FORBES 04 MAR 2020
Sky Navigator, a South Sudanese virtual airline that launched operations in 2019, has laid out an ambitious plan to normalize air transport in its war-torn home nation.
The company is locally owned but relies on chartering aircraft from foreign partners due to the limited capabilities of the South Sudan Civil Aviation Authority, which lacks the ability to issue Air Operator’s Certificates (AOCs) and has ceded control of its airspace to Sudan since the two countries separated in 2011.
A pair of 12-seater Cessna Caravans is currently operated by the airline under short-term contracts with Horn Aviation of Kenya and Fly Zanzibar of Tanzania.
But managing director Cosmos Gombura is aiming to replace these units with five of Sky Navigator’s own Caravans this year – three on long-term leases and two purchased outright – as well as pressing the regulator to begin issuing local operating licenses as soon as possible.
“[At the moment] if we want to purchase an aircraft I have to choose between Kenya or Uganda or Tanzania to register it there,” he told me. “So the prize of holding the aircraft gets taken away from South Sudan and goes to another country.
“Most of the agreements that we look at right now are getting away from this partnership kind of arrangement and having the AOC directly under our control.”
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Management are also considering switching one or two of the upcoming Caravans to Czech-made Let L-410 Turbolets, which have a larger capacity of 19 seats.
Sky Navigator launched operations as Sky Travel and Aviation in March 2019, initially running charter flights from capital city Juba to nearby cities in the south of the country such as Yei and Torit. In October, the airline launched twice weekly flights from Juba to Gulu in northern Uganda. It also operates less frequent charters across the border to the Kidepo Valley National Park.
Although Gulu flights have since been reduced to once weekly, Gombura hailed the symbolism of a South Sudanese airline operating in international markets.
“We have managed, with the breakthrough of Gulu, to show that given the opportunity we can control [our aviation sector],” he said. “There is no additional thing that we cannot do.”
At present almost all international seating capacity in South Sudan is provided by foreign carriers, mostly from the neighboring countries of Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda. South Sudan’s busiest domestic route – Juba to Wau – is meanwhile dominated by Sudanese carriers, which have been granted cabotage rights to extend their services from Khartoum.
Despite helping to raise the company’s profile, however, international flights are not a priority for 2020.
Instead, Sky Navigator plans to open two domestic routes each quarter in an effort to boost connectivity within the country, which is larger than Ukraine yet has few paved roads. Bor, Yambio and Rumbek are among the markets being targeted.
Management also want to synchronize flight times in and out of Juba so that international passengers – those traveling on foreign airlines, as well as the Gulu route – can easily connect with the domestic network.
Asked about the government’s plans to launch a state-owned flag-carrier, Gombura warned that profitability would likely be elusive in current market conditions.
“If you look regionally [across East Africa], very many airlines are not doing so well financially and their governments are spending a lot of money just to keep them alive,” he said. “I would think that a private partnership would be best, rather than them trying to do it themselves.”
South Sudan first declared its intention to launch a flag-carrier in 2012, one year after the country’s secession from Sudan.
Parliament re-affirmed the policy last year, provisionally naming the company South Sudan Airways and allocating 100 million South Sudanese pounds ($770,000) to feasibility studies. Little has been heard of the project since.