IN FOCUS: South Africa's business and general aviation players look to opportunities in wider African region

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South Africa has a long and proud tradition in business and general aviation and is the hub for a wider sub-Saharan African area seen as a major growth market. Most of the region's aircraft charter, management, sales and maintenance providers are based in the country. But with the sector in South Africa itself facing a squeeze - not least as a result of an impending tax on imports of new and second-hand aircraft - those companies are increasingly looking at prospects further north.

Its size, wealth and pipeline of military-trained pilots gave the country a thriving GA culture in the decades after the Second World War. As in Australia and North America, light aircraft were utterly practical tools for wealthier farmers living in remote townships and, by the 1960s, South Africa had more than 1,200 private aircraft. The country's re-opening to international commerce and high-end tourism in the 1990s led to a surge in interest in larger business jets, with ExecuJet launching its first fixed-base operation (FBO) at Johannesburg's Lanseria airport early that decade.

Johannesburg's second airport is the centre of the industry. ExecuJet has a large FBO there - it has a second in Cape Town - and Lanseria is home to a number of other operators and distributors, including National Airways (NAC), Interjet, Comair and Absolute Aviation, which offers Beechcraft aircraft throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Absolute Aviation is a relatively new company. Founder and chief executive Neil Howard took over the Beechcraft distributorship from NAC last year and his "vast territory" covers all but Mediterranean Africa - 55 countries in total. His flagship product is the King Air and although Howard admits his first 12 months has been "tough" - with five sales into South Africa and one to the Seychelles - he is confident increasing demand in Africa in the next few years could soon push his annual tally into double figures.

EMERGING MARKETS

"The real money in Africa is no longer just in South Africa," he says. "Ghana, Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania and Angola are all becoming prosperous. Even the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe are rich in minerals. Commodities is a big market and, as economies improve, so South African companies are moving into these countries in retail, mining and telecoms." In a vast region with basic road infrastructure and a patchy scheduled airline service, this means private aircraft such as the King Air play a pioneering role.

The hardy and venerable twin-engined turboprop is the "Range Rover of the skies", says Howard, thanks to its ability to take off from and land at short and remote airstrips. "The only real competitor in its field is the PC-12 and, while Pilatus have done really well here, Africa is really a twin-engine market," he says. "Some countries like Nigeria restrict single-engine operation. That makes the only other option the Piaggio [Avanti twin-pusher], but that's not an African aircraft."

Another business with its sights firmly on the wider continent is ExecuJet. In September, it fully opens its first African FBO outside South Africa - in Lagos, Nigeria, Africa's second biggest economy. The facility, owned with a local partner and including a 9,000m2 (96,800ft2) hangar, "will be a replica" of its Cape Town operation, opened four years ago, says Ettore Poggi, managing director of ExecuJet Africa. ExecuJet, which is accredited by Bombardier, Dassault, Gulfstream and Hawker Beechcraft among others, has 200 mostly African-registered aircraft on a maintenance agreement, and 51 under management, from a PC-12 to Bombardier Global Express, most of them available for charter. Increasing aircraft deliveries into Africa's boom markets, including Nigeria and Angola, meant it made sense to expand its African footprint further north. "We will consolidate Lagos and then see what opportunities come up after that," he says.

However, Poggi sounds a note of caution. The crisis in the eurozone has hit South Africa's tourism industry and a major export market for everything from diamonds to wine, and the country is only slowly recovering from a deep downturn after 2008, he says.

Leon Dillman, chief executive of the Commercial Aviation Association of Southern Africa (CAASA), which represents the GA industry, echoes some of that pessimism. The cost of training new pilots and a government seen as regarding private aviation as an indulgence are among the association's biggest worries. CAASA is leading the fight against the planned 7% excise duty on fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, arguing that the tax will have a negligible effect on government revenues because it will simply deter owners from buying equipment. In today's South Africa, general aviation may still be an important part of the transport system, but some of the aura it had in the past may have been lost.