Flying Across Africa's Skies

When travelling to Africa the most dangerous part of your trip could be getting to your destination. U.S. and international aviation experts estimate that airplanes in Africa are 15 times more likely to crash on average than in North America.

A U.S. Government Accountability Office report from June highlights the fact that only four countries in all of Africa have airport and airline safety standards meeting the requirements to receive the most favorable rating by the Federal Aviation Administration; North African countries of Egypt and Morocco, the tiny island West African country of Cape Verde and South Africa make the cut.

There have been multiple fatal air crashes in Africa over the last few years, many due to the poor condition of planes airports, and also a lack of proper training and oversight of the region's airline industries.

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The Democratic Republic of Congo has one of the worst safety records, and all of its domestic airlines have been banned by the European Union. Last year a plane flying from the eastern capital city of Goma slid off the runway during take-off, killing 40 people. One-third of the airport's runway was ruined by lava flow from a volcanic eruption seven years ago, and it has yet to be repaired.

In Sudan, at least 30 people were killed when an unscheduled Sudan Airways flight from Port Sudan to Khartoum overran the runway while trying to land in a sandstorm. It was the second fatal crash in two months for the airline. International aviation officials estimate that most of Africa's crashes on small, unregulated planes go unreported, with estimates as high as 70 percent over the last decade.

In an increasingly globalized world, Americans and Europeans can't afford to let African aviation safety remain sub-par, says Tom Kok the founder of AviAssist, a non-profit foundation working to increase safety in the region. Kok is Dutch but started AviAssist after realizing that there were aviation industry groups from nearly every region in the world -- except for Africa, the region with the highest number of accidents.

"Africa is the second-largest growth area in the international airline industry," Kok told ABC News "It's important for foreigners to access countries safely. We collectively own the world's safety record."

As of December of last year there were only eight direct flights between the United States and Africa. In comparison there are 491 direct flights between Europe and Africa, leaving almost all Americans who want to travel to the continent no option but to connect through Europe using codeshare partners.

Several African countries are considered major tourist destinations. Kenya is known as the safari capital of the world and shares one of the new seven wonders, the wildebeest migration, with its neighbor Tanzania. Zambia's Victoria Falls, another one of the new seven wonders, also brings in millions of tourists from the West every year.

Delta had planned to offer a direct flight to Kenya's capital Nairobi beginning last summer, but fears of terrorism and a worry about security at the city's international airport have reportedly postponed the route.

U.S. Programs Address African Air Safety

In 1998, President Bill Clinton formally announced the Safe Skies for Africa Program, known as SSFA. Run by the Department of Transportation, several U.S. government agencies, including the FAA and the State Department, partner with SSFA to help implement the program's goals, which include improving safety, security and air navigation in sub-Saharan Africa.

The 10 countries currently participating in the program receive funding, training and advice from U.S. aviation experts, with the hopes that their own aviation industry will reach the top international standards.

There are some signs that the programs like AviAssist, SSFA and others, along with help from the World Bank and the European Union, have been successful. Cape Verde, for example, was not on the FAA approved list 10 years ago, and it is now. Even countries that have not quite reached the standard of international aviation safety of most Western countries have shown vast improvement.

"There are a number of countries that are performing well, but a few skew the statistics: DRC, Sudan," said Kok. "Much more important are the number of other countries that have done a lot of work to turn around aviation. Tanzania, for example, is doing well."

Not surprisingly, many of the countries with some of the worst aviation records are places where war and conflict are either raging or have recently subsided. Extremely poor countries also have problems with aviation safety.

"The biggest trouble for Africa is that there are many competing primary needs, so that it makes it difficult to divert resources to aviation oversight," says Kok.

Several African officials working in the industry told GAO investigators that class issues also come into play. In a region where women and children must walk miles each day to fetch their daily supply of water, and where millions of people live without roads, electricity and other basic infrastructure, flying is seen as a luxury for the rich.

Championing money for aviation safety is politically risky. Other officials said corruption and government turf wars are another challenge to creating a proper oversight of the aviation industry.

"African political leaders often do not realize the potential benefits, such as increased tourism, that can flow from improved aviation safety," said the report.