On November 29, 2013, flight 470, an Embraer 190 of Linhas Aéreas de Moçambique (LAM; Mozambique Airlines), crashed in a remote area of Namibia en route from Maputo to Luanda, killing all 33 on board. This event barely registered in world media. And maybe this a good thing.
Of course, we know the pattern of Western under-reporting about Africa: an event in Africa does not exist in the Western media unless it is related to atrocities or terrorism or it directly impacts Western interests. On the same day a police helicopter crashed into a pub in Glasgow, Scotland, killing eight. That accident was on top of the news in the US for two days.
Aside from the loss of human life, the accident is tragic because Africa urgently needs to expand its air transportation infrastructure in order to develop economically and become more competitive in international business. A report by Mathias Haufiku and Fifi Rhodes on the allAfrica.com web site explains the connection: “The accident took place at a time that African countries are working hard to shed off the negative reputation of accident-prone African airlines, the majority of which are still banned from flying over European Union airspace due to stringent EU safety standards. Currently there are only five African countries and their airlines, which are permitted to fly over European airspace, of which Namibia is one.”
The African Airlines Association (AFRAA) claims that the EU bans most African carriers by deeming them unsafe in order to block African airlines from competing in highly profitable routes connecting Africa and Europe and thus to give European carriers an unfair competitive advantage. For example, the European Union withdrew landing rights not just from LAM but from all airlines based in Mozambique in 2011. In other words, EU restrictions hit an entire country due to perceived deficiencies in its regulatory system, not just a single airline that happens to have an outstanding safety record–until last week that is. As a consequence, LAM had to give up its Maputo to Lisbon route. Today, a TAP flight to Lisbon is the only direct flight to Europe.
This is one of the reasons why it is difficult for African airlines to be competitive on the global market–aside from lack of capital and a very small domestic customer base of businesses and affluent individuals. Governments often protect their airlines through regulatory schemes–which removes the pressures to be competitive. But heavy regulation also turns out to be a huge impediment for air travel. National airlines like LAM still have monopolies which make air travel very expensive.
Mozambique tried to escape this vicious cycle. LAM leased a Boeing 737-500 and purchased a brand-new Embraer 190–the very plane that crashed last week–in November 2012 to bring the total of planes operated by LAM to seven. At that occasion, Paulo Zucula, the Mozambican Transport and Communications Minister, announced that Mozambique’s air space was being liberalized. Just two months before, his deputy Manuela Rebelo had stated that the liberalization of Mozambique’s air space had to wait until LAM could “receive new equipment as it is currently unable to withstand competition.” But Zucula insisted that the two new planes now satisfied this criterion and that LAM was strong enough to compete in the market. But this now is very much in question.
Reliable, safe, and inexpensive air transportation is essential for Africa’s economic development by enhancing trade relations, helping to cultivate personal ties, and promoting tourism. Distances in Africa are vast, road infrastructure often poor, and rail infrastructure spotty to largely non-existent. Air travel still is the domain of a privileged few in most African countries which has a negative impact on the mobility and productivity of their populations.
On a trip to Mozambique in 2012 I had the option of a bus ride of over 48 hours on partly unpaved roads or an expensive two-hour plane ride on LAM from Maputo to Nampula–and back to Maputo. My decision was quick and easy, and the credit card took care of the rest. But for the middle class in Mozambique, this would not have been a likely choice as the ticket was expensive even by Western standards. The flights were highly uneventful–on-time departures, professional service, perfect take-offs and landings. But then I had no idea how well the pilots were prepared for emergency situations and how well the plane was maintained.
Regardless of the cause of this plane crash, airplane safety standards in many African countries are still not up to acceptable standards, and even though the cause of the crash has not been determined at this writing this crash may have “cast fresh doubts over Africa’s aviation safety record.” But many African countries have made great efforts to improve the safety of their air transportation systems. And the US government has tried to improve the air transportation infrastructure in a number of African countries through its “Safe Skies for Africa” program, launched by President Clinton.
Most African airlines are still not ready to be exposed to competitive pressures, including competitive pricing which is a prerequisite for developing a mass market. This is why the 2012 launch of Fastjet, the first African budget carrier with a hub in Dar es Salaam and Western capital support, is a real opportunity for Africa.
Unfortunately, the crash of LAM 470 creates a setback, in terms of demonstrating a sustained safety record in Africa, in terms of capacity to raise capital for new and innovative airlines, and in terms of developing a market for airline seats, both domestic and international. LAM always could boast an impeccable safety record. This has changed now, with potentially serious consequences for the viability of LAM and for air transportation in Africa. This is why it is perhaps a blessing in disguise that this accident went largely unnoticed in the Western world.
Update 12/22/13: The preliminary investigation indicates that the pilot locked himself into the cockpit when the co-pilot had temporarily stepped out and intentionally crashed the plane. While this may point to a problem with pilot screening and training, this does not change the basic thrust of my argument.