LONDON — Five island nations in the Indian Ocean are banding together to create a new airline grouping that aims to improve connections between their respective countries and to the wider world.

The Vanilla Alliance sounds an odd name for an airline organization until one remembers that several islands in the region produce the fragrant spice. However, the sweet smell of success may be a while coming: plans to sign the agreement formally setting up the alliance in June were postponed because of a strike at one of its members.

When it is eventually consummated – no new date has yet been set – the alliance will bring together Air Austral from the French overseas département of Réunion, Air Madagascar, Air Mauritius, Air Seychelles and the transport ministry of the Comoros Islands, which is in the process of creating a new national airline.

All four carriers are small. Typically, they operate turboprops or single-aisle aircraft types up to Airbus A320 or Boeing 737 size for inter-island or regional services, together with a small number of widebodies for long-haul services – often to France, given their Francophone heritage, together with India and – increasingly – China.

Air Seychelles A320. (Credits: via Commons)

The countries are all members of the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC), an inter-governmental organization that seeks to develop economic and political co-operation in the region. Despite their relative proximity, connections between them have been surprisingly poor.

“One need only try to travel from Seychelles to Madagascar or Comoros to realize how limited the transportation options within the Indian Ocean are at present,” commented Pascal Viroleau, CEO of tourism body the Vanilla Islands Organization, last year. The Vanilla Alliance hopes to remedy that.

Under the agreement, the airlines will enhance connectivity between the member states. (In parallel, the civil aviation authorities of the alliance’s member-states will look at establishing a shared regulatory framework and strengthening training and safety procedures.)

The Alliance came about following a 2012 IOC conference that concluded that the current airline business model was unsustainable, an IOC spokesman told Airways. How, it asked, could four national carriers – never mind overseas rivals – continue to compete with each other in a small, fragmented market that received only two million tourists between them per year?

Air Mauritius A340-300- (Credits: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt)
Air Mauritius A340-300- (Credits: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt)

In addition, the conference noted that fares in the region were extremely high and thus a deterrent to travel. They were found to be more than 600% higher than internal European sectors. Even a more representative comparison with the Caribbean, where there is a similar pattern of a large number of inter-island services, found that routes between the Indian Ocean territories were 180% dearer than Caribbean routes of the same distance.

Individual airlines have previously made attempts to improve this situation; early last year, for example, Air Austral introduced a ‘Vanilla Islands Pass’, a cut-rate ticketing package to the region’s island destinations for passengers who had bought a long-haul ticket with the airline.

 Air Madagascar Boeing 737-300- (Credits: Simisa)
Air Madagascar Boeing 737-300- (Credits: Simisa)

However, following a series of meetings between the IOC nations’ airlines in 2014, it was decided to create the alliance to bring a co-ordinated approach to improving the region’s air services. It would aim to strengthen co-operation between the carriers and to increase sales, reduce fares and increase both regional and long-haul traffic.

Marie-Joseph Malé, CEO of Air Austral and president of this IOC Airlines Committee, commented at the time that this dialogue between the carriers “marks a major turning point for regional air transport.”

Boeing 737-800 of Air Austral (Credits: Alec Wilson)
Boeing 737-800 of Air Austral (Credits: Alec Wilson)

However, the new grouping has made a faltering start; the planned 18 June signing ceremony in the Madagascan capital of Antananarivo had to be called off due to a strike – still unresolved at the time of writing – of Air Madagascar.

Strikers are complaining of mismanagement at the state-owned carrier and have refused to return to work despite warnings from government ministers that the company is on the brink of collapse. The managing director, Haja Raelison, resigned on 8 July.
It may yet be a little time before the benefits of co-operation are felt in the region.