Originally published in Air Transport IT Review

The Board of Airline Representatives of South Africa (BARSA) represents international airlines operating to South Africa. We talked to BARSA’s Chair, Carla da Silva, and CEO, June Crawford, about air transport in Africa, the revolution in connectivity, technology skills shortfall and the importance of attracting more women to senior jobs.

Q: What’s your take on the state of the African airline sector? What are the key challenges?

CARLA DA SILVA: As the White Paper sets out, air transport supports about 1.1m jobs and contributes US$ 34.5bn to the African economy.

However in global terms it’s a young market: only 10% of Africans travel by air and Africa’s share of the global market is just 2.3%. But it’s the future that’s important, and air transport across Africa is widely recognized as set for major growth. IATA’s own forecasts prove the point: of the 10 fastest growing markets for passenger growth through to 2034, eight are in Africa.

There are a couple of major challenges the industry still has to resolve. The first is to ensure everyone implements and enforces international standards and practice of safety. Enormous strides have been made. The jet hull-loss rate is better than the global average and IATA is bringing airlines onto the IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) registry.

However, only 14 out of 54 African states comply with 60% or more International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Standards and Recommended Practices. So still some way to go.

The second challenge is to open Africa’s skies to increased competition and lower fares.

The benefits of liberalization have been known for many years. A July 2014 report for IATA on the economic benefits of intra-African liberalization found that agreement over a more liberal air traffic market between South Africa and Kenya in the early 2000s led to a 69% rise in passenger traffic.

A low cost service permitted between South Africa and Zambia resulted in a 38% reduction in fares and a 38% increase in passenger traffic.

To date, there are no open sky agreements between African countries, but African 23 countries have signed open sky agreements with the US. So we have a way to go on that one!

JUNE CRAWFORD: Another way in which travel and trade between African countries can be encouraged is by removing or at least simplifying the process of obtaining visas. It’s still far too lengthy and time-consuming in many countries.

This is one area where investment in technology could have a significant benefit. Customs clearance for goods also needs to be simplified if we are going to see more into-African trade. Again, technology can provide answers. So long as there is the political will to act!

There are challenges that have to be dealt with. But air travel in South Africa has grown above 10% per year over the past six years, due in large part to the proliferation of low-cost airlines and the opening up of more and more international links.

For example, in 1993 fewer than 12 international airlines flew into South Africa. Today, more than 100 international airlines fly into the country on a regular basis.

Q: Across Africa, mobile telephony has been leading a revolution in communications. How important is that to the development of air transport on the continent?

JUNE CRAWFORD: I’ve no doubt that the spread of mobile telephony and the internet is boosting air travel inside Africa, just as its been boosting economic activity as a whole. And while the pace of growth in new subscribers will inevitably start to slow, the move to higher speed networks and smartphones is accelerating.

GSMA report that connections to mobile broadband will increase from a little over 20% today to almost 60% by 2020. And by then, there will be more than half a billion smartphone connections in the region, from 160 million today.

Those figures are obviously significant for the air transport community, as we move increasingly to connecting and dealing with customers via mobile.

CARLA DA SILVA: Perhaps just as important for the future is the growth of home-grown technology innovations. Incubators and accelerators – such as South Africa’s Silicon Cape Initiative – are springing up across the continent.

Mobile operators are also playing an increasingly central role in the startup ecosystem by providing mentoring and funding opportunities.

As all things digital become more pervasive, so infrastructure development, productivity and employment will be boosted, leading to greater demand for services such as air transport. It becomes a virtuous circle of growth and development.

Q: What is BARSA’s role?

JUNE CRAWFORD: There are Boards of Airline Representatives representing member interests in most countries of the world, so what we’re doing is not unique. But clearly we are dealing with the very specific issues that relate to South Africa and the evolution of its politics and economy.

Twenty-five years ago this country was an outcast to most of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. The changes we’ve seen since the end of apartheid have been unprecedented, not least in the building of links between South Africa and the other sub-Saharan nations.

Today, BARSA is a reflection of how things have changed. We represent close to 40 international airlines operating to South Africa and a growing number of strategic partners (including SITA).

We provide a channel of communication and consultation between member airlines and statutory and other organizations whose actions influence and impact on our members and the aviation industry in general.

We provide a single concerted voice on policy and other issues relating to government and other industry stakeholders. And we are committed to working with members and stakeholders to develop a safe, efficient and sustainable aviation industry in South Africa.

We were also a co-founder in 1999 of Aviation Co-ordination Services (ACS), which offers advanced IT services relating to baggage management, CUTE, CUSS, etc. ACS is a non-profit making company in its own right, investing in technology and equipment to fulfill its brief and to follow South African laws on baggage security, as well as ICAO standards and recommended best practice.

Q: One of the many challenges facing the industry in Africa is the skills gap. What can be done to improve the situation?

CARLA DA SILVA: The first thing to realize is that we’re not the only ones facing a skills gap. Boeing has forecast that the aviation industry will need to supply 558,000 commercial airline pilots and 609,000 maintenance technicians by 2034, including an extra 18,000 pilots and 22,000 mechanics in Africa.

The problem we have across Africa is that the industry remains relatively under-developed. There’s a lack of capital which makes it difficult to finance equipment, build route networks with modern aircraft and pay for the skills necessary to operate a modern network.

So there is a consistent problem across the continent of skilled and qualified people moving to other regions of the world, particularly the Middle East and Asia, where they have expansion and the capital to finance it.

In South Africa, this is also tied in to the push for economic involvement of black people and for gender balance across all races.

For example, in 2014 out of 16,764 licensed pilots in South Africa, 83% were white male. Of 1,890 maintenance engineers, just 23 were women. Yet women have been flying as long as men. They’ve been pioneers and record-breakers. They’ve proven their ability time after time – and yet we still come across prejudice against women pilots.

It makes no sense that we’re ignoring the capabilities of more than half the workforce. I’d like to see more pro-active work by airlines to train and recruit female pilots. It’s up to the leaders of our industry to take firm action to increase the opportunities for training and development.

And hats off here to the example set by SAA’s low-cost sister airline. Last year Mango won an award for its work on Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment, including exceeding a 10% target for transformation among pilots. The airline has also reached out to more than 60,000 learners with its Career Days hosted across the country.

Q: Is technology the key to effecting the changes needed?

CARLA DA SILVA: Technology has a low-cost of access and it’s available to all. The start-up sector in South Africa and across the continent is accelerating at an astonishing rate. We have to deal with the historic issues of the past (such as safety) and provide the opportunity for change and innovation.

We also have to make technology available to everyone. We need to get more young women to learn the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math – and break down the cultural barriers that create a false limit on talent.

JUNE CRAWFORD: We also have to promote investment and change to the technology infrastructure that supports today’s aviation sector. We need to focus on the state of air navigation systems, airspace management and control, adequate and secure airport infrastructure and ground-based navigation aids – as well as on aircraft and the skills required to fly and maintain them.

It’s also important to work together, to implement shared industry standards to match the best in the world. Shared infrastructure, too. It’s the smartest way to benefit from the latest and the best that technology offers.

Of course, sharing has underpinned SITA’s relationship with the African air transport community as elsewhere in the world, for the past 67 years. The move into cloud computing takes that idea further and faster.

It means that airports and airlines can get hold of the new technologies without the capital cost and with lower running costs.

SITA’s new work in promoting technology among young people and sponsoring training places is particularly welcome.

Overall, we have to stay focused on helping drive the future and there is much to do, but there is every reason to be optimistic.