Only one out of every 10 people in South Africa has ever set foot on an airplane. Where outsiders might see that as a problem, the nation's flag carrier considers it an opportunity.
For the moment, South African Airways is consumed with preparing for the World Cup, soccer's premier tournament and one of the world's largest sporting events. Some 50,000 Americans, more guests than from any other country, have bought tickets for matches beginning June 11. Many will fly into Johannesburg or Cape Town on SAA flights from Washington and New York.
About 30,000 visitors, nearly 10 percent of expected attendees, are coming in from the United Kingdom, where SAA also has daily flights.
Ian Cruickshank, the airline's project manager for the World Cup, calls the tournament the "one bright, shining light" in what has been a dim few years for the aviation sector.
As part of a group of journalists who traveled to South Africa to observe World Cup preparations, a GlobalAtlanta reporter heard a briefing from Mr. Cruickshank at the South African Airways headquarters.
Thanks in part to its unique geographic niche at the southern tip of the continent, SAA's growth was flat last year as many larger global airlines posted big financial losses, Mr. Cruickshank said. The government-owned carrier had gone through a restructuring process to cut waste and boost efficiency. Those moves will be tested with the heightened demand of the World Cup, as travelers attend matches at 10 stadiums in nine cities.
"When a lot of the other airlines were really expanding and growing and spending a lot of money, we were hunkered down trying to cost-cut and refine our processes and clean everything down," Mr. Cruickshank said.
In the airline industry, things are beginning to pick back up. Cargo loads, a barometer of broader economic recovery, are increasing, and airlines globally are "very cautiously" bringing idled aircraft back on line. Despite looming challenges including a possible rise in oil prices by the end of the year, the forecast is "extremely rosy" even beyond the World Cup, Mr. Cruickshank said.
That's especially true for the frontier markets of the African continent, where South African Airways is placing its bets, along with carriers from all over the world, he said. SAA's outlook has a bearing on Georgia, which is home to the world's busiest airport and largest airline, as well as aerospace companies looking to export their products.
Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc., for example, is adding flights in Africa, despite the fact that routes to Nairobi, Kenya, and Monrovia, Liberia, were nixed by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration last year because those cities' airports were deemed unsafe. Delta is set to launch a new flight from Atlanta to Accra, Ghana, on June 1. It also has flights to South Africa, Egypt, Senegal and two cities in Nigeria.
Delta is adding a second daily nonstop flight to Johannesburg for 15 days during the World Cup to meet increased demand, said spokesman Kent Landers.
While long-haul, trans-Atlantic travelers are important and business-class bookings are picking up, South African Airways is looking to build business in its own neighborhood, Mr. Cruickshank said.
Domestically, the opportunities are plentiful. Only 10 percent of South Africa's population has ever used air travel. "This is a huge positive for us," provided that SAA can persuade citizens that flying is not just for the elite, he said.
But more passengers doesn't necessarily guarantee more profits. The South African market is crowded with competitors, including three low-cost carriers, one of which, Mango Airlines, is owned by SAA. To deal with this "saturation," SAA has started moving capacity to other African countries, Mr. Cruickshank said.
Intra-African air travel demand, especially out of South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa's largest economy, has steadily grown over the past decade as cell-phone companies, banks, retail stores and infrastructure firms moved north into less-developed markets, he said.
In the past year, Africa was largely shielded from the worst of the recession because its financial systems are less developed and its trading systems are founded on basic commodities and food, Mr. Cruickshank said.
"We've noticed in our sales – and a lot of South African businesses in Africa have noticed the same – that the recession didn't hit that hard. There was a slowdown but very, very gradual," he added.
In South Africa, the recession was muted by massive infrastructure investment, much of it undertaken to improve airports. The nearly $1 billion King Shaka Airport in the southeastern city of Durban is state-of-the-art. Johannesburg's O.R. Tambo International Airport got a gleaming new terminal, and smaller airports made improvements to handle more flights or bigger planes.
In the World Cup aftermath, this infrastructure will buttress South Africa's claim as a base for businesses to break into other African countries.
"If you want to have an Africa strategy, South Africa is the middle of it," said Craig Allen, senior commercial officer at the U.S. consulate in Johannesburg, who added that growth rates in southern Africa are projected to outstrip most other economies this year. "This is the center. This is the hub."
There are many outside influences spurring this growth. China is investing heavily in Africa to procure natural resources needed to fuel its ever-hungry economic engine. U.S. companies also have longstanding relationships built on business surrounding oil and other resources. Tourism is strong and growing, and trans-Atlantic flight frequencies are increasing.
Still, there are hindrances that could slow aviation growth. While the U.S. Trade and Development Agency has estimated that nearly 90 projects worth $2.6 billion will modernize African airport infrastructure in the next three years, the continent still has significant safety problems.
Bank accounts and Internet access are rare in many countries, making it difficult to sell tickets or gauge demand in some markets, Mr. Cruickshank said.
"If somebody wants to buy a ticket in Nigeria, he's going to wait until two or three days before he travels, he's going to walk into our sales office and he's going to open up a suitcase and it's going to be full of dollars," he said.
Also, many African governments heavily regulate carriers' ability to start new routes. Sometimes this is good for the airlines that are granted service, as in the case of Angola, where only SAA and Angola's flag carrier, TAAG, are allowed to operate routes between the countries.
"For us, it's more expensive for you to fly to Angola (and it's a four-hour flight), than it is for you to fly 11 hours to London," Mr. Cruickshank said.
Sometimes it works the other way around, as many countries eager to build up their own flag carriers shut out more established players like SAA, which has been around for 76 years.
SAA has 52 aircraft and plans to update its fleet early next year with more fuel-efficient models.
The South African government recently raided the offices of SAA and other airlines to confiscate information for an investigation into claims that they have colluded to set higher fares during the World Cup.
SAA acknowledges the high fares but says they're justified by cost increases. The airline's leaders have denied any price collusion.