Airlines are agents of geopolitical power. They are agents of geopolitical power, because they have the power to become the bridge between the core and peripheries of the world.
For example, in spite of the current civil strife in Mogadishu, Somalia, Turkish Airlines, during March, 2012, was the first and only internationally-acclaimed airline that began flying (via Khartoum at the time) to Somalia. Flying into Somalia, for Turkish Airlines, meant: We back Somalia. And let this flight herald our trust in Somalia and our Somali partners.
Geopolitically what does this mean? Since 2011 it was President (former prime-minister at the time) Recep Tayyip Erdogan that first visited Mogadishu (the highest non-African ranking official that Somalia has ever received after years of internal strife). Despite of the fact that Turkey initially began its bilateral relation with Somalia based on humanitarian aid, the Turco-Somali relationship would evolve into that of a political and commercial interest, particularly in Turkey’s interest of supporting vital infrastructure—i.e. ports—programs in Somalia by investing approximately over $500M. Yet, going back to the main topic of this article (airlines and geopolitics), what does it mean when an airline goes to another poorly served, connected country? It means one thing and one thing only: geopolitical trust (country stability) and geopolitical territorial linkage (exertion of state power from the airline’s country of origin. Think of Netherlands and Suriname).
Before studying and working in geopolitics and investment projects, I, myself, lived some kind of a hybrid life. Let’s say somewhere between business and aviation. From 2007—2011, I studied business administration at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (which actually has a huge military culture and values, and which also taught me, generally speaking, how many of my American colleagues in the military perceive the world), focused in the geographies of air transportation; in other words, commercial geographies and mobilities, combined with business administration critical thinking. Yet, throughout those years I became a pilot and even did an internship in Panama City, Panama, in Copa Airlines headquarters (Panama’s main airline).
Now, fast forwarding time, by combining both geopolitics and aviation studies, I have undoubtedly learned that airline routes are one of the prime indicators when a country’s socioeconomic status is improving, heading in the wrong direction, or a sign of the geopolitical influence one state exerts into another; airlines are the first geopolitical agents that have the power to suspend or completely terminate a destination, consequently, eliminating the bridge between one space and another, isolating an entire country, for example (e.g. Google: Yemen Sana’a airport).
Take for example Bangui, in the Central African Republic. What if I tell you that if you were to fly to the CAR, it is Air France (as the former—and still—colonial power) the only European airline that serves Bangui only once a week? What if I tell you that though Royal Air Maroc serves Bangui as well, it does so in the same degree—once a week—as Air France? And the same can be said for the relatively internationally known TAAG Angola airlines, which operates from Luanda. Regardless of how you look at it, if you were to fly to Bangui M’Poko International airport, in a trustworthy international airline (those that fly into Europe and the US are considered safe, trustworthy and high-standard airlines, because of both the FAA and EASA high-standard requirements on aircraft safety), most likely, you would have a really hard time in securing the correct flight schedule, price and, most importantly, the time and date you’d like to fly into the CAR. In the commercial aviation network and planning parlance, the CAR would be technically isolated. If Air France is the only European airline serving the CAR, can this mean that there are still some colonial, pastoralist-type of linkages? Or that an ex-colonial power controls the mobility and connectivity to its former colonies? I’ll let you be the judge of that question.
But, also, did you know that Air France has, from Europe, a complete monopoly on Cayenne, French Guiana, and to a certain extent to Papeete, French Polynesia? (Air Tahiti Nui—Air France’s only competitor—is supported by the French Government in the form of +$300M in subsidies, in spite of the fact that its main shareholder is the French Polynesian government, and though I am indeed generalizing, I am suspecting that the same French Government’s subsidies are the ones that are partially supporting Air Tahiti Nui vis-à-vis the Government in Tahiti). And, lastly, the same can be said about West Africa and the Sahel air travel network—until Turkish Airlines has come into play.
From a geopolitical point of view, Air France’s destination network is one of the most interesting to research as well as the rapid expansion of both Emirates and Turkish airlines’ networks (e.g. from Tajikistan to Eritrea). For example, Turkish airlines currently competes with Air France’s extensive West Africa network. Turkish airlines flies into the same cities were Air France’ airline empire once had a complete monopoly, including cities like Nouakchott (Mauritania), Niamey (Niger), Ouagadougou, (Burkina Faso), Conakry (Guinea), N’Djamena (Chad), and Libreville (Gabon). Therefore, as a result, one could generally conclude that Turkish Airlines is challenging many airline networks that aroused during colonial times (e.g. Turkish is challenging Aeroflot’s network in Central Asia; Air France and Brussels’s airlines West African network; and Turkish Airlines will eventually challenge US-based airlines hegemony in the Latin America-Europe-and-Asia controlled transit passengers market). Also, many of the gulf airlines (Etihad, Emirates, Qatar, particularly) have been gradually catching up by flying to cities like Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo, while continuing their expansion on US airspace (e.g. Emirates will fly into Orlando, Qatar is flying into Miami, Etihad is serving Los Angeles), which is why I am not surprised that many of the US legacy carriers’ CEOs are accusing the Gulf airlines from being heavily subsided, claiming unfair competition. Yet, I will leave that question to the legal experts.
What is the main lesson here? That airlines compete for power and influence as much as a state would.
An airline’s main geopolitical power is manifested as: 1) the power in controlling mobilities; 2) the power of transporting cargo, reducing the time, compared to shipping vessels and railway transportation; and 3) the power of being part of the propaganda and media machine of an hegemonic and/or rising power. For instance, in my country (Guatemala), which, unfortunately, due to high criminal violence and corruption, has been part of America’s illegal migration problem for a while. In spite of this migration problem, Guatemala is currently served by four US legacy airlines (Delta, American, United and Spirit), with 9 non-stop flights to United States, and with +50 frequencies of flights between America and Guatemala in a week. In turn, there are only five Latin American—and one European, Iberia—airlines legacy carriers that serve Guatemala, one of them is from Panama (Copa); three from Mexico (Aeromexico, Interjet and Volaris); and one is from Colombia (Avianca). Henceforth, and compared with the Latin American airlines, US-based carriers at least control 44% of the Guatemalan market; additionally controlling European and Asian mobility into Guatemala and the rest of Central America, except for Panama City—which is rapidly growing and served by major European legacy carriers (Iberia, KLM, Air-France, TAP, and Lufthansa this coming march 2016).
Last but not least, airline’s propaganda can dwell in our geographic imagination and induce our hearts and pockets. How? Well, they capture the essence of curiosity. The curiosity of traveling into their countries of origin. The curiosity of using them as linkages into another unknown, untraveled destination. The Curiosity of imagining what is life like in the airlines’ countries of origin. And, the curiosity of having the ‘experience’ of traveling with them. At least, from a Guatemalan standpoint, many of the US-legacy carriers advertise American hallmarks of touristic and geopolitical power, such as photos of the White House, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the giant Hollywood emblem in the hills of Los Angeles.
With that kind of propaganda, no wonder why many of my countrymen must imagine that as soon as you step in the US, your life will become great, suddenly change, and why not, you will be part of the American dream—and from a business and marketing standpoint, of course, that I congratulate the American airlines. They are making a fine job in serving and connecting Guatemala with the rest of the world.
Yes, airlines can provide many things for our self-esteem (the joy of looking forward to relax in a nice, sunny beach) and our egos (the joy of telling your family and friends that you will travel to a destination they are eager to go but can’t). But, the airlines are also part of the geopolitical architecture of a state’s power: connecting, uniting or burning the bridge between one space and another. The core and the periphery. The served and unserved.
So, my dear reader: are airlines agents of geopolitical power?