For air travellers flying into Julius Nyerere International Airport (JNIA) from abroad especially on Air Tanzania flights after landing a cabin crew voice once in while comes on air with pleasantries like Welcome to Julius Nyerere International Airport, the hub of Air Tanzania ... It is also very common for journalists to refer almost all capital cities as airlines hubs. Examples abound. Lagos is usually referred to as the Nigerian hub of the Lagos based airlines and yet it is not, in the real sense of the hub concept! Hold your breath. There are only four cities in the whole of Africa that strictly qualify to be called hubs in the aviation context. Johannesburg in Southern Africa, Nairobi in East Africa, Addis Ababa in Central Africa and Cairo in North Africa. Quite frankly, calling JNIA a hub of some sort is a misnomer! This begs a question. What is a hub?
The hub concept originated in the United States of America (USA) during the early 1980s. Faced with perpetual cut throat competition, USA airlines have been on the cutting edge of innovation in order to survive and thrive in business. Unlike Africa and Europe where airlines set up their operational bases mostly in capital cities, like London in case of British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and British Midlands Airlines, in the USA airlines are scattered around the country in terms of geographical operational bases. For example, United Airlines has its main operational base (s) at Chicago and Washington Dulles Airport, American Airlines at Dallas Fort Worth Airport, and Northwest Airlines at Minneapolis just to mention but a few. In order to maximize traffic and optimize aircraft utilization USA airlines came up with a flight scheduling technique where all flights originate from and terminate at their respective operational bases.
The same airlines then spruced up their schedules by factoring in the time element. This entails that all incoming and outgoing flights must connect or feed into each other within a period not exceeding three hours. For example, a passenger traveling from San Francisco to London on American Airlines transiting at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport must be on a connecting flight out of Forth Worth Airport to London at the latest three hours upon arrival at Dallas from a San Francisco inbound flight.
In this case the hub conception came to be characterized by two main elements; First, a critical mass in terms of traffic and aircraft movements at a particular airport and secondly the efficacy in terms of flight time connectivity at that airport. This concept gradually spread from USA to other parts of the world and has since become one of the most important sales and marketing tool in the aviation industry. For avoidance of doubt, sheer traffic numbers and aircraft movements at a certain airport cannot alone justify the airports hub status. Take Heathrow Airport and Frankfurt Airport for example. Up to 1990 these two major airports were not categorized hubs until later and yet they had more traffic and aircraft movements than Amsterdam Schiphol Airport which had attained that status at that time. What was lacking at Heathrow and Frankfurt Airports at that time was efficient, seamless and effective connections to other destinations worldwide.
There are two types of hub concepts. The first one is what is commonly known as the Hub and Spoke system. Graphically this looks like a bicycle wheel. All bicycle wheel spokes converge on one small element at the centre known as a hub. It is the chain which causes the hub to rotate around which in turn moves the spokes hence the entire wheel. From the airlines perspectives the spokes are like small traffic generators around the airlines network. All airlines routes lead into and out the main operational base which in this case is called a hub.
It is from the hub where all traffic from various cities and other peripheral places (spokes) is consolidated and fed into what is known as trunk or big routes for onward travel. The most important thing is that all the traffic must be cleared within three hours. The converse is true for the inward trunk routes flights into the hub. Nearer home at the Nairobi hub, let us take Kenya Airways (KQ) for starters. KQ has many flights into and out of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) throughout the day but not all flights conform to the hub concept.
Basically KQ has two hub cycles in a day. The first wave starts very early in the morning with flights coming in from nearby destinations like Dar es Salaam, Entebbe, Kigali and Mombassa. These flights feed into outbound flights from JKIA to destinations around Africa such as Johannesburg, Lusaka, Lagos, Abidjan, just to mention but a few. The return flights (say back to Dar Es Salaam) feed out the traffic from the trunk routes flights out of London, Dubai, Hong Kong, Bangkok, etc. Consequently there is a lot of activity at JKIA between six oclock and ten oclock in the morning. This activity subsides in the intervening period and pick up again in the evening when the flights from the rest of Africa (Lagos, Jorburg, Abidjan ,etc) start arriving at JKIA to coincide with the outbound KQ flights to Europe, Middle East and Far East. With a lot of connections to be made during this period JKIA becomes a beehive of activity and this is what qualifies JKIA into a hub category.
The second hub concept is known as the Hour Glass and is very popular with USA airlines. Basically this is unidirectional flow of traffic i.e. the traffic (or flights) move from one direction, say from the west side of USA into a hub at a given time and within a period of three hours the traffic moves out of the hub towards the east side of the country or beyond. For example, All United Airlines flights from the West Coast of USA could be scheduled to arrive at its Chicago hub in the morning to connect on the mid-morning flights to the East Coast and Europe and vice versa. This pattern of movements can recur several times during the day depending on the traffic volumes generated at a particular hub.
It is quite apparent from the above overview that not all international airports qualify to be called hubs. To become a hub an airport must at least reach certain traffic and flight connectivity threshold including adequate infrastructure that can sustain sizable movement of traffic and aircraft. In our case even if Air Tanzania and Precision Air were to increase their traffic rapidly, it is quite obvious that JNIA is not hub-ready in terms of aviation infrastructure.