8 Jul 2020

Propensity to fly is a useful indicator of the level of air traffic in a country. It says something about the importance of air travel in the country and gives insight into the potential for growth.

Propensity to fly is defined as the number of flight trips per head of the population, or “trips per capita”, per annum. To calculate it, we use the total number of arriving and departing passengers, making no distinction between domestic and international travel. In this way, the figure captures all air traffic activity in the country.

In 2018, Airbus published a forecast of propensity to fly for a large number of countries. This forecast was then used to estimate the need for development of airport infrastructure to meet the expected growth in air traffic. Airbus linked this to its concept of Aviation Mega-cities, which handle more than 10,000 long-haul passengers per day. At present, only Johannesburg and Addis Ababa qualify as Aviation Mega-cities but, based on the forecast propensity to fly, Airbus expects 6 more cities in Africa to join these ranks by 2038.

In this article, we focus on the African continent and, in particular, the 15 busiest countries in terms of passenger traffic. This article describes some of the important factors that influence the propensity to fly in a country and highlights interesting data related to industry developments over the past decade.

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a major impact on air traffic across the continent and its effects will undoubtedly be visible in future data on propensity to fly. We regularly publish articles and briefing notes on the impact of the pandemic on and possible recovery scenarios for the aviation industry. These can all be found on our website.

Air traffic in Africa

Although air traffic in Africa represents only around 3% of the world total, growth over the past decade has been significant. According to the World Airport Traffic Report of the Airports Council International, total passenger traffic in Africa reached around 213 million in 2018, compared to 150 million a decade earlier. International passengers make up the majority of this traffic at 62% of the total. International traffic has also grown faster than domestic traffic, posting compound annual growth rates of 3.9% and 2.8% respectively.

Figure 1: Total passenger traffic (T Pax) for 2018 and Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) for 2009-2018

The African continent is vast and there are big differences between different regions and between individual countries. The average annual growth rate of passenger traffic over the past decade for example ranges from 4% in Southern Africa to 14% in East Africa. It is also interesting to note that air traffic on the continent is quite concentrated. The latest data shows for instance that the four leading countries of South Africa, Egypt, Morocco and Nigeria account for more than half of all passenger traffic on the continent. The 30 busiest airports handle 76% of air traffic on the continent.

Figure 2: Passenger traffic distribution between International and Domestic for the 15 busiest countries in Africa including Madagascar


A country’s propensity to fly is calculated by dividing the total passenger traffic by the number of inhabitants. This method makes no distinction between a country’s citizens or international visitors travelling. This means that countries with large populations are likely to have a lower propensity to fly, unless their citizens fly frequently. Figure 3 gives an overview of the population and the income category of the 15 largest aviation markets in Africa, plus Madagascar.

Figure 3: Population split according to income group for the 15 busiest countries and Madagascar

While Africa’s population, at a total of 1.1 billion in 2018, represents a considerable share of world population, its growth rate is what really sets it apart. Over the past decade, populations in the 16 countries covered in this article have grown by an average of 2% per annum. Compared to a world average of 1.2%. This highlights how Africa is fast becoming the most populous region of the globe. Africa also boasts the world’s youngest population, with an average age of 19.7 years and 36% of its citizens under 15 years of age.

Africa is also urbanising rapidly as people move from rural areas to cities. Urban populations in Sub-Saharan Africa have grown by more than 4% per annum, compared to figures of less than 2% worldwide and less than 1% in the OECD countries. In South Africa, already more than half of the population lives in cities, while cities such as Luanda, Dar es Salaam and Lagos are among some of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the world. This is significant as major airports are located in or nearby cities, meaning that people in urban areas have better access to air transport and are, therefore, more likely to fly.

The demographic developments of a country present an interesting dynamic to the propensity to fly indicator. While a growing population should support economic growth, a certain level of disposable income is required for people to be able to afford air travel. If people cannot afford to fly, a large population will actually suppress the propensity to fly figure. This begs the question as to whether economic growth and the rise in income levels in Africa are sufficient to support growing populations and whether this in turn will result in more air traffic. A much deeper understanding of economic development, as well as the drivers for air traffic, is needed to answer this question.


The level of income in a country, measured by gross domestic product (GDP) or gross national income (GNI), is another important indicator for the level of air traffic demand. As incomes rise and people have money to afford vacations, air traffic and the propensity to fly go up. Increasing business activity also tends to drive up the need for air travel. International trade and investment go hand in hand with international air traffic. This relationship is illustrated neatly by plotting the propensity to fly against the GDP as in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Propensity to fly for 2018 measured against GDP

The trendline in Figure 4 shows that as income levels rise, air traffic rises sharply at first, but that this effect diminishes as income levels are higher. Analysis shows a difference in propensity to fly between countries that are well-connected with various modes of transport and those that are more isolated and dependent on air travel.

The level of tourism activity in the country and the presence of direct flight connections to source markets also plays an important role. Island nations with small populations and high levels of tourism tend to be the outliers in terms of propensity to fly. Countries with large hub airports, with high proportions of transfer traffic as opposed to origin/destination traffic, also post higher propensity to fly figures.

There are certain trends that can be identified in historic data, which may be used to forecast future developments. However, each country has different dynamics and there are many more contributing factors (including  pandemics) to consider besides those mentioned in this brief article. In our upcoming articles, we will be examining some of these factors and the country-specific developments.


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Marcel Langeslag

Director Aviation Africa

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