Struggling West African airlines seek capital, partners

By Tansa Musa and Diadie Ba YAOUNDE/DAKAR (Reuters) - Cameroon state airline Camair-Co will use $50 million from African lender Ecobank to relaunch its operations, a senior executive said, as national carriers in West Africa seek cash and strategic partners to stay afloat. Camair-Co general manager Jean Paul Nana Sandjo said it expected to receive the 30 billion CFA francs within two to three weeks. The money will be used to buy new planes and improve maintenance procedures. "We will roll out our recovery plan which includes acquiring six aircraft to add to two new (Chinese-made) MA60s," Sandjo told the state newspaper on Wednesday. "That will bring Camair-Co's fleet to 11 planes by July or August." Sandjo said maintenance on the company's fleet had to be carried out in Europe, which was costly and time consuming, causing the cancellation of flights. The company has a staff of 700 for its three aircraft, he told the newspaper. A sit-in at loss-making Senegal Airlines by employees demanding six months of salary arrears, which entered its fourth day on Thursday, underlined the challenges facing West Africa's state carriers. "This situation needs to be resolved before we go back to work," union leader Moustapha Diakhate told Reuters. The airline's management was not available to comment but flights continued as normal, airport staff said. Senegal Airlines, struggling under a debt of 45 billion CFA francs ($73 million), is seeking fresh capital and a strategic partner. The company has a staff of 229 but just one functioning aircraft left from a fleet of five when it launched in 2011. In comparison, privately owned Togolese carrier ASKY, backed by one of the continent's most successful airlines, Ethiopian Airlines, has a staff complement of 250 for its fleet of seven planes, according to its website. Experts say national carriers in the fragmented African market struggle to compete with international behemoths like Air France and Emirates which control profitable international routes. Air Cote d'Ivoire, in which Air France holds a 20 percent stake, launched in 2012 with a staff of just 290 and a fleet of six planes. The company plans to increase its fleet with the backing of the government, which owns a 65 percent stake, as it seeks to turn Abidjan into the air transport hub for West Africa. Experts say countries in the region should consolidate around a single airline such as the defunct Air Afrique, which was based in Ivory Coast and at its height in the 1990s was the flag carrier for over a dozen countries, but went under due to mismanagement and debt. "For an airline company to succeed, it needs to be at a critical scale," said Malick Tall, a Senegalese pilot with 35 years experience. "It needs a good network and a proper fleet, all of which these companies lack." ($1 = 611.5000 CFA francs)