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Airlink’s new logo of a sunbird adorning the full size of the tail being applied to its 50 Embraer jets marks a decisive step in the company’s history.

Previously the bird only flew over the top half of the empennage, inserted into the tail design of South African Airways (SAA), as Airlink had been operating as a franchise under the roof of the national carrier from 1997.

However, in 2020, the partnership ended and a new age has begun. For the first time in its over 20-year history, Airlink competes in its own right and branding. It does so not as an inexperienced start-up, but rather from a position of strength.

According to the number of flights offered, about 210 a day on 63 routes, with destinations served in 14 countries, it is now Africa’s second-biggest airline after Ethiopian Airlines, ranking ahead of Royal Air Maroc and Kenya Airways. Counting the number of seats offered, it ranks third behind Ethiopian and Egypt Air.

Before the pandemic, Airlink carried 2.2 million passengers in 2019 still as part of SAA’s network, while in 2022, over three million customers are expected. Quite remarkable for a regional carrier with over 50 jets in its fleet all of which are made by Embraer and none has more than 98 seats.

This achievement is in no small part thanks to efficient leadership over the years by its co-founder Rodger Foster. Private shareholders, among them Foster himself owning 23 percent of shares, ensured that Airlink has been constantly profitable for over two decades until the pandemic hit.

One of the reasons is Airlink operates a tailor-made network of destinations that see actual demand, rather than an overblown intercontinental system such as SAA did, and serves them with smaller aircraft that are easier to fill.

“Our objective is to be sustainably viable,” says CEO, shareholder, and co-founder Rodger Foster in an interview with in Johannesburg.

Right now he pursues this objective in a new setting. “Of course it is a challenge, after 30 years, to start as a new brand in our own right, as since 1997 we have been identified as SAA because of our franchise partnership,” says the youthful-looking 67-year-old. “This is a new chapter for us and it is exciting because we got our own brand and we now got relationships with all the world’s biggest airlines.”

As a member of IATA and IOSA-safety-audited, Airlink has inked code-share deals with Emirates and United Airlines and in addition, there are interline agreements with 19 global carriers, among them with British Airways, Virgin, Delta Air Lines, Air France/KLM, and Lufthansa.

Instead of joining fare wars, it can’t win on such contested South African domestic routes as Johannesburg to Cape Town with currently seven competing brands, Airlink pursues more lucrative international routes – if it can get the respective traffic rights.

This remains a constant problem, highlighting the ongoing fragmentation of African aviation and the lack of opening up of markets. “That’s why Africa only accounts for two percent of worldwide air traffic, there is only lip service being paid to aviation liberalization in Africa so far,” contends Rodger Foster.

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