New Telegraph

African skies empty amid SAATM rhetoric

When the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) was launched in January 2018, it was enthusiastically embraced as the key that would unlock air travel growth in the continent. WOLE SHADARE writes that over two years after the launch, interconnectivity within the Africa has been problematic as it was, even before SAATM

 

Although 33 countries in the continent are signatories to the project, the agreement appears to be on paper rather than being implemented as nations are still not fully opening their airspace for a single air market in the continent.

 

According to the International Civil Aviation (ICAO) Aviation Infrastructure for Africa Gap Analysis 2019, direct traffic from the SAATM States are mainly to Europe and intra-Africa, while traffic from SAATM to other regions are carried mainly through connecting flights.

 

ICAO, IATA study analysis

 

 

 

According to the study, 12 African States do not have international flights served by African carriers, 15 States only have international flights served by African carriers for intra-Africa routes; 11 States have more than 20 international destinations served by African carriers, seven states have over 60 international destinations and four states have more international destinations outside of Africa than within Africa.

 

It went further to state that 35 African States have less than 20 international flights per day while the top five States have over 100 international flights daily.

 

Thirty per cent of international passengers from Africa traveled through connecting flights and even 22 per cent of international traffic between the African States were connecting flights, as over 93 per cent of passengers travel between Accra and Kinshasa took a connecting flight, the potential to offer more direct air services between the two cities were further evaluated.

 

Six out of the top 10 origins and destination traffic with no direct flights are to/from Cape Town and most of this traffic are connected through Johannesburg; potential to offer more direct air services between these cities.

 

Over 40 African States have less than two million international passengers a year, while the top state with the most international passenger numbers, South Africa, far outstripped most of the other States with almost 20 million passengers.

 

According to the finding of the global aviation regulatory body, top states accounted for over 90 per cent of the total number of fleet of Africa, admitting that the capacity of most African States is very small with average load factors of African airlines have been continuously lower than the world average in the past seven years, and below 70 per cent, except for the improvement observed in 2017 in line with the world average load factor increase.

 

All the African States are facing load factors of their airlines lower than the world average, indicating the need to optimise the capacity utilisation for airlines in the region.

 

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) had, last week, while announcing in  ternational and domestic travel demand for July 2021, said Africa represents just under two per cent of the total global passenger market, stressing that its performance was not expected to affect the overall global performance of this sector of the commercial air transport industry.

 

The group attributed the low travel demand to an extensive government-imposed travel restrictions that continue to delay recovery in international markets.

 

This revelation sets the tone for the analysis on why Africa with its huge population, including market size, is under-performing in the area of aviation, how intra-Africa air connectivity has been a herculean task, including the dominance of the continent’s market by top European, Gulf, and American carriers.

 

African governments tend to view air transport as a luxury and hence the soft target for increased taxation, high user fees and subsidies to failing national carriers rather than shifting their to liberalisation and infrastructure development to encourage investment from the more agile private sector.

 

Growth propelled from bottom

 

Not a few believe that growth in African air travel demand will come from the bottom end of the market, primarily newly empowered middle class who have increased disposable income.

 

The prototypical modern African consumer is young, globalised and comfortable with ecommerce. A former Chief Operating Officer, African World Airlines (AWA), Sean Mendis, recently said that currently, most airlines in Africa, especially in the West, Central and South Africa, existed precariously because of many factors.

 

These, include the inability to access funds. So, without strong and efficient airlines, these carriers would not be able to maximise the benefits of the single sky offered by SAATM, he said.

 

He reiterated that too many African airlines experience early success and become greedy, resulting in unrealistic expansion plans that eventually lead to failure, hinting that success must stop being defined as running half-empty wide-bodies to London, Dubai, or Paris.

 

“There will always be a niche to partner with larger international carriers for the ‘last-mile delivery’ within a home region at the early stages of growth. Profitability must be more important than prestige,” he said.

 

Visa hiccup

 

Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, has said he needs 38 visas to travel within the conti  nent on his Nigerian passport. Many European nationals, meanwhile, waltz into most African countries visa-free. African nations were supposed to scrap visa requirements for all African citizens by 2018.

 

It was a key part of the African Union (AU) “vision and roadmap for the next 50 years” that was adopted by all members states in 2013. But to date, Seychelles is the only nation where visa-free travel is open to all Africans – as well as to citizens of every nation – as it always has been. A recent AU report found that Africans can travel without a visa to just 22 per cent of other African countries.

 

Poor connectivity

 

Kinshasa, the capital of The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the biggest cities in Africa, with an estimated population larger than London and a skyline that peers over the wide, snaking Congo River.

 

But if a traveler wants to go from there to Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital and Africa’s largest metropolis, it’s impossible to fly nonstop. Roughly 1,100 miles separate the two megacities — about the same distance as New York to Minneapolis. But there are no direct flights.

 

Instead, a traveler will need to change planes at least once and pay a minimum of $1,400. There’s a good chance the journey will take well over 12 hours. Across Africa, the situation is similar. Commercial flights are infrequent, expensive and circuitous.

 

To get from one country to another, African travelers may have to go thousands of miles out of their way and transfer through the Middle East or Europe. The continent is home to roughly 12 per cent of the world’s population and will be responsible for most of the global population growth over the next three decades.

 

But it accounts for just 2 per cent of the world’s air travel market. The flights that do exist are often more expensive than routes of similar duration elsewhere in the world.

Protectionism

 

Why is it so difficult to fly around Africa? Blame a combination of protectionist legal barriers and regulatory hurdles, mixed with inadequate infra-  structure, high taxes and stubborn nationalism.

 

Airlines trying to launch a new route between African nations need to first secure permission from both countries, which can be a lengthy and expensive prospect that may or may not involve significant bribes.

 

Forty-four African nations signed on to the 1999 agreement, promising to promote competitive markets and remove regulatory barriers.

 

But to date, a few have actually implemented the plan, known as the Yamoussoukro Decision (named after the Côte d’Ivoire capital in which it was reached). Countries across the continent have displayed protectionist tendencies to limit others’ access to their own airspace.

 

Those instincts began a generation ago, when newly independent nations sought to assert themselves by creating national airlines, and continue today. Yet, even as flag carriers across the continent edge towards financial ruin, additional countries, including Uganda and Nigeria, are eyeing creating national airlines of their own, in what University of Nairobi Professor Evaristus Irandu called it a “costly show of patriotism.”

 

Africa’s empty skies

 

 

The problem is compounded by the generally poor state of Africa’s transportation infrastructure. Roads and rail links are limited and the continent itself is vast: When Africans need to travel, flying should be the best option. Yet there are a few large airports, major aircraft maintenance facilities, or training academies around the continent.

 

So, African airlines pay more than their competitors elsewhere. The largely empty African skies have a tangible economic impact on the people below.

 

The economies of the planet’s poorest continent are missing out on more than a billion dollars in possible growth. In the U.S., aviation accounts for more than 5 percent of the country’s GDP, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, supporting nearly 11 million jobs and contributing $1.6 trillion in economic activity. In other words, if people can get a direct flight from their city to yours, they’re likely to increase business relationships. If they can’t, they won’t.

Last line

One African nation that appears to be eager to tap its air power is Ethiopia. The state-owned airline is the only profitable African carrier and has some of the best reaches across the continent.

Ethiopia is also investing heavily in a massive new airport, as well as an expansion of the current hub outside of Addis Ababa.

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