Kenya’s Astral Aviation is setting its sights on becoming a global player in the cargo airline industry. CEO Sanjeev Gadhia has revealed plans to establish three additional cargo subsidiaries in Europe, the Middle East, and Australia, in addition to the recently launched joint venture with South Africa, Suid Cargo Airlines.
To raise capital for these new ventures, Gadhia intends to divest some of his 70% stake in Astral. While he plans to retain at least a 51% ownership to comply with Kenyan regulations, strategic investors are expected to acquire a 40-45% shareholding, he said speaking in an interview with Times Aerospace.
“We’ve been in talks with several strategic investors interested in investing in Astral,” Gadhia stated. “They have also shown an interest in investing in our vision of setting up AOCs. They like what they hear from us.” Early-stage discussions are underway with three potential investors.
The establishment of a European subsidiary is projected for 2025, with countries such as Ireland and Malta being considered. A Middle Eastern subsidiary is also planned around the same time. Additionally, Astral Aviation is eyeing the Australian market, recognizing the potential for air cargo in Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Asia.
Gadhia expressed interest in acquiring a stake in the Indian cargo carrier Pradhaan Air Express, which he helped launch last year by providing it with the world’s first A320-200(P2F). He stated, “We are looking at maybe taking a stake in the airline in the next couple of months.” The start-up carrier is expected to add a second A320P2F to its fleet this year, with Gadhia considering A321 and A330-300(P2F) conversions as well.
Astral Aviation also aims to establish an Air Operator Certificate (AOC) in Lomé, Togo, which already serves as its West African hub. Gadhia emphasized the importance of multiple hubs in Africa, stating, “You need to have three hubs at least because of the [directional] nature of cargo.”
Meanwhile, the company announced plans to launch Suid Cargo Airlines from Johannesburg O.R. Tambo in the second quarter of 2023 with a B727-200(F) wet-leased from Astral, which owns 25% of the new venture in line with South Africa’s foreign-ownership cap. Suid Cargo will initially operate cargo charter flights, bringing in Astral’s B757Fs, B767F, and B747-400(F)s as needed, before expanding into scheduled and domestic operations from 2024. The E190F has been shortlisted for its domestic feeder flights, with conversion scheduled for late 2024, and could start operating for Suid Cargo from the first quarter of 2025.
Suid Cargo plans to offer a “sea-to-air” cargo product from Durban and Cape Town, receiving freight from ships and carrying it onward by air to reduce delivery times and costs for landlocked African countries. The carrier plans to operate to more than 20 destinations in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. Ultimately, Suid Cargo plans to cover southern, west and east Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The carrier will benefit from Astral’s 42 interline partnerships. In return, Astral will use its four weekly Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta-Johannesburg frequencies to feed the new airline rather than operating onward fifth-freedom flights itself.
Astral also announced that it will retire its B747s by the end of 2024 and start a new chapter with B777s. The company is negotiating the acquisition of two B777-300(ERSF)s in 2025, followed by another two in 2026, to carry perishables from Nairobi to Europe, including the UK and Belgium. Astral is also evaluating the acquisition of smaller regional aircraft, such as ATRs and Dash 8s, for its African regional operations.