North Africa is a lucrative market for fleet replacement

Hilka Birns/CAPE TOWN

North African airlines, large and small alike, are re-equipping their short-haul fleets as manufacturers hungrily eye what they consider a potentially lucrative market well into the new century.

Manufacturers say North African airlines have successfully arranged their own financing, with government export credit agencies offering mechanisms to support exports and backing by banks. North African carriers are acquiring aircraft using finance and operating leases and have demonstrated the financial capability to support both types of transactions.

Airbus Industrie predicts airlines in North Africa and the Middle East will acquire 620aircraft worth $50 billion until 2018. The European manufacturer recently lost out to Boeing, which won a $1.1 billion order from Royal Air Maroc (RAM). The decision to buy 20 Boeing Next Generation 737s and two Boeing 767s (either 300ERs or 400ERs) was expected as RAM operates a fleet of 33 mostly Boeing aircraft. While the US manufacturer obviously wants to keep it that way, Airbus is keen to get a foothold in the country. It is still negotiating the sale of four A321-200s to RAM.

Fleet renewals

Airbus says most Arab carriers chose Airbus aircraft for their fleet renewals and the consortium won 80% of all new airliner orders placed by Arab airlines in 1999. Airbus' biggest North African customer is EgyptAir. Egypt's flag carrier is a launch customer for both the A318 and A340-600. Tunisair, with its in-service fleet of 13 A320 family aircraft, is one of the largest operators of Airbus single-aisle aircraft in the region but retains some allegiance to Boeing. Tunisian charter carrier Nouvelair also put the A320 into service last year.

Meanwhile, Boeing has sold seven 737-800s and five 737-600s to Air Algerie. Deliveries of the carrier's 737-800s began in August and will continue until 2002. EgyptAir became a 777-200 operator in 1997, and its Boeing fleet includes 747-300, 767-200 and 300, 737-200 and -500 models.

Some regional aircraft manufacturers suggest that 20-100 seat aircraft would be more suitable for North African airlines, which have tended to use larger aircraft. They argue that on some routes to the Middle East and Europe served by North African carriers, regional jets could replace bigger ones, operating more frequencies at lower costs. "The problem is that some North African flag carriers don't really care whether they are making a profit or not because they are state-subsidised. They want to be seen as having big noisy aircraft. Many don't actually serve passenger needs in terms of scheduling. A lot of education needs to be done to change this mindset," says an industry source.

Manufacturers of regional jets, which captured 80% of world-wide orders from regional airlines last year, believe that the region should provide new opportunities for regional jet sales, primarily in the longer range, higher yield niche markets, to allow regional airlines to expand into previously untapped markets. On low-yield services of less than 300nm, however, "the turboprop is still unbeatable", says John Howarth, vice president international sales at Bombardier Aerospace Regional Aircraft.

He predicts regional airline growth in Africa at an annual rate of 6% between 2000-2010 compared to 3.6% the previous decade. "Regional aircraft account for 60% of the commercial airline fleet with turboprops comprising a large part thereof." Bombardier expects to deliver 6%, or 600, aircraft to Africa of a total of 9,100 20-99 seat aircraft over the next 20 years.

Regional benefits

Embraer recently sold five ERJ-135s to Moroccan private carrier Regional Air Line, which also operates four Raytheon Beech 1900D turboprops. The manufacturer foresees impressive growth potential for commercial services served by regional jets throughout North Africa, particularly in Morocco and Algeria.

"If Algeria overcomes its internal problems there should be great potential because of new private airlines that have started operating there," an Embraer source says. One such airline is Khalifa Airways, which started scheduled operations between Algeria and France last year, with two A310-300s. By this October, Khalifa was flying five A310s. "As these airlines grow, they will open new routes and they will need regional equipment," the source predicts.

Howarth says Bombardier is campaigning to place more products in the region. Two of its out-of-production Twin Otters and two Dash 7s are used in Algeria, while 16 Twin Otters and three Dash 8-300s operate in Libya.

Source: Flight International