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.
Few African countries have shown the way forward with a change in visa regime which could see intercontinental travel pick up exponentially. This will be huge for tourism and related economic activities.
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 – that is if we dot our i’s and cross our t’s as expected.
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 middle east and non-African carriers.
Also Read: Effects of closed airspace on Africa
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 in December 2017, 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 early 2015.
These 20 have a combined population of about 600 million people, a total GDP (2015) of about $1450 billion, a potential of over 200 million passengers annually and a coverage of up to 75 per cent of inter-Africa air transport.
It is also estimated that the SAATM at inception would give the much needed shot in the arm for air service connectivity, give way to over 25% lower fares and contribute to national GDP among other benefits.
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.
Not surprising then that EAC member states like Uganda and Tanzania have not warmed up to SAATM perhaps guided by the foolhardy notion that they are protecting their national interests; read national carriers.
A good number of African governments share the notion that an open skies environment will take away their control or ability to bilaterally negotiate freedoms of the air with other states.
Hence it doesn’t come as surprise when say Uganda chooses to deny RwandAir the permissions to fly to the Middle East or Europe via Entebbe with full rights under the guise of protecting “its national carrier” which is still a loose plan on paper.
Similarly, Tanzania has for a long time denied Rwanda’s request for a 5th freedom right allowing the later liberties to operate flights to Mumbai via Dar es Salaam despite the unserved potential of a direct Dar – Mumbai flight by a regional carrier.
Let us not forget that these EAC member states at one point during their honeymoon days hinted at an East Africa Open Skies.
Under the current circumstances, the fifth freedom implementation among partner states has been the closest semblance to a liberalized airspace for many African states.
The biggest hypocrisy of African states however is that these fifth freedoms have been doled out to non-African carriers with no encumbrance whatsoever.
Bittersweet irony of it all is that the very national carriers these governments set out to protect by denying those on the continent these liberties and permissions would be first to bemoan non-African carriers uplifting up to 80% of African traffic.
Reality is that there is no room for and Africa will not have 54 national carriers. In fact, there is room for only three or four mega carriers in Africa supported by many regional airlines.
Will the AU move forward with the SAATM initiative among the willing members or will Africa wait longer for an open sky?