Somalia has few roads but a soaring airline industry

The happy way to fly.
The happy way to fly.
Image: Reuters/Shabele Media
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Pirates command its coast. Traffic along the country’s few pockmarked roads is often disrupted by militias and criminals. Of more than 22,000 km of roadway, only 2,608 km are paved.

And though Somalia’s war-torn capital city, Mogadishu, has made small security improvements since the terrorist group al Shabaab was forced out about two years ago, anarchy still reigns. One of the organization’s operatives managed to slam a bomb-packed vehicle into a peacekeeping convoy there on Friday, reportedly killing eight civilians. Al Shabaab claimed another life earlier last week, when it detonated an explosive in the city’s marketplace.

But in the country’s skies, high above a landscape torn by civil war, business is running more smoothly. According to the New York Times magazine, the Nairobi-headquartered Jubba Airways, “the unofficial national carrier of Somalia,” is aggressively growing its fleet of leased Soviet Antonov propeller planes and old Boeing jets, and expanding its domestic and international flight routes. The airline serves Somali business people with interests abroad and an increasing number of Somali expatriates lured back on the premise of declining volatility. “Road insecurity is bad for Somalia, but it’s good for airlines,” Abirahman Aden Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister, told the Times. Jubba’s managing director Abdullahi Warsame, who left his native country 25 years ago, flies from his home in Dubai to Mogadishu monthly.

The Somali-owned airline is currently selling about 85% of its seats and is beginning to post a small profit. At least 60 aircraft leased or owned by Somali carriers are presently operating, according to Ibrahim’s estimate. Fly540 and African Express, like Jubba, are providing daily service into the country. Air Uganda was recently granted permission to fly into Mogadishu on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. Back in March 2012, Turkish Airlines became the first major international carrier to offer regular flights into the capital city.

Landing in and taking off from Mogadishu’s single-lane Aden Abdulle International Airport, which lies near districts that were within full control of Al Shabaab less than two years ago, can be an erratic experience. “Pilots were instructed to ascend and descend rapidly over the ocean, and to avoid flying at low altitudes over the warrens of the city. The rebels have since been mostly driven out, but pilots still perform the same maneuver,” the Times‘ Joshua Hammer writes. All aviators navigating though Mogadishu’s air have probably stopped themselves at least once from dwelling on the fact that it is home to the notorious 1993 Black Hawk Down incident. With good reason, Jubba provides its pilots combat pay whenever they operate at the airport.

According to Jubba’s sleek website, a passenger can book a direct one hour and 30 minute morning ride from the capital city to Berbera, a northern seaport on the opposite end of the country, or a number of other similarly short flights to destinations across the country. The domestic trips are usually piloted by Ukrainians or Russian speakers who are familiar with the outmoded controls of the old Soviet planes. After boarding and indulging in an orange juice served by a crew of Kenyan flight attendants, the traveler—once up at an elevation outside the range of rocket propelled grenades—might be able to recline and relax, reflecting on Jubba’s claimed “brilliant zero accident credential” and its simple slogan: “THE HAPPY WAY TO FLY.”

Despite the progress, Jubba flights might still be rougher than what the average traveler is accustomed to. Although no passengers died, Jubba must be discounting in its record an April 2012 instance when a pilot flipped a plane on its side after dodging a stray goat on a runway in the north central city of Galkayo. Internet reviewers and bloggers have lambasted the safety of Jubba and other domestic carriers. One particularly colorful account by British-Somali journalist Hamza Mohamed of a flight from Mogadishu to the southern seaport of Kismayu, Somalia’s third largest city, is probably enough to dissuade any potential Somali air traveler:

As with many domestic flights in Somalia, there are more passengers than available seats. If you don’t literally grab a seat on the plane, you’ll stand for the whole journey despite having paid for a seat.

I was lucky to be one of the first to get on the plane. Seats filled up fast and 25 unlucky passengers were left standing in the aisle.

Most of the seats on this plane were faulty. They had no seat belts and reclined 180 degrees if you touched them. Each passenger had to hold the seat in front of them with both hands. If we didn’t, the seat and the passenger in it would be in our laps during take-off.


I should mention that there were no cabins to store our possessions in. Everyone held their bags on their laps. If there’s a child on your lap – which will most likely be the case if you’re flying during the high season — then you leave your bag in the aisle. If there are passengers standing in the aisle, you have no other option but to hold your luggage over your head until you land.

Still, the capital investment involved in building out a reliable railway or roadway system—outfitted with heavily armored security checkpoints—that weaves through Somalia’s hostile grasslands and deserts far outweighs the cost and risk of running a reasonable plane-taxi service.

But as with any enterprise in Somalia, the airline industry will have to adapt to emerging threats as it continues to grow. Though Jubba’s director claims that al Shabaab hasn’t hassled the airline since it resumed service to Mogadishu in 2006 because “we are not involved in politics, we are working for the people,” that notion of relative safety seems to be unraveling in recent weeks after a spate of attacks in the capital.

The site of the car bombing and ensuing gunfire last Friday was close toMogadishu’s airport. And al Shabaab’s purported twitter account, @HSMPRESS1, noted that fact, writing, “The location of the attack is not very far from the recently-attacked #UNDP base, along the stretch of road that connects KM4 to the airport.” About a week ago, the account delighted in the emergency landing of Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud at Mogadishu, after his plane encountered engine trouble en route to South Sudan. The organization gleefully tweeted, “The apostate president had a lucky escape and is to hold a press conference shortly. He was struck close by invisible soldiers of Allah.”

Praise for the entrepreneurial spirit of Jubba and other Somali air carriers taking obvious risks to provide domestic transport is certainly deserved. However, in a country where airline tickets are reserved for the elite, violence is the norm, and basic infrastructure is lacking, one can only hope that soon another innovator of equal savvy will emerge, and that industries on Somalia’s ground will start to see as much success as those in its skies.

Ryan Jacobs writes for and produces The Atlantic’s Global and China channels.

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