Dakar (AFP)

The small Senegalese airline Transair, hit like the whole sector by the coronavirus pandemic, "does not know where it is going". While waiting for better days, she flies her empty planes over Senegal.

"Altimeter: check! Compass: check! Pre-take-off checks: completed". Concentrated on the cockpit screens, Captain Laurent Klinka made the final adjustments before takeoff from Blaise Diagne International Airport, east of Dakar.

A banal scene for this experienced French pilot, if it were not the silence in the empty rows of this Embraer ERJ-145 of fifty seats.

To maintain their licenses, pilots must make at least three takeoffs and three landings every three months. And planes have to fly to stay in good shape.

"It is a joy to find the planes, even for an hour. But everyone is afraid of what could happen with this crisis," said the pilot.

At the helm of the 22-year-old twin-engine, he made a 30-minute rotation along the Senegalese coast to Saint-Louis (north).

To maintain its fleet of six aircraft, Transair organizes one empty flight per week, which costs it 1,000 euros per hour just for fuel.

- Air looping -

All flights to or from Senegal have been suspended since March 20, with the exception of a handful of medical evacuations, a number of tourist repatriation flights and maintenance flights.

Airlines, including Air France, very present in Senegal, and the other economic sectors of the country, wait impatiently for the authorization to resume flights, crossing their fingers so that it intervenes before the summer season in Europe.

But the government announced Thursday to extend until June 30 the suspension of all flights to or from Senegal.

Globally, the International Air Transport Association (Iata) estimated the impact of the pandemic on airline revenues in 2020 at $ 314 billion (€ 286 billion), a drop of 55% compared to 2019.

And air transport should not return to its pre-pandemic traffic level before 2023, according to the association.

Senegal, where tourism is one of the engines of the economy, has three national companies.

The smallest, Arc-en-ciel Aviation, specializes in on-demand flights. Air Senegal, a public company founded in 2016, has managed to find a place in the links with the sub-region and Europe.

Between the two, Transair, launched 10 years ago, remains active in on-demand flights, its original business, while normally operating around sixty commercial flights per week, including 40 within Senegal.

- Broken momentum -

"Before, we were expanding, we were even planning intercontinental flights in a few years. Now everything is stopped. When we make 3 or 4 flights a day and there is nothing left, we don't know not where we are going, "said Transair boss Alioune Fall to AFP.

To reduce the impact of the crisis, the Senegalese government has released 77 billion CFA francs (115 million euros) for tourism and air transport, including 45 billion CFA francs (67.5 million euros) for Air Senegal.

A private company, Transair should benefit from a little boost, including loans at preferential rates and a deferral of payment of VAT.

Alioune Fall has not made any layoffs but he wonders if he will be able to pay the salaries of his 104 employees and mentions a "risk of bankruptcy".

If he judges "the year 2020 doomed to failure", the entrepreneur "keeps hope despite everything".

"This is why the planes must continue to fly", he underlines, knowing that "activity will resume with minimum service at the start".

The aftermath of the pandemic promises to be "bloody", warns Ibra Wane, a Senegalese expert in the air sector.

"Companies will cut back on travel budgets and tourism will contract in a terrible way. If the companies do not reduce the airfoil and do not cut costs, they risk disappearing", he judges.

Senegal, like the other countries of the continent, remains relatively untouched by the pandemic. He has reported more than 3,300 cases, including 41 deaths, since March 2.

© 2020 AFP