As Delta Air Lines’ “Spirit of Atlanta,” a Boeing Triple-7, pulled into the gate at Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport on a mid-March afternoon, the transit passengers strolling along the concourse inside resembled doctors heading into surgery. While crisis headlines flashed from TV screens, white face masks and blue latex gloves signaled the unsettling new normal at one of Africa’s major air hubs.

Originating in Atlanta, Delta’s longest flight at about 16 hours is the go-to ride to southern Africa for rich safari tourists, frontier investors, American development-aid workers, Deep South big-game hunters and Midwestern church groups uniformed in prayerful T-shirts. Those folks clamber aboard South African Airways planes in Joburg for onward journeys deep into Africa.

No more, for now. As of March 24, Delta is suspending the popular route as South Africa clamps down on passenger arrivals to block the spread of coronavirus, known officially as Covid-19.  South African Air is shutting down all international flights until the end of May. Delta is parking more than 600 aircraft until demand returns. “Our international operation will take the largest reduction, with over 80 percent of flying reduced over the next two to three months,” CEO Ed Bastian said in a memo issued March 18.

The vortex of the virus is pulling down the big hubs at Johannesburg (JNB), Nairobi (NBO) and Addis Ababa (ADD), after a decade of massive growth that marked Africa’s climb on the global aviation scene.

In the past decade, government-owned Ethiopian, Africa’s largest carrier, has doubled its destinations (to 116 outside Ethiopia and 23 inside) and tripled its aircraft as the number of passengers flown has quadrupled to about 12 million a year. A large slice of those customers are Chinese and Indian. Before the crisis, Ethiopia was flying to five cities in China and was about to add Chennai, its third destination in India.

At this moment the schedule is up in the air, way up in the air. Countries are slamming the door on passengers from China, the United States, Italy and other virus hotspots – or simply shutting runways to flights altogether. Cameroon, Djibouti, Egypt, Mali, Niger and Rwanda are among the African countries stopping passenger flights, according to a list on Ethiopian’s web site. And that’s on top of bans, restrictions or mandatory 14-day passenger quarantines in place from India to Argentina.

African airlines had lost $4.4 billion in revenue as of March 11, according to the International Air Transport Association, which is urging governments to extend emergency financial aid to the industry. The IATA says Africa’s air transport industry supports 6.2 million jobs and contributes almost $56 billion to the African economy.

“Airlines are fighting for survival,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general, on March 19. “Many routes have been suspended in Africa and the Middle East and airlines have seen demand fall by as much as 60 percent on remaining ones. Millions of jobs are at stake. Airlines need urgent government action if they are to emerge from this in a fit state to help the world recover, once Covid-19 is beaten.”

Long-haul Airbus for global reach (Mark Harkin/Creative Commons)

The IATA has laid out estimates for declines in passengers, revenue and jobs in Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa based on its “extensive spread” scenario for coronavirus.

About 700 miles south of Addis Ababa in Nairobi, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta announced March 15 that his government would bar entry to anyone coming from a country with reported coronavirus cases. “This pandemic will test us, as it is testing all countries in every corner of the world, but I do not believe it will defeat us,” he said in a speech to the nation. “If we pull together, and everybody does their part, we shall overcome its worst impacts.”

At Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the pandemic is prompting swift cutbacks. Kenya Airways has suspended flights until April 30 to destinations including Kigali, Rwanda; Zanzibar and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania; Bamako, Mali; Freetown, Sierra Leone; Luanda, Angola; and Brazzaville, Congo. Flights to Cape Town, London, Amsterdam, Dubai and the Seychelles are continuing at reduced weekly frequencies. The airline is waiving change fees for all flights and fare types for travel until June 30.

Kenya Air has been on the comeback trail, with a new non-stop flight to New York as a milestone in the strategy.

The pride of Nairobi (PSCU/The East African)

This all adds up to the first crisis to hit Africa’s major hubs since 9/11, when passenger counts were far lower. The boom in China’s investments in Africa helped to change that along with America’s tens of billions of dollars to fight AIDS, which has sent waves of health experts and contractors into African countries.

No longer the continent where flights may or may not take to the air, where drowsy bureaucrats swat away flies as bewildered passengers jostle for seats on cranky planes, the big 3 African carriers – Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways and South African – are all hustle and on-time-focused major businesses.

The Big 3 fly the latest Airbuses and Boeings tricked out with global movies and music and comfy business-class seating, while stuffing cargo for distant markets into their bellies. Each belongs to a global alliance – Star for Ethiopian and South African; Sky Team for Kenya – a major reason why in-flight standards have soared.

Across 62 cities in Africa, the on-time arrival of a big Ethiopian airliner emblazoned with “The New Spirit of Africa” is a source of pride and some awe. Africans depend on Ethiopian to travel north and south as well as east and west, and to reach other continents, mixing at the chaotic Ethiopian hub at Bole International Airport, jammed next to Addis Ababa’s southern sprawl.

Ethiopian’s fleet of 126 passenger and cargo aircraft includes 14 Airbus A350-900s and 25 Boeing 787 “Dreamliners” – making the company such an important customer for Boeing that President Barack Obama checked out the Bole flight line during his 2015 visit to Addis Ababa. Also in the fleet mix: parked and on-order Boeing 737 Max jets, a reminder of the 2019 crash a few minutes after take-off from Addis a year ago that killed 157 and grounded the Max worldwide.

South African Airways had sunk into financial peril even before the coronavirus attacked. The cash-strapped carrier has lost about 26 billion rand during the past six years, or around $1.7 billion at current rates of exchange, and endured an eight-day strike by workers in November. The airline is in talks with unions for pilots and ground crews to reduce the workforce and find a route back to financial health. The pandemic could not come at a worse time.

“It is all our responsibility, not just government, to curb further transmission of the virus,” South African Airways CEO Zuks Ramasia said in a statement. “In addition, the increasing risks to our crew of contracting the virus including the possibility of being trapped in foreign destinations as a consequence of increasing travel bans cannot be ignored.”

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