Coronavirus has been ‘very devastating’ for many African airlines

Without solid state support while grappling with how to comply with new safety guidelines, Uganda Airlines ‘may as well go home,’ said Francis Babu, a former government minister. (AP)
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Updated 03 June 2020

Coronavirus has been ‘very devastating’ for many African airlines

  • African airlines had been piling on debt long before the pandemic but government bailouts allowed them to limp on for years
  • In some cases, local airlines are so important for pan-African business on a vast continent with historically poor infrastructure

KAMPALA, Uganda: A “new baby” was born with the revival of Uganda Airlines, the country’s president announced last year. But now its four new jets sit idle, business suspended indefinitely because of coronavirus-related travel restrictions.
Questions are swirling in Africa and elsewhere over the financial wisdom of sustaining prestige carriers that often have a tiny share of an aviation market that sees no recovery in sight.
African airlines had been piling on debt long before the pandemic but government bailouts allowed them to limp on for years. Now, as sub-Saharan Africa faces its first recession in a quarter-century, some airlines will find it harder to survive. That’s despite growing global interest in the continent of 1.3 billion people.
In some cases, local airlines are so important for pan-African business on a vast continent with historically poor infrastructure that their collapse would cripple speedy travel. In other cases, however, airlines have been seen as vanity projects for states that can hardly afford to support them.
Nowel Ngala, commercial director of Asky Airlines — a carrier launched in 2010 by a group of regional banks hoping to solve transport difficulties in central and West Africa — said the pandemic has been “very devastating” to the company, whose nine aircraft are grounded. Revenue losses are substantial and there have been “serious impacts in terms of maintaining” the planes for whenever business resumes.
The International Air Transport Association in April warned that African airlines could lose $6 billion in passenger revenue compared to last year, and half of the region’s 6 million jobs in aviation and related industries could be lost. Air traffic this year is expected to fall by half, it said.
“These estimates are based on a scenario of severe travel restrictions lasting for three months, with a gradual lifting of restrictions in domestic markets, followed by regional and intercontinental,” the IATA said.
That three-month period is already nearing an end, with no return to normal air travel in sight.
Even Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s only profitable airline in recent years, has signaled distress, citing revenue losses of up to $550 million between January and April. As a survival measure, the airline has thrown itself into cargo operations, including shipping medical supplies across Africa and to other continents.
“Some 22 of our passenger aircraft have been converted to cargo,” CEO Tewolde Gebremariam told The Associated Press. “Once the pandemic is brought under control and passenger flights resume, we will configure them back into their original passenger cabin configurations.”
If the crisis lingers, he said, “we will discuss with our owner, the Ethiopian government, on how to manage the situation going forward, and we may also discuss with our creditor banks for liquidity loans.”
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, has become Africa’s gateway to Gulf nations and beyond. Now it is a key hub for shipping humanitarian supplies during the pandemic.
Another major African airline, South African Airways, hasn’t been profitable since 2011 and has been under bankruptcy protection since December. Tired of issuing bailouts, the government is demanding a new business plan.
“We are now faced with the unknown post the COVID-19 pandemic and there is no precedent or certainty which can be followed in developing a new strategy,” the department of public enterprises announced on May 1, saying the airline will be restructured. Administrators aim to lay off nearly 5,000 employees to keep the airline afloat.
“Airlines that were struggling before the pandemic will likely end up filing for bankruptcy or seek bailouts,” the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa has warned, calling air transport a critical sector for the continent’s economy, along with tourism, as global ties and investment have grown.
The revived Uganda Airlines barely had the chance to get started.
Without solid support from the state while grappling with how to comply with new safety guidelines, Uganda Airlines “may as well go home,” said Francis Babu, a pilot and former government minister. The airline’s CEO and spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
In neighboring Kenya, Kenya Airways CEO Allan Kilavuka has been blunt.
“Even before this crisis we were not in a good place,” he told the Metropol television channel on May 6. The airline’s business model and market approach will need to change, he said. But asked how he sees Kenya Airways coping after the pandemic, he replied: “No one knows.”
Employees have taken pay cuts of up to 80 percent as Kenya Airways undergoes a re-nationalization process started last year to help it return to profitability. In February the airline received a government loan of nearly $5 million to overhaul its fleet’s engines.
A further cash infusion from the state is needed, Kilavuka said, “anything that you can afford.”
The company’s growing debt is one reason that Aly-Khan Satchu, a financial analyst based in Nairobi, believes that authorities will need to create another version of Kenya’s flag carrier “with a clean balance sheet.”
Kenya Airways, which depends on passenger traffic for 90 percent of its revenue, will have to pivot to cargo and reduce its network to create an agile state carrier, he said. “I appreciate it serves a national interest function but the balance sheet has now crossed a tipping point.”
In Rwanda, the government said it will increase its funding to national carrier RwandAir, whose cost-trimming includes pay cuts of up to 65 percent and the suspension of contracts with some pilots and non-essential staff until further notice.
Times are even harder for Air Zimbabwe, the one-plane national carrier of the southern African nation, saddled with debt of more than $300 million even before the pandemic. The airline said in April it was forcing dozens of employees into unpaid leave until the Boeing 767 can fly passengers again.

Gold rush at Turkish bazaar a test of trust for lowly lira

Updated 15 August 2020

Gold rush at Turkish bazaar a test of trust for lowly lira

  • As precious metal prices soar, Turks rush to buy amid economic uncertainty and a volatile currency

ISTANBUL: Hasan Ayhan followed his wife’s instructions last week and took their savings to buy gold at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar as Turks scooped up bullion worth $7 billion in a just a fortnight.

With memories of a currency crisis which rocked Turkey’s economy only two years ago fresh in his mind, the retired police officer was among those playing it safe as he queued in the city’s sprawling market, where a screen showed the gold price rise by one Turkish lira ($0.1366) in just 10 minutes.

“I think it is the best investment right now so I converted my dollars to buy gold,” the 57-year-old said. “I might withdraw my lira and buy gold with it too, but I am scared to go to the bank right now because of coronavirus.”

The day after Ayhan bought his gold on Aug. 6, the lira hit a historic low and remains skittish, laying bare concerns that Turkey’s reserves have been badly depleted by market interventions, which are showing signs of fizzling out.

Turks traditionally use gold for savings and there may be 5,000 tons of it “under mattresses,” with more added after the recent buying spree, Mehmet Ali Yildirimturk, deputy head of an Istanbul gold shops association, said.

Although bullion has never been more expensive, vendors at the Grand Bazaar said almost no one was selling their gold jewelry. There are only buyers.


  • Currency touched record lows in three volatile weeks.
  • Local holdings of hard currencies at all-time high.
  • All are buyers at Grand Bazaar, despite expensive gold.

“I’ve been chatting with hundreds of people who are thinking about selling their cars or houses to invest in gold,” vendor Gunay Gunes said.

In the last three weeks, as selling gripped the lira, local holdings of hard assets such as dollars and gold jumped $15 billion to a record of nearly $220 billion.

There is no evidence suggesting people are about to pull savings from banks, and this week the lira has hovered around 7.3 versus the dollar, although it remains among the worst emerging-market performers this year.

Demand has eased since Turks withdrew some $2 billion in hard foreign cash from their banks during a March-May period in which a lockdown was imposed and the lira hit its last low. Analysts say that if Ankara cannot boost confidence in the currency, which has fallen almost 20 percent this year, import-heavy Turkey risks inflation and even a balance of payments crisis that will worsen fallout from the coronavirus crisis.

Given foreign investors now have only a small stake in Turkish assets, they say the key for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is convincing Turks to stop turning to the perceived stability of dollars and gold.

The central bank and treasury did not immediately comment on the dollarization trend or any policy response.

Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law, said on Wednesday the lira’s competitiveness was more important than exchange rate volatility.

The central bank has effectively borrowed on local dollar liquidity to fuel foreign exchange market interventions, which are meant to stabilize the lira.

Through Turkish state banks, which together are “short” foreign exchange by $12 billion, the central bank has sold over $110 billion since last year. In turn, the bank’s gross FX buffer has fallen by nearly half this year to below $47 billion, its lowest in years.

The central bank has said its reserves naturally fluctuate in stressful periods, and the treasury says the bank intervenes at times to stabilize the currency.

But ratings agencies say Ankara should take decisive steps, such as an interest rate hike, to rebuild reserves and restore confidence. Otherwise, rising current account deficits and possible debt defaults could tarnish a solid reputation for meeting foreign obligations.

“Locals don’t want to keep Turkish lira, they’ve been dollarizing and buying gold. Turks have hardly ever done that,” said Shamaila Khan, New York-based head of EM debt strategy at AllianceBernstein, which manages $600 billion. “That is why you need proactive policies because if you get to that stage where locals are unwilling to keep their money in the bank then you’re heading to a balance of payments crisis. That’s when the alarm bells will start ringing.” 

Some banks imposed fees on withdrawals this week, while the central bank has curbed cheap credit channels it opened to ease the coronavirus fallout. Yet while lira deposits now earn more than the 8.25 percent policy rate, their real return is negative with inflation at 11.8 percent.

Traders say such backdoor tightening needs to reach 11.25 percent to stabilize the lira, which has nearly halved in value since early 2018.

Market expectations have risen for a formal rate hike that economists say would reinforce central bank independence, even while it could slow economic recovery.

Politics may stand in the way.Erdogan, whose popularity has dipped this year, holds the view that high rates cause inflation, and sacked the last central bank governor for disobedience.

He said on Monday he hoped market rates would fall further.

But firms such as System Denim, which imports materials and makes clothes for companies like Zara and Diesel, are feeling the pinch from rising costs. Owner Seref Fayat said he converted his 4 percent euro-denominated loans to lira at 10 percent. “No need to take on additional FX risk,” he said. “I pay a higher rate, but at least I can see ahead.”