Fastjet Brings High-Frequency, Low-Cost Flights To Africa

The first pan-African budget airline took to the skies in late November with a series of flights in Tanzania. Fastjet's aim is to offer a low-cost alternative to passengers accustomed to uncertain and costly air travel.

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You know, we live in a world where the distance between two points often changes. The number of miles will stay the same, of course, but the speed and ease of travel may transform the journey. And those differences can have huge economic consequences. So let's consider the challenge facing Africa, where air travel often involves pricey tickets and erratic service. A new airline, Fastjet, wants to change that, starting in Tanzania. Kenya and South Africa are the next destinations for this airline, followed by Ghana. And NPR's own frequent flier Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has today's bottom line in business.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: In the U.S., Southwest revolutionized air travel through high-frequency, low-cost flights. Fastjet's CEO Ed Winter says he's aiming for similar success in Africa.

ED WINTER: All of us in the low-cost industry owe a lot to Southwest. We're adapting it for Africa. If you look at the rest of the world, I think Africa is left as the last frontier. Travel opens up so many opportunities, and everybody else in the world has the opportunity to travel on safe, reliable, low-cost airlines. Africans don't.

QUIST-ARCTON: Winter says fares will average at about $70 to $80. But for those who book early, they could be as low as $20. Fastjet began operating flights in Tanzania in late November. It is planning to extend its networks to East, South and West Africa by the end of the year. The CEO says the rationale behind a budget airline for Africa makes perfect business sense.

WINTER: Every city in Africa has got huge distance between the other one, mountains, jungles, rivers, deserts, perhaps all of those things between each city, and very rarely a road, and almost never a railway. So aviation should be the way people move around, and what there is there is very expensive. So we thought it looks like there could be something in this.

QUIST-ARCTON: Ghana is a West African hub, and Fastjet is planning to begin flights from here later this year. At the airport in the capital, Accra, Papa Kojo Botsio was heading through immigration for a flight back to college in the U.S. He gave the imminent arrival of a budget airline the thumbs-up.

PAPA KOJO BOTSIO: I think it's a really good idea, especially compared to United States where you can move from state-to-state at such a low cost. I feel if there was something like that in Africa, it would make it easier for we Africans to explore our own continent. Yeah.

QUIST-ARCTON: His lawyer sister Maa Ruth, who was seeing him off, chimed in.

MAA RUTH: I think it's great because here, if you want to go to another African country, you have to travel to Europe or somewhere else to connect to come back into Africa. So I think continental budget airline is a wonderful idea.

QUIST-ARCTON: How to pay for the tickets could be an issue. In many African countries, including Ghana, perspective passengers carry large amounts of cash for such payments, but that won't work for a budget airline. So Fastjet's Ed Winter says they'll incorporate, among other methods, mobile phone money transfers, which are popular in Africa. And the possible pitfalls: West Africans generally don't travel light.

So what about baggage restrictions and the no-frills, no food concept, a new one on the continent? Will that fly? Winter said it did on the maiden flight in Tanzania.

WINTER: On the day, it worked a dream. People knew that they had to pay for their bag, they pay for a second bag and we just haven't had a problem. So we changed behavior already there. Above all, I think a real mantra within the low-cost model is keep it simple.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible)

QUIST-ARCTON: Fastjet should be joining the flight boarding announcements on that speaker soon. Bon Voyage - or should I say, Ghana-style, Nante Yie. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.

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