Risky Roads a Boon for Airlines in War-Ravaged South Sudan

SOUTH SUDAN (Capital Markets in Africa) – Ayaak Deng’s first-ever flight let her skip over a hundred miles of bloodily contested South Sudan and visit family she hadn’t seen in a year. It’s the kind of trip that’s revitalizing small airlines that initially struggled because of the almost four-year civil war.

The airport in the capital, Juba, has recorded about 1,000 domestic passengers a day this month, more than five times the average in the first half of 2016, before a peace deal collapsed and gunmen began targeting vehicles plying the main roads. Dangers on the highways are fuelling the popularity of flights to places such as Deng’s central hometown of Bor, even as the oil-producing East African nation battles an economic crisis and mass hunger.

 “It’s very expensive, like wasting a lot of money on a very short journey,” the 24-year-old student, whose friend paid $85 for her 30-minute flight, said in an interview at Juba’s airport. “What can I say? I will travel for the first time to Bor feeling very safe.”

The boom may put South Sudan’s more than 30 small airlines — many of which fly planes as small as 12-seat Cessnas — among the few financial beneficiaries of the conflict, which has curbed oil production, sent inflation rocketing and could cause the economy to shrink 3.5 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Famine conditions in northern counties have abated due to an emergency response, although half the nation’s 12 million people are still facing shortages.

Highway Ambushes
Ethiopian Airlines Enterprise, Kenya Airways Ltd. and Egypt Air are among the international carriers still flying to South Sudan, where the civil war that began in 2013 has claimed tens of thousands of lives and forced 4 million people from their homes.

While fighting was initially focused in the oil-producing north, groups have taken up arms in South Sudan’s southern states since July 2016 and there have been attacks on a highway to Uganda that’s a crucial trade link to the broader region. Road ambushes have killed more than 1,100 civilians nationwide this year, according to the local Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, which collates figures.

Travelers “don’t have other means” but flying, according to Kur Kuol Ajieu, general manager at Juba International Airport, who provided the flight statistics. “The fares are going up, but you don’t have a choice because there are no roads, or for others, there is insecurity,” he said in an interview. “People just sacrifice themselves and pay any amount of money.”

Tor Air Aviation started flying in 2013, using two Antonov cargo planes to transport food and other supplies to South Sudanese soldiers in the north, according to operations manager Achol Panchol.

‘Increasing Demand’
Business slowed in 2015 as the military used its own aircraft, only to get a boost last year as deepening insecurity prompted non-governmental organizations, businessmen and other civilians to prefer flights to locations such as Paloch, Malakal and Wau over road travel, she said.

“We are enjoying the increasing demands, but again it all banks on this crisis,” Panchol said. She said when the war ends, more people may have become used to air travel and “know it is safe to move around by planes.”

Twinstar Aviation Ltd., whose head office is in neighboring Kenya, hires out its Cessna Caravan and pilot to travel agencies, NGOs and government officials for as many as three flights a day. Its assistant operator in Juba, Michael Deng, said in an interview that demand has soared this year. “We are being hired to fly almost all over the country.”

The United Nations in South Sudan this month began air surveillance of the three main highways to ensure they’re safe for the movement of people and goods, the head of the mission, David Shearer, told reporters in Juba on Sept. 14.

Raymond Oyo, a businessman who travels regularly to visit family sheltering in Uganda, said that while the flight to the border town of Nimule costs more than 10 times the 1,000 South Sudanese pounds ($7.91) he paid for the bus, his experiences with harassment and robbery on the road makes it worthwhile.

“With the risk, I just put money on a flight,” he said.

Source: Bloomberg Business News

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