Jonny Hogg Kinshasa
Its tarmac littered with dilapidated planes, the airport in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) capital Kinshasa makes clear the dire state of aviation, even by Africa’s generally low standards.
The planes have been abandoned either as mechanical failures or by companies that went bust in a sector where a lack of proper infrastructure means pilots sometimes navigate with the help of Google Maps and satellite navigation devices like those for cars.
“Crazy things happen here. We have to stop those crazy things happening,” says Frenchman Jean-Marc Pajot, who is setting out with his new FlyCongo airline to prove that there is a market for those determined to make it work.
On the face of things, it looks like a good business.
An airline can charge $700 (R5 900) for a seat on the 1 600km flight from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi. To fly a similar distance between London and Lisbon and back can cost $100.
With economic growth forecasts of about 7 percent until 2015 thanks to its mines, the DRC’s business prospects look healthy. Air passenger numbers more than tripled in the decade to 2010, growing nearly twice as fast as they did globally.
But as in much of Africa, a spurt in growth after decades of decline has not translated into an improvement in infrastructure for anyone.
A lack of equipment that would be standard elsewhere, haphazard safety measures and challenging weather conditions make this one of the riskiest places to fly.
Last year DRC was behind only Russia with 111 flying fatalities, according to the Aviation Safety Network, but Russia had about 30 times more passenger journeys. Only the much smaller Gabon, Sierra Leone and Djibouti scored lower in terms of overall safety in a survey by the International Civil Aviation Organisation.
The background to Pajot’s FlyCongo could appear less than auspicious: it took over the assets of Hewa Bora, the DRC’s largest airline until it lost its licence last year when one of its planes crashed in a thunderstorm, killing 70 people.
Pajot has already broken up six planes for scrap to streamline the company and as a gesture of its commitment to safety. He has five planes left.
Pajot complains that airports don’t even have proper control towers: his staff go out to runways with walkie-talkie radios to give the pilots a picture of landing conditions.
Another new airline, Korongo, in which Lufthansa subsidiary SN Brussels is a partner, has put $3 million of its $12m outlay into infrastructure, even paying for airport firefighters.
Korongo has put its planes under the oversight of Belgian authorities to try to tackle the foreign safety concerns.
Korongo chief executive Christophe Allard believes operating to international standards will encourage local companies to follow suit. Korongo flies between Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Johannesburg. – Reuters