- National airline takes a different flight path -

With more than one million square miles of territory, served by a poor road network, the vast distances across Sudan are best covered by air. "Aviation is needed to keep the country together," says Elfatih Mohammed Ali, managing director of Sudan Airways, the national carrier. With Sudan emerging from years of civil strife, the prospects for stability and improvements to infrastructure are high on the government's agenda. Enterprises set for privatisation include Sudan Airways and Khartoum Airport. (click here for the full transcription of the interview with Mr. Elfatih Mohammed Ali)

ALI 'A century ago, people walked or went by caravan' The government's Comprehensive National Strategy aims to increase surface transport by 20 times, lay more roads and connect the whole country with a basic transport system. While a full road network will take years to create, air transport will continue to provide the quickest and cheapest means of getting around the country. Sudan Airways, set up 50 years ago, once provided a major link to both Europe and the Middle East. "Now our major markets are in the Middle East," says Mr Ali. "There are a lot of businessmen and expatriates who fly between here and the Gulf. We are also reconsidering Europe." The national carrier is being prepared for sell-off, although no date has been fixed. "We are trying to make the airline economically feasible," says Mr Ali. "We are now working with ministers on a commercial basis.

The government is not subsidising us nor giving support, so we must cover our own costs." Sudan Airways is developing a trans-African network and Mr Ali believes Khartoum could become a regional aviation hub. "Many of the countries bordering Sudan are landlocked, such as the Central African Republic, Zaire, Uganda, Congo and Ethiopia," he says. "We are trying to strengthen our flights to these areas and we now fly to Libya, Chad and the Central African Republic. Perhaps in future we will fly to Zaire and Kenya. There is some traffic now and we are using Khartoum as a hub." The carrier is in competition with Middle Eastern airlines. Lufthansa is Sudan's European link and the route to Nigeria is particularly busy during the Moslem Haj pilgrimage to Mecca. "A century ago, people used to walk or travel on caravans from Nigeria, through Sudan, to Saudi Arabia. This journey used to take years," says Mr Ali. "Now it takes a few hours."

The domestic services of Sudan Airways are run as a subsidiary to the international operations, but the first step is to make the airline financially sound, says Mr Ali. "We are increasing our flights domestically to different parts of the country. We go to Halfa in the north, Juba in the south, Geneina in the west and Port Sudan in the east. "We stopped flying to some cities such as Medani and Atbara as we don't feel these services justify themselves. Wherever there are good roads and the distance is less than 500km there is no need for flights. If the railways were better this would improve links, but at present rail is not a competitor to us."

Minister of aviation Shamboul Adlan describes Sudan as "a bridge between Africa and the Arab world". He says a key issue is to develop air infrastructure. "Sudan is a big country and the rail and highway networks are not good. It is easier to develop and build airports than to have a weak network," says Mr Adlan. "It is cheaper and it saves a lot of time. It also helps in the export of agricultural and animal products. Air is a better option because these goods can be transported more rapidly to retain their freshness." (Click here for the full transcription of the interview with Dr. Shambol Adlan, Minister of Aviation)

Government objectives include the modernisation and rehabilitation of domestic and international airports and the expansion of air transport, all of which will be require substantial private capital. Khartoum Airport is the top priority, but there are six others with international capacity, as well as regional airports and airstrips, which are shortlisted for development. The private sector is welcome to "fill the gap in domestic air transport", adds Mr Adlan. "What we need to do now is to build up a lot of international carriers. This will help immensely in the transport and export of goods, and the exchange of culture between countries. "The fact that Sudan has become a potential hub for economic development is underscored by the rich potential of our natural resources and the strategic location of the country."