experienced such disruption and devastation to the degree that we are currently being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our health and livelihoods are under threat and the consequences of a global recession, socio-economic hardship, collapse of businesses, and loss of jobs have impacted every sector, with our aviation, travel and tourism industry probably one of the hardest hit.

History has shown that after previous major disruptions, the world has rebounded to pre-crisis levels, e.g. 9/11, 2009 recession, Sars, MERS pandemics to name a few. However, what makes this different is that this pandemic has not spared any nation on earth and the timeline for recovery is difficult to predict. In our industry after a hard lockdown where business fell off a cliff overnight on March 26, 2020, we have to rebuild from ground zero.

From an aviation perspective, the question is: will the structure of our business change with the way airlines will redesign their networks? This includes looking at hubs and their effectiveness.

In my view, hubs will not only survive but some will get stronger as we emerge from COVID-19.  The strength of hubs lies primarily in their geographical position, and the strength of the hub airline.  During the pandemic, some hubs were effective distribution points for passengers requiring repatriation to their final destinations as well as distributing cargo and essential products. This should continue as scheduled flights return.

But not necessarily every hub will retain its so-called hub status. There could of course be casualties, but this is not necessarily because of the hub but because of the poor financial situation of the hub’s base airline, delays in government decisions to open borders, and limited service of the hub by returning foreign airlines.

In Africa, this threat is real. Africa showed a strong resolve and commitment to meet the COVID-19 pandemic head on with a closure of borders and most states also grounding domestic operations. It is accepted that airline recovery, particularly for over-border flights, will be slow and may not reach pre-COVID-19 levels before at least 2023. With reduced business, airlines will reduce their fleet size and will assess the most profitable route to deploy their smaller fleet.

As states begin to open borders, it is essential that South Africa does not fall too far behind the curve. We must stake our claim for business. While acknowledging that we have experienced a surge in COVID-19 infections, we have internationally benchmarked COVID-19 protocols in place for aviation, travel and tourism and we urge our government to trust our industry and to lift restrictions for travel.

In respect of the future development of aviation together with travel and tourism across Africa, the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) and the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA) initiatives will need to be re-ignited once African states have assessed and begun to repair the damage to the industry from COVID-19. This is likely to see further development of collaboration through alliances on a bilateral or regional basis to ensure sustainability of the industry.

A challenging time lies ahead – we have to rebuild the whole industry and to instil confidence in our passengers that we are all ready for all business!

Chris Zweigenthal has over 30 years experience in the airline industry, notably with South African Airways, where he held senior positions in the Petroleum Affairs, Flight Operations, Marketing Planning and Global Passenger Services departments, and was managing director of SA Alliance Air based in Kampala, Uganda. In February 2002, Chris joined the Airlines Association of Southern Africa (AASA) as deputy chief executive and was appointed chief executive on March 1, 2009. Chris is a director of the Tourism Business Council of South Africa, Aviation Coordination Services and an alternate director on the Commercial Aviation Association of Southern Africa.