The dragon awakes: over 2.5 million flew China-Africa last year

In 2018, over 2.5 million people flew between China and Africa.  Since 2015, traffic volume has grown at a CAGR of almost 6% with around 500,000 additional passengers.

Source: OAG Schedules Analyser

Sources of this demand include:

  • $204 billion trade between China and Africa in 2018, mainly from raw materials, with China the number-one trading partner of Africa
  • 10,000-plus Chinese companies across the continent
  • 1 million-plus Chinese in Africa, and around 200,000 Africans in China
  • 800,000 Chinese tourists in 2017, especially to Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Africa and Mauritius 

Six cities in China – Beijing, Changsha, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenzhen – have service to Africa.  However, the main gateway are Guangzhou (867,000 P2P passengers), Beijing (741,000) and Shanghai (569,000).  Together, these three accounted for almost 9 in 10 of all China-Africa passengers.

Guangzhou is known as the ‘Africa capital’ of China and as such it has more non-stop routes to the continent than any other Chinese airport.  The most exotic of these is Air Madagascar’s service from Antananarivo via Reunion, a weekly rotation that almost goes back to the bygone era in aviation

Routing Airline Frequency in S19 Aircraft
Guangzhou-Addis Ababa Ethiopian 10x weekly B777-300ER; B787-8*
Guangzhou-Cairo EgyptAir Daily B777-300ER
Guangzhou-Nairobi via Bangkok Kenya Airways Daily B787-8
Guangzhou-Kigali via Mumbai Rwandair 3x weekly A330-200
Guangzhou-Antananarivo via Reunion Air Madagascar 1x weekly A340-300
Guangzhou-Nairobi via Changsha China Southern 2x weekly A330-200
Beijing-Addis Ababa Ethiopian Daily A350-900
Beijing-Algiers Air Algerie 2x weekly A330-200
Beijing-Cairo EgyptAir 3x weekly B787-8
Beijing-Johannesburg via Shenzhen Air China 3x weekly B777-300ER
Chengdu-Addis Ababa Ethiopian 4x weekly B787-8
Chengdu-Cairo Sichuan Airlines 2x weekly A330-200/300
Shanghai-Addis Ababa Ethiopian Daily A350-900
Shanghai-Mauritius Air Mauritius 3x weekly A340-300

* The B787-8 operates Ethiopian’s relatively new additional three-weekly services. These connect to the airline’s small but growing third wave at Addis Ababa, hence its smallest wide-body for now.

In January 2020, Royal Air Maroc will begin a thrice-weekly service from Casablanca to Beijing/Daxing service, the city’s brand-new airport.  Interestingly, the timings of this route will result in relatively few two-way connections, so it will be disproportionately reliant on P2P demand.  And while Morocco’s P2P demand is growing, especially from Chinese tourism, it’s not enormous, with 108,000 in 2018. 

Also in January, South African Airways will begin Guangzhou-Johannesburg having ended Hong Kong.  This is an intriguing move given yield and passenger demand on Johannesburg-Guangzhou are half as much as to nearby Hong Kong, albeit without a direct competitor. And, at the same time, it is a very long sector, with a block time of over 13 hours. 

Presently, there are only 14 non-change routes between China and Africa. This is primarily because most city-pairs are thin and yields are typically not strong, both compounded by long distances. So the role of strong hubs. Indeed, in 2018, 8 in 10 passengers – over 2 million – connected somewhere between Africa and China.

It is here that Ethiopian Airlines comes into its own from both the enormous power of its Addis Ababa hub and its growing capacity and routes to the Asian powerhouse. Last year, Ethiopian carried 589,000 – or 29% – of all connecting passengers between Africa and China.  By comparison, fellow hub airline, Kenya Airways, transported fewer than 63,000.  This emphasises not only Kenya Airways’ ongoing challenges, but also its different geographic focus and position. Recently, Ethiopian stated that it wishes to increase frequencies to China to 50 per week by year-end 2020.  This, it says, would allow it to offer a double-daily service to Beijing, among others increases.   

Airline Hub Est. China-Africa passengers via their hub in 2018 Est. % of total connecting passengers (of the ~2m)
Ethiopian Addis Ababa 589,000 29%
Emirates Dubai 423,000 21%
Qatar Doha 277,000 14%
Etihad Abu Dhabi 94,000 5%
Air France Paris/CDG 77,000 4%

Source: OAG Traffic Analyser.

Egypt is the leading African country from China, with 370,000 P2P passengers. Chinese tourism is the key driver of this demand, which grows strongly YOY. The importance of Egypt is clearly highlighted in the table of top-10 routes. South Africa (259,000 P2P) and Nigeria (201,000) are the second and third largest countries.

Guangzhou is responsible for two-thirds of Nigeria’s demand. Due in part to the distance between Nigeria and China – over 7,000 miles – and multiple major hubs en route, there are no non-stop or direct services between the two.  However, Nigeria’s Air Peace is reportedly interested in beginning Lagos-Guangzhou, among a myriad of other long-haul routes, but there are very significant questions over the wisdom of this.

Top-10 routes by est. total P2P passengers Top-10 routes by est. indirect passengers
Route Total passengers Route Indirect passengers  
Cairo-Guangzhou 147,000 Guangzhou-Lagos 86,000  
Algiers-Beijing 105,000 Algiers-Beijing 67,000  
Guangzhou-Lagos 86,000 Cairo-Shanghai 62,000  
Beijing-Cairo 78,000 Cairo-Guangzhou 46,000  
Cairo-Shanghai 62,000 Johannesburg-Shanghai 38,000  
Beijing-Johannesburg 54,000 Beijing-Luanda 37,000  
Mauritius-Shanghai 48,000 Beijing-Cairo 35,000  
Addis Ababa-Shanghai 48,000 Casablanca-Shanghai 35,000  
Addis Ababa-Guangzhou 47,000 Beijing-Johannesburg 33,000  
Guangzhou-Nairobi 43,000 Algiers-Shanghai 29,000  

Source: OAG Traffic Analyser.

The China-Africa dragon has awoken.  And given increasing trade between the two and 31 million additional Chinese tourists worldwide in 2018 versus 2017, it won’t be too long until 3 million passengers is reached.  In three years’ time, what new routes will operate?  


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