Almost half of African governments have signed up to the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) that was launched by African leaders in January but almost a year later, the initiative has not moved beyond the planning stage, frustrating airlines that want barriers removed.
Citing milestones achieved so far in a SAATM Handbook they jointly developed and released this week, IATA and the African Airlines Association (FRAA) point to meetings in March and May that resulted in the adoption of an action plan and a memorandum of implementation.
SAATM held the promise of opening up the continent's air connectivity.
Twenty-seven countries have so far committed to the initiative but only 14 had signed the memorandum of implementation by the end of November.
The 27 countries that have signed represent 80 per cent of the passenger traffic in Africa.
The paradox is why this group has not jump-started SAATM.
While the heads of state approved the regulatory framework for SAATM, their countries are yet to agree on a dispute settlement mechanism, according to Raphael Kuuchi, IATA's Special Envoy to Africa for Aeropolitical Affairs.
Experts say the delays are symptomatic of the leadership gap at the African Union which is yet to fully constitute the oversight body supposed to drive the initiative, remove the mistrust between governments and the fears by small airlines that they will be swallowed up by their bigger rivals; as well as the market realities that industry leaders have to face up to at the airline level.
According to former Ethiopian Airlines chief executive and now independent consultant Girma Wake, the AU is yet to appoint a substantive head for the African Civil Aviation Commission (AFCAC), which is supposed to oversee implementation.
"There is only an acting person and as you know, there is a limit to how far such a mandate goes," he said during an Airbus organised panel discussion on tourism in Toulouse, France recently.
On the loss by small airlines, he says, "Nothing could be further from the truth because the big airlines are interested in operating more nonstop flights and are not interested in these milk-stop type of operations. And if anybody is going to connect Africa, it is the small airlines," he said.
Air Mauritius chief executive Somas Appavou sees alliances as the way forward.