LONDON — Airline alliances work best when they have a network of interconnecting routes served by partner airlines. That’s achieved in North America, Europe and the Far East, but some regions remain sparsely served.

Which explains why oneworld is keen to plug a hole in its global network by finding new partners in Africa.

For almost two decades, airlines have described Africa as holding huge potential. But that potential has proved slow to materialize.

African nations have fiercely protected their national carriers. High prices and heavy regulation have led to relatively poor intra-African services. Ludicrous though it seems, for many years the only way for many African passengers to get from one part of the continent to another was to fly up to Paris or Brussels, change flights and fly back down to their destinations.

This was all supposed to change after the 1999, Yamoussoukro Decision, named for the city in the Ivory Coast in which it was agreed. Effectively an ‘Open Skies’ agreement, it committed 44 African countries to deregulate air services, and promote regional air markets open to transnational competition.

The iomplementation of the Yamoussoukro Decision has been patchy, to put it mildly. Ten countries have still not ratified it and others have ratified but not implemented it.

Alliances would help solve that problem. The best-connected of the three major alliances in Africa is Star Alliance, which has three of the continent’s major carriers – Egyptair, Ethiopian Airlines and South African Airways – as members. Another member, Turkish, is building an extensive network in Africa and is on record as saying it wants to become the continent’s largest operator.

The other two alliances are less well-served. Skyteam has only Kenya Airways, although both KLM and Air France have multiple services into the continent, with Air France in particular serving extensively the French-speaking regions of the continent.

oneworld’s sole African representative is South Africa’s Comair, which is a British Airways franchise holder and has a relatively small fleet of around 27 Boeing 737s handling mainly short-haul services.

Speaking in London, oneworld CEO Rob Gurney said that initial contacts had been made with airlines in Africa, with a view to bringing them onboard the alliance.

Michael Blunt, Oneworld’s vice-president, corporate communications, pointed out to Airways that Gurney had listed several areas in which the alliance was interested in beefing up its representation, namely mainland China and India, as well as Africa.

“All we would really say is that we continually review our overall marketplace offering in terms of network services, on an ongoing basis. What was said should be viewed in that context.

“Rob pointed out that as far as Africa is concerned, the alliance has representation from Comair in South Africa and pretty extensive coverage of the continent through our international operations, particularly Qatar Airways and British Airways and so forth.

“What we don’t have at this moment is a full member airline.”

Just who in Africa would be a suitable candidate is open to debate. Many are small and have neither the resources nor networks to be of interest. Most of the continent’s few large operators are already members of the other alliances.

One possible candidate is Royal Air Maroc (RAM), with which Qatar Airways is building links. Qatar Airways’ CEO, Akbar Al Baker, told this writer at last November’s annual meeting of the Arab Air Carrier’s Organization in Casablanca to say he would potentially be interested in investing in both RAM and the city’s airport as a major African hub.

Africa was still the poor relation in terms of long-haul services, he said. “Qatar Airways sees Africa as a very important continent that’s badly underserved by international carriers.”

Meanwhile, IATA figures show that Africa is by far the smallest continent in terms of air traffic demand.

One reason for Oneworld’s light involvement there has been that the alliance’s focus since its inception has been to connect the world’s top 100 business cities – and there are few of those in Africa. Those that exist, such as Johannesburg, Cairo or Lagos are fairly well-served in terms of intercontinental flights. What the continent lacks is intra-African services.