4 Reasons Why Flights Into Africa Are So Expensive – FAQ Fridays

Welcome to another edition of Travelstart’s FAQ Fridays with me, Nick Paul. Last week Dave Roberts asked us a question:

“Hi Nick, why are African flights so expensive in comparison to Europe?” This has sparked us to make a video about why flights in Africa are so expensive.

Don’t forget to ask your questions in the comments below and we may make them into a video. Click here to subscribe to our YouTube channel: http://bit.ly/1kaNR6q

Video Transcription

There are a number of factors and it is a rather prickly issue. I will try breaking it down and hopefully not offending too many governments around Africa.

Here are the factors involved:

Low Demand

This is one of the biggest factors. Africa has 12% of the world’s population, but only 1% of the world’s air traffic. The demand is therefore lower in terms of passenger numbers, which for airlines is not a good thing.

This is evident with a number of routes, for example Cape Town to Windhoek and Cape Town to Maputo, which were recently canceled by certain airlines. These routes were not in demand and profits were not high enough, so the route had to be cancelled.

Low demand also drives up prices a lot. The airlines will therefore use smaller aircrafts on low demand routes as it will cost them less to operate a smaller aircraft for a smaller number of passengers. But when you divide that cost up amongst the passengers, they end up paying more.

This is often why routes such as Cape Town to Kimberly or Cape Town to George cost a fair amount of money, as they are using smaller aircrafts. The cost to operate that aircraft is less for the airline when divided amongst the smaller number of people, it is higher for the individual.

Poor Infrastructure

Infrastructure in Africa is pretty poor on the most part. There are very few good roads, very few good railways; so flying is the only option. However, getting the fuel and parts for the aircraft to certain places in Africa is often very difficult and very expensive. This drives up operating costs for airlines.

A lot of airlines within Africa do not have a lot of money to start off with when they launch and they use old aircrafts that are often 3rd or 4th hand. These planes are not particularly fuel efficient, because they use old technology, and with the fuel prices going up it is very difficult for airlines to operate these planes at a profit. This drives up the price of tickets.

Middle Eastern and EU airlines can often therefore dominate within Africa. You often find it’s cheaper to fly with Emirates into certain parts of Africa via Dubai, or Air France to certain parts of West Africa.

This is because Air France and Emirates fly to these airports and a lot the African airlines don’t, and Air France/Emirates has a massive economy of scale due to their other flight routes making large amounts of profit. They can therefore be much more competitive in Africa than most local airlines.

Bad Politics

Another big factor is bad politics, many governments do not have bilateral agreements with their neighbors and you will notice that even within parts of Africa the national carriers or the largest airlines don’t even fly to all the neighbors around them.

Finances are often a real issue. National carriers are often the only airlines that can afford to make a loss. In the 2013 financial year Kenya Airways and SAA recently lost around roughly 100 million dollars each. Only government owned companies can ‘afford’ to lose that kind of money and still keep a company going.  Private airlines on the other hand would go bust left, right and center.

In some cases thought, state owned airlines can’t handle the pressure. Recently we saw Air Tanzania, Air Malawi, Air Nigeria and Ghana International Airlines all going bust. These are national carriers, all with a government stake in them. But they couldn’t afford to keep them going.


Africa is known to have a high level of corruption in certain countries. What you start to see in certain cases is that state or a private airlines starting to dominate the airline industry within each country and have a monopoly within certain routes. This has a bad affect on smaller airlines.

Take 1Time for example: just before they went bust they operated flights between Johannesburg and Maputo, and complained that it was impossible to be profitable on those routes because the government in Mozambique was refusing to give them allocation for more seats and they were not getting good landing slots. The good landing slots would have meant that they could have served the business market between South Africa and Mozambique. 1Time claimed that the good landing slots were only given to the National Carriers LAM and SAA. This sort of pattern is repeated all over certain parts of Africa; where you have one or two airlines dominating a route, making it very difficult for smaller private airlines to compete.

I hope that this answered Dave’s question, if you have any other questions please ask them in the comments below. Next week we might make it into a video.

Don’t forget to subscribe to our channel.


Our Readers Comments

  1. American Airlines offers a world class experience to each of its clients with their state-of-the-art interiors, comfortable travel, two hot meals, drinks, snacks, live TV streaming, multiple movies, access to free Wi-Fi and a wholesome other facilities!

  2. I totally disagree with you sir on a few points. First of all, Africa does not have 12% of the worlds population. I don’t know where you obtained that figure from. Secondly, the demand for travel is not simply “low” because of a lack of desire to travel but because of huge tariffs the stakeholders have placed upon the various machineries and systems involved in the aviation process. Just like in many spheres of economic activity, It’s the same principle used by the global economic infrastructure that the western corporations have used to keep Africa and Africans economically stagnated.

  3. Having just watched your explanation on why flights into Africa are so expensive can you please extrapolate this explanation to cover why flights between East London and Cape Town are so expensive on all carriers in comparison to other destinations within the country? I fly this rout often and flights are nearly always full?

    • Hi Dave,

      Thanks for contacting us.

      As this is not such a popular route compared to other routes like OR Tambo – Cape Town or Durban – OR Tambo etc, not as many airlines operate this route also making it more expensive.

  4. The article makes a lot of valid points. Why do you pay these exorbitant fares on regional / inter African flights in particular? In short, because you are dealing with state run, or state interference airlines, airports etc. They are all grossly inefficient and worse, there is quite a bit of evidence that they collude. They charge what they do because they can, with no heed to killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Let’s take a great example on a route that is not “obscure” with one flight a week etc. That is SA to Mauritius. I watch these fares like a hawk because I do the trip several times a year. There is a significant traffic between the two with 3 airlines operating, SAA. Air Mauritius, and BA (Comair). The flights are frequent, sometimes as many as 4 a day if you count all the airlines and the fact that Air Mauritius does CPT and DBN direct as well. SAA often flies a full A340. The average cost of that fare has gone up over 36% in the last 12 months despite the fact that jet fuel has been stable (not counting the recent fall in the oil price) and the relevant local currencies have not fallen against the US$. The price of the flight is twice per mile that the same airlines would charge to fly from their home airports to London. Moreover, the distance means they can return the same day. SAA and Air Mauritius charge almost identical fares and advertise themselves as code share partners. A meaningless distinction to the traveller, but a good clue they are “cosy.” BA was better value but seem to have just “joined the party” over the past year or so. The average return fare is R 6500 plus which rises to double that in the “season.” Are they using this route to subsidise others which are unprofitable? Probably. What is for sure is the individual traveller is subsidising the tour operators who pay way less per seat. Then of course there are the usual opaque so-called taxes. Even if you have a reward ticket you pay around 50% of the full fare. Outrageous. What is needed is concerted action by interested parties such as business associations and preferably a full investigation by the likes of a competition commission (assuming of course they can investigate state companies.) Otherwise we will continue to get mugged.

  5. Hi, nice to find a blog with answers! I used to book a lot with travelstart when I was flying CapeTown-JHB-Sydney-Wellington on SAA codesharing Qantas – thanks for the service. One thing I found (which Ken asked ealier and which I don’t think was answered) was that return flights booked from SA are much cheaper than the (almost) identical flights booked from abroad. So if I fly SA-NZ-SA it is cheaper than NZ-SA-NZ, even though the flight numbers are identical. It hurts me in my Rands pocket because I still fly reqularly and pay with my ABSA credit card.

    • Hi Nigel! Yes this is most certainly true. The reason is because of our Rand and the earning potential of South African residents. Typically we have a lot less money than overseas tourists. The “true” rate is the one for foreigners flying to South Africa, South Africans get a discounted rate for travelling from here overseas. Often these discounted rates are offered to ensure that the plane is full for flights to/from South Africa, in essence, even selling a seat at a loss is better than getting no cash at all. So, airlines try to get as much out of the well-paid foreign travellers as they can and then fill up the empty spots with our South African bums. Hope this makes sense!

  6. Hi Nick,
    Me again,I notice nobody cares about our old people, Why cant airways give senior citizens proper discounts on flights, or hotels. We tried to ask many airways etc. but up to today not one has replied

  7. Nick I agree with your comments regarding cost of airfares into Africa. I worked for three years in Luanda Angola and the cost of that airfare was almost on par with the cost of an airfare to London! This was SAA flying the biggest and latest aircraft? These flights were always fully booked and we would do a return every two months. I worked in Ethiopia and the company would book us with Ethiopian airlines. The scariest landings I ever experienced, (including my military career.)We would have a great take off and flight in what were very old jet aircraft, on landing the pilot would drop the plane onto the runway which notwithstanding the fact that you were secured by a seat belt would levitate the traveller by about a hundred millimetres off the seat! We could never guarantee landing at Addis Abbaba on time as in flight the pilot would get instructions to zig zag to airports in Zambia, Zimbabwe and any other airport roughly enroute to or from Addis Abbaba! It was a righteous air taxi service if ever I saw one. Working in Namibia at Rosh Pina we would need to take single or twin prop engine flights from Rosh Pina to Windhoek and then SAA form there on. I have to say that all these Namibian Airline pilots, (All young Germans,) were some of the best pilots that I ever flew with.

  8. i disagree entirely trade between SA and the rest of Africa has risen by over 100 % i have been trading in Africa for he last 40 years the exorbitant prices are not justifiable please avoid the standard excuse of bad politics and corruption as an excuse our own situation is no shining light THE INCOMPETENCE AND CORRRUPTION OF OUR OWN INFRASTRUCTURE IS TO MY MIND THE MAIN CAUSE OF THE DISCREPENCY IN AIR FARES

  9. I find the aiport taxes are a serious ripoff.
    It is unbelievable when you see the airport taxes charged for flights. Sometimes they are half the flight costs.
    I agree ACSA has far too much control over pricing with their high fees. The price of air travel should be much lower, but only if they drop their charges.

  10. In SA, ACSA has the monopoly. It unscrupously raises airport taxes due to its parastatle status which in turn increases the cost of tickets to Africa. National Airlines run by the Goverments are a total disaster due to corrupt goverment officials and their appointed management official divert tenders and funds for their personal benefits. Africa has greedy goverments officials. They only understand one thing, is to selfishly enrich themselves. Africa has so much to offer to the world. Goverment officials scounder tax revenues. Hence no proper infra structural development. Hence no one wants to investt(FDI). Hence unemployed and uneducated poor population that are unemployable. Goverments keep the population on oil rag by giving grants. Just enough money to sustain themselves. They provide poorest of education with no books. By doing this the corrupt goverments remain in power at the cost of human dignity.

  11. Greetings,
    The reason there is such low demand in the first place is because of the higher prices. Lower the prices and you will full the planes. Check out SE Asia and specifically AirAsia. They are always full because they are so cheap. Even the low income earners are able to fly. And you talk about corruption? Come to SE Asia then you will learn what corruption is. Politics? Just look at Thailand for example never mind Cambodia etc. If it works in SE Asia why can’t it work in Africa. Greed maybe?

  12. Hi Nick
    I am so glad to got this mail. Question? If i need to fly to George from Cape Town and now want to proceed to Port Elizabeth, WHY!!!! do i have to fly back to Cape Town And connect to a flight to Port Elizabeth?(at my cost) Why could i not proceed on another smaller aircraft from George to Port Elizabeth? We in Cape Town feel it is unfair! The other airlines (which you describe as smaller than SAA) have no right to fly on SAA’s route,For a smaller aircraft (Pay more) Have a rough flight in bad weather. This does not make sense to me at all! From Cape Town I can only fly with SAA to get to the eastern areas (what is this!!!!!!) No trains from Cape Town to the eastern areas. Can not trust buses on the road to the eastern Cape!!!!! What happened to the days that a flight would leave Cape Town early morning proceed to George ,proceed to Port Elizabeth, proceed to East London with one aircraft (perhaps a 737-400) and please don’t tell me thy can not land there! Would like to hear from you!

    • Hi Dougi, excellent question! It’s one I hear quote regularly. I don’t have a definite answer for you, but from my understanding, these flights aren’t popular enough at the cost they are to operate. Remember that each time you’re taking off or landing, the airline is paying fees to the airports involved, also with each take-off a lot of fuel is burnt so for short flights which are generally cheaper than long flights, it can add quite a large % increase onto the fare. In days gone by, fuel prices were very cheap, the old airports didn’t cost as much to operate and ACSA didn’t have big bills to pay for the expensive renovations they did for the world cup.

      That being said – I’ve no doubt that competition on these routes, if possible, would be good for prices.

  13. Very well researched I must say. It is unfortunately quite true in possibly all aspects!

  14. Corruption must be the reason why only SAA and Air Mauritius offer flights to Mauritius. Latest priced for Air Mauritius up to 32000 Rand for a 4 hour flight. Anybody paying that price must be mad. You can fly around the world for that price.

  15. Just a thought from an ordinary layman … do you think ‘low demand’ is there because it’s so expensive to fly into Africa? I so would rather go into Africa but often it’s cheaper to go to Thailand, etc?

    • Hi Louise, definitely. The problem is it’s a vicious circle, low demand makes prices high, high prices make demand low. Several airlines have tried to break this trend in the past, take for example Virgin, they brought Virgin Nigeria to Africa and operated a number of routes, such as the one to Johannesburg from Lagos, flight prices were dirt cheap from well under R4000 for a round trip ticket. But even they couldn’t keep afloat in this difficult market and with them shutting down the lowest prices quickly were back at around the R6000 mark.

  16. Why are return flights less expensive in many cases than one way?, and why are return flights booked from SA half the price of the same flight booked from abroad?

  17. I agree with your comments they make sense but you omitted to include the high Airport / Government Tax which is breathtakingly STUPID because it ultimately reduces by ± half the actual numbers of visitors to a country. Zimbabwe’s Airport Tax is so high and it is logical that they would double their visitors if there was NO airport Tax.

  18. I do not agree with you on quite a lot of points. First ACSA has the Monopoly and they load airport taxes. Look at JHB Airport – one of the most dear airports in the world. Also the loading to keep the DCA/CAA afloat. I agree that politics have greet impact on the industry but slots can only be obtain if yo give something in return. My opinion is that the monopoly of ACSA which is a parastatle and corruption as well as corrupt use of power is at the root of the high costs. Also look at the Durban airport – KZN never needed a white elephant like that. The old one was up-graded – but a new one had to be build – the studies done showed that the old one was more than sufficient to handle the traffic flow. Just I view.

    • Santie, I think this is true what you’re saying here. Though these high taxes by the airports don’t just apply to intra-African flights but to international flights as well, yet you’re still able to get flight specials from time to time to Europe for under R6000, but flights into Africa can easily be double that price to certain destinations. One thing is for sure: there are many factors at play in determining these prices.

Have something to say...