A GROWING middle class was presenting an opportunity for a regional low-cost airline for Africa, although restrictions on airlines wanting to fly to many countries on the continent - along with a lack of infrastructure, pilots and technical skills - would restrict the establishment of a low-cost carrier, said the director of sales for Africa at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, J Miguel Santos.

Boeing projected that over the next 20 years, Africa's aviation industry would require an additional 900 aircraft, 14500 pilots, and 16200 maintenance technicians.

Mr Santos's comments, made at a Boeing media briefing in Johannesburg yesterday, follow plans by diversified investment holding firm Lonrho to set up the first low-cost airline for Africa, called Fastjet. The proposed airline, announced last month, would be undertaken in conjunction with easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou and easyGroup.

Speaking at the time, Lonrho executive chairman David Lenigas said Fastjet would not operate in SA in the near future because of the highly competitive market.

Lonrho aimed to implement a similar low-cost model in Africa to the one that easyJet began in Europe, where the airline became very successful, Mr Lenigas said.

Regular, low-cost flights were instrumental in transforming Eastern Europe, he said.

However, Mr Santos yesterday said low-cost carriers in Africa would struggle to use models that had worked elsewhere, as the continent was heavily restricted in terms of where airlines could fly to.

"Open skies" policies, which aim to create a free-market environment for the airline industry, had been applied differently in various African countries, and airlines could not fly to any destination because the continent was largely not an "open skies" one, he said.

"Low-cost carriers thrive with no restrictions and an open skies environment", he said, and the African market was constrained.

Mr Santos said there needed to be political will to deal with the constraints facing the market. "African governments need to make a commitment to support the air traffic growth forecasts." This would require open skies, airport infrastructure upgrades, more pilots, and more maintenance technicians.

Mr Santos said Africa would struggle to produce and maintain the additional pilots needed over the next 20 years, and it was up to SA, Angola, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Kenya to start training new pilots to meet future demands. But governments had to "find a way to keep these people employed in Africa" as many were lured elsewhere.

Fastjet's focus would be on East, West and southern African countries in the short term - an initiative that Mr Lenigas said could "change African GDP (gross domestic product) growth".

EasyJet founder Mr Haji-Ioannou said Africa was "the aviation industry's last frontier" and was "a potential new market of millions".

hedleyn@bdfm.co.za