Delta putting more of Africa on its map

Even as Delta Air lines trims its work force and cuts flight schedules in the face of recession, it continues to add new routes to a part of the world its top rivals largely ignore — Africa.

Atlanta-based Delta is the only U.S. airline flying its own planes to the continent, although some others sell seats on foreign carriers' flights. Delta executives are convinced the airline's Atlanta hub is geographically well-suited to offer an alternative to flights connecting through Europe.

Other airlines' hubs in Dallas or Denver, said executive vice president Glen Hauenstein, are "great hubs for different geographies, but not great hubs for Africa."

Since launching flights to Africa three years ago, Delta has put seven African nations on its route map and invested nearly $1 billion in service to the continent. This summer it's adding several more.

On June 2 The airline will begin flying between Atlanta and Nairobi, Kenya via Dakar, Senegal. Delta originally planned to launch Nairobi flights in 2008 from New York, but it delayed the launch and moved the route to Atlanta.

The new route "really opens up Africa a little bit more," said Romeo Rwambaisire, chairman of the East Africa America Business Council. "It helps the businesses that want to start working in East Africa, where it's an emerging market."

Delta will also launch Atlanta-Cape Town, South Africa flights via Dakar and nonstop flights from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa, on June 1. It has had one-stop service to Johannesburg.

From New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, Delta will launch flights to Monrovia, Liberia, and Abuja, Nigeria, via Dakar this month.

In September, Delta plans to launch flights from Atlanta to Luanda, Angola, and Malabo, Equatorial Guinea via Sal, Cape Verde, pending government approvals.

The Africa flights have been part of a broader international push at Delta, which in the middle of the decade found itself behind major rivals in the proportion of its business supplied by higher-margin international travel.

But the expansion left it in a difficult spot as the global recession dampened travel, particularly on flights between financial capitals such as New York and London.

Delta previously announced it would cut its total flight capacity by 6 percent to 8 percent this year, and said it would reduce international flight capacity by another 10 percent starting in September, mainly in weak trans-Atlantic and -Pacific networks.

Delta has also adjusted its Africa plans, shifting its Abuja and Monrovia flights to JFK from Atlanta and delaying launch of the Angola and Equatorial Guinea routes due to waits for government approvals.

Starting operations in a new country is challenging, Hauenstein said. "Every country has its own attributes that make it unique," he said. The government approval process in other countries can be long and unpredictable.

Delta executives see Africa as underserved by airlines and believe that flying more direct routes from the United States could give it an advantage over longer connecting routes on foreign. On the Atlanta-Johannesburg flight, for example, travelers can save an average of six hours in each direction, according to Delta.

Delta's new Africa routes could draw vacationers and African-born U.S. residents who want to visit friends and relatives, as well as business travelers, particularly those in the petroleum and mining industries.

Rwambaisire also expects church missions to use the new flights. Hauenstein expects Delta will draw about 40 percent of its revenue from business travelers and 60 percent from leisure travelers on the Nairobi flight, for example.

"Certainly there's been a lot of economic turmoil across the globe, but Africa is one of the few regions that's still growing economically, even through this recession," Hauenstein said. Africa has a "relatively small economy and it's developing quite rapidly."

He hopes the routes will "eventually be profitable," though "in these stressed economic times we're looking to get there quicker rather than later."