i don’t get it

November 8, 2007

IRIN reports :

The Civil Aviation Agency banned Congolese airlines from using Antonov planes on 9 October after 50 people were killed five days earlier when an Antonov crashed shortly after take-off from Kinshasa, the capital of neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

Notice that the ban is on Antonov planes. Reports in the congolese press actually say it’s only about pessenger planes.

here is the first effect:

“Life for us and our families was already hard enough,” said Just Ndouli, who made a living from the meat trade between northern parts of Congo and the capital, Brazzaville.

“Twice a week, I received parcels worth 100,000 CFA [US$218]; so I was easily able to make ends meet,” he explained.

“I bet those who are on the coast will also be suffering because they made a living in the same way,” added Claver Ndouali.

Business is also bad for Jules Ekoumou. “I’m stuck at home now because I don’t know what else to do. I used to take care of my family with a small business, working with a friend in Impfondo, in the northern Likouala province,” he said.

The ban however appears to be quite popular in some circles (if you read french, check the comments on the congopage article linked above). Of course, those circles are mostly urban middle to upper class if not living abroad. Somehow I suspect people who have not yet been affected support it too.
The state of aviation in Africa is a sad and complicated issue and here’s why I think the decision is between bad and stupid:

– Congo-Brazzaville has basically no road network and a small and problematic railway. So air travel is an important link between the two biggest cities and the only one for some rural areas.
– There are price controls in Congo-Brazzaville for a lot of products. It’s often prices simply set by the government although for air travel I suspect it’s only a price celling. And the government is known to be very reluctant to ever raise those prices (the price of bread has been raised twice in 20 years, and once it was after a major devaluation).
– There are weird high tarrifs in Congo-Brazzaville. I don’t know for sure if it’s the case for planes but there’s a 100% tarrif on automobile imports. It falls to 50% if the vehicule is more than 10 years old (for comparison , Nigeria has a 30% tarrif and there is a HUGE smuggling activity between Lagos and Cotonou in Benin where the tarrif is 10%). The same goes for spare parts.
– The airlines are more or less owned and operated by small local investors or slightly bigger foreign (lebanese) and often transafrican groups. The national company has stopped providing its irregular and limited services 15 years ago.

So you have a country, a small relatively poor country with no transport infrastructure, with high tarrifs and set prices on goods simply banning Airlines from using cheap planes and demanding that they’re replaced by newer ones.

A few things could happen:
– some companies may invest in newer better planes and concentrate on the most profitable lines. Actually that’s already the case, Brazzaville – Pointe-Noire flights are in better planes if you fly in the most expensive companies.
– most companies would insist on a price hike. It could be sustainable for Brazzaville – Pointe-Noire and its flow of politicians, businessmen, tourists but certainly not for people who make $218 every two week operating small businesses (and that’s good revenue).
– some companies move to a country where they can make a profit.

In all those scenarios, the political class, doesn’t loose much. The better-off Congolese neither. The poor and the isolated ones definetly do.

The timing partly explains the popularity of the ban. There have been a series of crashes in neighbouring DRC and in Equatorial Guinea and the government decided to make a fast move to actually enforce rules it has established a while ago:

In September 2005, the Congolese government warned airlines that Antonovs would be banned from July 2007, but few companies have replaced their fleet with other planes.

What shocks me even more than the effects is the absence of subtility in the design of the policy. Nobody wonders why few companies have relaced their fleet and even less are willing to question the official narative for the causes of the crashes.
While those airplanes ARE old, their state of maintenance varies. And banning old, cheap airplanes is a way to not discuss the failure to enforce maintenance. In the same way, blaming age and maintenance is actually a way to avoid talking about what the agencies do about enforcing load limits which are a major cause of accidents in Africa.
And what about providing incentives to airlines to renew their fleet instead of “demanding” ? Tax exemption for those who do that investment (the planes are damn near always leased so traditionnal investment breaks wouldn’t work) ? Taking a look at the absurdity of some of the tarrifs ? Facilitating the immigration of maintenance crews ?

The saddest thing here is that contrary to its bigger neighbourg, Congo has never experienced a major crash and a better functionning government is probably the reason for that. But instead of improving what works, some people have decided to play the irrealist, self-important, spectacular card and actually penalize the folks that are already victims of their previous stupid decisions.

The pro-government Depeches de Brazzaville reports (in french) with much enthusiasm that Congo (the government ? private companies ?) has leased a 30-seater brazilian plane to operate the major Brazzaville-Pointe-Noire line that has suffered from the ban. Plans to acquire (lease) 4 other (bigger) planes to serve smaller local destination and international lines are announced.
This is hopeless.


One Response to “i don’t get it”

  1. […] to Brazzaville. The northern rural areas are dependant on air transport from Brazzaville and some recent decisions didn’t really help reduce transport costs. And guess what ? Our smart minister says […]

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