1 January 2018

African Open Skies Remains Pipe Dream

Photo: Pixabay
(File photo).

Year 2017 has been full of excitement and optimism for the African aviation scene on several fronts.

The continent has had its fair share of entrants and exits in equal measure, safety records showed low accidents and incident rates, several airports have managed facelifts, expansion and new aviation infrastructure projects.

Most aviation forums on the continent have been drumming up the "Africa Open Skies" message, which should see more movement of people across borders and boost trade.

Statistics have been bandied about on the subject of free movement of people and how much of an impact it will have on aviation, tourism and continental economies.

Experts say, Africa is the only continent with the potential of double-digit economic growth and a 5.1 per cent annual average growth in air traffic over the next 20 years.

At the 49th edition of the annual conference of African airlines in Kigali, panel discussions boiled down to the few weighty issues plaguing African aviation.

Key among these was free movement of people, government "interference" in airlines, poor aviation infrastructure, state human capacity, high costs and taxes. And also, airline executives' rant about the onslaught from non-African carriers.

I think the biggest profiteers of these aviation meets are the suppliers to the industry who sponsor these gatherings to showcase their wares and not governments, airlines or airports who are grappling with policy and strategy issues; but that's a topic for another day.

The African Union on its part, has us all convinced that come January 2018, we shall see the launch of the Single African air transport market (SAATM).

The expectation is that at least 40 of the 54 African states, will lead the way with this initiative.

As at the time of the 3rd Ministerial Working Group Meeting on the SAATM meeting earlier this month, only 23 states had committed to this initiative.

That is three countries more than the 20 who initially agreed to back the initiative when it was announced this year.

These 20 have a combined population of about 600 million people, a total GDP of about $1.45 trillion, a potential of over 200 million passengers annually and a coverage of up to 75 per cent of inter-Africa air transport.

So why would a continent convinced of the benefits of an open skies policy dither for nearly 20 years with a decision as noble as the Yamoussoukro Decision?

Why would the same Heads of State who have even designated November 14 of every year to celebrate the Yamoussoukro Decision hesitate when it comes to implementation?

Shortsightedly, majority of African governments still believe that protecting their national interests far outweighs any of the benefits of open skies.

In East Africa, only Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda have shown serious commitment to the open skies movement.

Ironically, it is these same protective governments that bemoan non-African carriers taking up to 80 per cent of African traffic.

Will the AU move forward with the SAATM initiative among the willing members or will Africa wait longer for an open sky?

Michael Otieno is an aviation consultant and travel writer based in Nairobi.

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