Fastjet clears the path for African aviation

Despite being a low-cost airline in an untapped market, growth for Fastjet “hasn’t been as dramatic as we had hoped,” admits chief commercial officer Richard Bodin.

Operating in Africa has many challenges, Bodin acknowledges, including a protectionist attitude towards flag carriers and stifling bureaucracy. “We encounter varying degrees of corruption,” he adds.

Speaking at the World Low Cost Airlines Congress in London yesterday (September 17), Bodin explained another hindrance to its operation has been that Fastjet was never able to use the LCC “cookie cutter” approach favoured by the likes of Southwest or easyJet – the African market differs too much from that of the US or Europe.

For example, Africa’s internet and credit card penetration are just 10 per cent and broadband is merely an “aspiration”. However, mobile technology is popular in Africa and 30 per cent of Fastjet’s bookings are made using cellphones.

“We encountered a tidal wave of scepticism when we first launched,” Bodin admits. While some were dubious about the sustainability of the carrier’s low fares, inexperienced customers grappled with limited baggage allowances. Bodin explains that passengers turned up with bag upon bag of everything but the kitchen sink.

Yet, once passengers adjusted to the concept of flying, it started to revolutionise national transport. People who had once spent two or three days travelling by bus could reach their destination in a matter of hours for much the same cost.

Despite Fastjet not hitting its initial targets, Bodin assures that its on-time performance is strong and that it’s growing in a “pleasing way”. “Although, there are some doors we’re banging on, which stay resolutely closed,” he says.

Yet, other doors are opening. For example, Fastjet is now working with the government to develop infrastructure that will allow its commercial aircraft to reach new areas, such as key business destinations.

Additionally, Fastjet will start flights between Dar es Salaam and Entebbe from September 25 and launch a new Zambian base in a matter of months.

Africa has a population of over one billion people and in most areas there is now both political and economic stability, with money trickling down to the masses. According to Bodin, this has led to “increased middle-class expenditure and they want to travel”.

While the path Fastjet is on will be rocky, it is slowly clearing the way not only for itself but also for other African carriers.

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