National airlines across Africa have announced sweeping flight cancellations as countries close their borders in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus. In Kenya, which had 25 confirmed cases as of Tuesday, Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe said on Monday that all international flights would be halted from Wednesday.
“All international flights are suspended effective Wednesday, March 25, 2020 at midnight with the exception of cargo flights whose crew must observe strict guidelines,” he said.
Flag carrier Kenya Airways confirmed the suspension, while its chief executive Allan Kilavuka said earlier that he would be taking an 80 per cent pay cut to help offset the economic impact of the move.
All other staff would have their wages cut by 25 to 75 per cent during the suspension, he said.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said the disruption to flight schedules would cost the airline – which is about 50 per cent state-owned – 622,000 passengers and US$125 million.
As in many other parts of the world, the number of confirmed infections in Africa has rocketed in recent days, from fewer than 200 a week ago to 2,412 and 64 deaths as of Wednesday. South Africa has reported the highest number of infections, with more than 700, followed by Egypt (402), Algeria (264) and Morocco (170).
A total of 14 African nations have reported fatalities from Covid-19, with Egypt being the worst hit with 20, followed by Algeria with 19 and Morocco with five.Besides Kenya Airways, carriers in Uganda, Tunisia, Sudan, Senegal, Rwanda, Ghana, Egypt, Sudan, Cameroon, Algeria and Nigeria have also halted their international flights.
Alexandre de Juniac, the IATA’s director general and chief executive, said the scale of the industry crisis was “much worse and far more widespread than 9/11, Sars [severe acute respiratory syndrome] or the 2008 global financial crisis”.
“Airlines are fighting for survival,” he said. “Many routes have been suspended in Africa and the Middle East and airlines have seen demand fall by as much as 60 per cent. Millions of jobs are at stake.”
Last week, South African Airways responded to a government travel ban aimed at stopping the transmission of Covid-19 by saying it would suspend all international flights until May 31.
At that time it said it would continue to operate domestic flights between Johannesburg and Cape Town, but on Wednesday reversed the decision, saying that they too would be suspended with effect from Friday.
South Africa is home to two of the continent’s busiest airports – O.R. Tambo International in Johannesburg and Cape Town International.
The IATA said the flight suspensions were likely to cost the airline industry 6 million passengers and US$1.2 billion. Meanwhile Africa’s largest and most profitable carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, has refused to bow to pressure to suspend its service to China, though has halted flights to 30 international destinations.
Its chief executive, Tewolde Gebremariam, said last month that the company would not abandon its China routes, which were among its most profitable.
He said Ethiopian Airlines had been flying to China since 1973 and it would not be ethical to suspend flights to the country “because they have a temporary problem.”