Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is one of the biggest cities in Africa, with an estimated population larger than London and a skyline that peers over the wide, snaking Congo River. But if a traveler wants to go from there to Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital and Africa’s largest metropolis, it’s impossible to fly nonstop. Roughly 1,100 miles separate the two megacities—about the same distance as New York to Minneapolis. But there are no direct flights. Instead, a traveler will need to change planes at least once and pay a minimum of $1,200. There’s a good chance the journey will take well more than 12 hours.
Across Africa, the situation is similar. Commercial flights are infrequent, expensive, and circuitous. To get from one country to another, an African traveler may have to go thousands of miles out of their way and transfer through the Middle East or Europe.
The continent is home to roughly 12 percent of the world’s population and will be responsible for most of the global population growth over the next three decades. But it accounts for just 1 percent of the world’s air travel market. The flights that do exist are often more expensive than routes of similar duration elsewhere in the world.
“Time-wise, it can be a bit frustrating,” said Sarah, 29, an American NGO worker living in Kampala, Uganda, who asked that her last name not be published. Sarah routinely travels around the continent for work and vacation. This Thanksgiving, she’s flying to see friends in Bujumbura, the lakeside capital of Burundi, 450 miles away. The distance is roughly the same as Boston to Washington, D.C. But instead of a short 90-minute hop, Sarah will need to fly first to Kenya, change planes, then make another stopover in Rwanda. The trip will cost her more than $600 and take more than six hours; other flights that day would have taken more like 10 hours.
Why is it so difficult to fly around Africa? Blame a combination of protectionist legal barriers and regulatory hurdles, mixed with inadequate infrastructure, high taxes, and stubborn nationalism. Airlines trying to launch a new route between African nations need to first secure permission from both countries, which can be a lengthy and expensive prospect that may or may not involve significant bribes. Forty-four African nations signed on to a 1999 agreement promising to promote competitive markets and remove regulatory barriers. But to date, few have actually implemented the plan, known as the Yamoussoukro Decision (named after the Côte d’Ivoire capital in which it was reached).