Independence in the Air


Until the period of independence, air service in Africa was operated largely by airlines based in Europe and the United States, or by colonial governments. As new nations attained their independence, the establishment of national airlines soon followed. These airlines served important functions in connecting regions underserved by rail and road infrastructure with the transport of people and goods. Equally as important, they served as symbols of national identity, economic expansion, modernity, technological advancement, and a place on the world stage, carrying the flags of newly independent nations within their borders and abroad.

This exhibit looks at the history of African airlines in the decades surrounding the 1960s through annual reports, timetables, passenger ephemera, and governmental and nongovernmental reports from the collections of the Transportation Library and the Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University. This includes airlines of newly independent nations, as well as the Africanization of long-established airlines, which prioritized the training and advancement of their countrypeople to positions as executives, pilots, flight attendants, engineers, and managers, as well as establishing self-determination over airline operations.

Misrair Timetable 1955

Before the 1960s

Commercial passenger aviation was introduced in Africa in the 1920s, with European operators Air France, Imperial Airways, and Deutsche Lufthansa.  The earliest passenger airlines were established in Africa in the 1930s with South African Airways, and in the 1940s with Ethiopian Airlines, Liberian National Airways, and Egypt’s national airline, Misrair. However, through the 1950s and into the 1960s, much of the African continent continued to be served by operators from overseas, including British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), Sabena Belgian Airlines, Pan Am, and Trans-World Airlines (TWA). In some cases, European colonial governments formed multinational airline operators including Central African Airways, East African Airways, and West African Airways corporations.

BOAC Menu, 1962. Transportation Library Menu Collection.

Independent Airlines

The establishment of national airlines went hand-in-hand with independence in many cases, with new nations creating national airlines within their first year of becoming independent, or shortly thereafter. Initially, this was in partnership with international carriers from Europe and North America including BOAC, Pan Am, and TWA, who provided funding and consulting support.

Sierra Leone Airways Timetable, 1962. George M. Foster Timetable Collection, Transportation Library

Ghana Airways Logo
Ghana Airlines logo 1967

National Pride

Following independence in 1957, Ghana withdrew from the former West African Airways Corporation and established Ghana Airways, a national airline with a 40% share owned by BOAC. By February 1961, the country had purchased the remainder of BOAC’s holdings, making the airline an entirely government-owned operation. The country’s Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah, expressed his country’s feeling of pride in the airline in a 1964 speech: “Naturally it increases our self-confidence to observe our own people helping to control the intricate mechanisms involved in the functioning of our airways services, and we certainly experience a glow of pride in seeing our flag flying on planes and ships traveling to other countries.”

Ghana Airways Timetable, 1967. Ghana Airways File, Herskovits Library of African Studies

Multinational Airlines

Air Afrique was a second approach to African-owned airlines. Pooling resources and expertise, eleven heads of state in Francophone West Africa signed the Yaoundé Treaty in 1961, creating a cooperative African airline. The airline was founded by the newly-independent nations of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Mauritania, Niger, the Republic of the Congo and Senegal, which together owned a majority stake in the airline, with smaller shares held by Air France, the French Development Agency, and private stockholders. It operated a profitable and substantial network under significant foreign management through the 1980s, eventually folding in the early 2000s.

Air Afrique an 5 : Memories of Youth, Pictures of Adolescence. Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire: Air Afrique, 1966

Air Afrique
East African Airways - staff demographics

Africanization of Operations

Alongside the tangible national pride derived from displaying one’s flag domestically and internationally, working to train employees at all levels from among a nation’s own countrypeople was also a goal. As the last of the East African countries attained independence and East African Airways became an independently operated airline, training and employing African staff became a stated priority. Starting in the early 1960s, annual reports included a section with updates on efforts towards Africanization. Members of the airline’s executive management team were pictured in the 1964 annual report. Chief Abdullah Said Fundikira of Tanzania became the airline’s chairman in December of that year, the airline’s first African chairman since its inception in 1946.

Photograph of East African Airways Chairman Chief Abdullah Said Fundikira of Tanzania with Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere and Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta,  East African Airways 1964 annual report

Expanding Networks

The 1960s were a time of growth for national airlines throughout Africa.  Timetables and route maps illustrate expanding networks. Air Congo, which was formed in 1961 with majority ownership by the Congolese government, published the route map of its short haul operations shown here in 1962, one year after the airline was formed. Short-haul service was operated with a fleet that included 7 de Havilland Dragon Rapide airplanes, 2 Piper Apaches, 4 Piper Aztecs, and 8 Beechcraft, in addition to wide-body planes that included Douglas DC-6, DC-4, and DC-3 aircraft.

 Air Congo route map. Air Congo 1962 annual report

Air Congo route map 1962
South African Airways timetable 1965

Air Rights and South Africa

South Africa was among the first African nations to establish a national airline, creating South African Airways in 1934 and expanding its networks in the decades that followed. As nations throughout Africa emerged as independent and acquired rights to their own airspace, they were given a tool to oppose South African apartheid. Starting in 1963, air rights were revoked by much of the rest of the continent, preventing South African Airways from operating in their airspace and suspending SAA service within their borders, forcing flights to be routed over sea, rather than directly over land.

South African Airways timetable, 1965. George M. Foster Timetable Collection, Transportation Library

After the 1960s

By the end of the 1960s, over 70 African airlines were in operation, representing rapid growth from the beginning of the decade. Several additional airlines were founded in the following decades as independence was achieved throughout the continent, including Air Zimbabwe in 1980. This growth proved unsustainable in many cases, however, with financial, political, and operational instabilities resulting in the transformation, merger, or cessation of services by some airlines in the following years. Ethiopian Airlines remains today as a shining example of a commercially and operationally successful airline founded in this era, with 125 destinations around the world.

Air Zimbabwe 1984/85 annual report

After the 1960s

Air Transport in Africa - 1964

A joint study of the International Civil Aviation Organization and the Economic Commission for Africa produced a 1964 report titled Air Transport in Africa, covering the 34 independent nations, excluding South Africa, as well as  two nations that would become independent the same month the report was published: Nyasaland (today, Malawi) and the Rhodesias (present-day Zimbabwe and Zambia). Maps from that report provide a picture of international and domestic routes, with international routes operated by African airlines in red, and non-African airlines in black.

More Information

Items in the exhibit are housed at Northwestern University’s Transportation Library and the Herskovits Library of African Studies. Email transportationlibrary@northwestern.edu or africana@northwestern.edu with questions, or to schedule an appointment.