A sizeable number of medium- and large scale airports with a coastal or central geography in Africa claim to be the “gateway” to the Continent. In reality, very few can match the magnetism of Addis Ababa International Airport (ADD) or Cairo International Airport (CAI). They are truly the places where Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia converge in a frenetic fashion, with huge passenger numbers. To many aviation industry observers and insiders, these airports’ inexorable transformation comes out sometimes as a surprise.
In recent years, at several African airports, the passenger traffic not only grew at a faster rate but also shifted to a certain degree of sophistication. The massive Chinese contingent no longer comprises solely of male construction workers. Its ranks now also count investors, government officials, mid- and senior level professionals in consumer goods, retail, infrastructure, transport, energy and mining sectors. Couples are also coming.
Similarly African travellers are shifting to a higher calibre: they are middle-class, young entrepreneurs, millennials, women – many travelling solo; all en route to or back from a wide range of shopping-, business-, higher education destinations. Since 2004, off all the passenger segments, the intra-African has generated the healthiest growth.
New categories including cosmopolitan travellers and “modern explorers” show strong potentials with numbers coming just short of equalling those of the traditional clientele (backpackers, tourists, NGO workers).
More Customers, New Needs
With the growing influx of African travellers and other new passenger types, what are the consumer needs that ADD and CAI should meet if they are to live up to their status as leading gateways to Africa?
To find out, we met a diverse panel of travellers at ADD and asked lots of questions about how they rate this airport, the areas critical for their airport experience, among other topics.
A majority perceive that ADD perfectly reflects Ethiopia’s identity as a formidable global crossroads. They therefore want to see something that tells Ethiopia’s story or showcases Ethiopia’s uniqueness, a landmark like the Origami Museum at Tokyo Narita airport or the Faces Of Ireland exhibition at Dublin Airport.
They want to feel connected with the local culture and enjoy locally made food, drinks, events and art.
Many businesspeople shortlist quick food service, charging stations, global calling, good customer service and choice in their retail experience.
With plenty of time to kill at the airport due to lengthy layovers, the millennials we met, had a radical demand: no boredom. Their wishlists include laid-back lounges, shared spaces, free wi-fi everywhere and non-prohibitive credit card rates in shops.
Overall African airport customers want choice, quality, value, excitement and good quality service.
As I am writing this ADD does not meet these needs yet and still endures a mixed reputation. Nevertheless, it has big plans to become a continental leader as a large-scale terminal expansion project is under way. According to the development plan, in three to five years, the new terminal will offer new boarding gates and bridges, malls, lounges, recreation areas, offices and parking spaces.
With an annual capacity expected to increase from 7 to 22 million passengers, traveller spending will dramatically go up.
But users of today’s airports are no longer “travellers” or “passengers”. To most, an airport is less about sitting, waiting, travelling. Personally I have lost count of the number of new friends I made, new things I learned, unique experiences I lived and simply great shopping I did, at an airport. Or was it at an art gallery, a restaurant, a live music show, a flagship store that happened to be located in an airport.
Consumers, new “travellers”, cosmopolitan travellers in Africa, aspire to see the terminal time, not as a dead time, but rather a time for connections, discovery, excitement, memorable stories to take home, great eating and shopping.
They expect to see a sense of place and an invitation to engage in a serious relationship with all the makers of the airport experience, from the airlines, airport operator to the retailers and brands.