For African carriers and some governments restricting air services to poorly served African destinations, the question is: What are they really protecting? WOLE SHADARE writes that the continent may actually be shooting itself in the foot with protectionism, constricting air traffic growth
Constrictions amid huge potential Aviation has the potential to make an important contribution to economic growth and development within Africa. Air transport can open and connect markets, facilitating trade and enabling local firms to link into regional and global supply chains. However, the growth of aviation in Africa has been hampered by restrictive government policy, especially Bilateral Air Service Agreements (BASAs).
In 1999, the Yamoussoukro Decision (YD) was adopted out of the recognition that restrictive regulatory controls on air travel between African states (codified in Bilateral Air Service Agreements – BASAs) were detrimental to intra-Africa connectivity and the holistic development of the African air transport industry (especially safety and security).
However, the implementation of this agreement has been slow and limited, and thus the potential benefits of liberalising intra-African air markets remain largely unrealised. In 2018, the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) project was launched by the African Union to give fresh impetus to the goal of liberalising aviation across Africa and to fully implement the YD.
To date, a total of 35 African Union member states (out of 55 in total) have signed the commitment to establish Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) . Bickering threatens initiative Despite being a continental power- house and signatory to SAATM treaty, internal wrangling between the Federal Government and its implementing partners, airline operators, has left the initiative in a balance, with attendant effects on the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (Af- CFTA) agenda.
While the Federal Government aims to float a new national carrier to spearhead SAATM, local airline operators said they should not be shoehorned into continental aeropolitics that is allegedly designed to rip off the Nigerian market in favour of bigger African airlines.
Aviation stakeholders, however, fault protracted market protectionism in the face of low connectivity, urging both the Federal Government and operators to wake up to reality or be left behind. Specifically, they request that local airline s complement the acquisition of new aircraft with corporate governance, international certification, and alliances to become competitive in the open market era.
Apathy President Muhammadu Buhari, at the 30th Ordinary Summit of the African Union Assembly of Heads of States and Government, held in Addis Ababa, in January 2018, signed the SAATM treaty to enable African airlines to fly without restrictions and change the narrative of Africa operating only two percent of global air traffic. To date, 35 of 55 AU-member countries have signed up to SAATM.
They are: Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo Brazzaville, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea (Bissau), and Guinéa. Others are Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Mali, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Sénégal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Swaziland, Tchad, Togo, and Zimbabwe. These countries represent over 80 percent of the existing aviation market in Africa.
IATA’s survey IATA survey has it that if just 12 key African countries opened their markets and increased connectivity, an extra 155,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in yearly Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would be created in those countries. As of today, only a few countries have strengthened operations for the execution of SAATM. They are Ethiopia, through its Ethiopian Airlines; Kenya via Kenya Airways, Togo through Asky, and Rwanda via RwandAir.
Nigeria is conspicuously missing and the devil is in the details. The Federal Government has consistently harped on the benefits of open skies. Nigeria Air is said to be around the corner. It is expected that the carrier and the existing airlines would take advantage of the policy. Operators are generally opposed to executing SAATM with national airlines, citing governments’ protection of the carrier ab initio, which defeats the spirit of the open market and free competition of SAATM.
Poor air connectivity This lack of progress is reflected in the relatively poor air connectivity for intra-Africa travel. Of the 1,431 country pairs between the African Union countries, only 19 per cent had some form of significant direct service (operated at least once weekly on an annual basis). Of these routes, 35 per cent were operated on a daily basis or better, and only 13 per cent were operated on a twicedaily or better basis.
This low level of frequency makes short-duration trips (departing and returning on the same day) very difficult, which is particularly important for business trips. Connectivity levels in Africa were the lowest across world regions even on a per capita or per dollar of GDP basis.
To travel between the capitals of two neighbouring countries in 2019 – The Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – required a connecting itinerary of 9.5-15.0 hours via a connecting airport in North or West Africa, whereas a direct flight would take no more than two hours. In some cases, the most convenient itineraries involved a connection to Europe or the Middle East. For example, the shortest itineraries between the capitals of Tunisia and Gabon involved a connection at Paris CDG airport, taking 10.5-19.5 hours compared with 5.5 hours for direct service.
A former Secretary-General of the African Civil Aviation Commission (AFCAC), Ms. Iyabo Sosina, at the Aviation Breakfast Meeting with the theme “Aviation in Nigeria: What Next?” put together by Phillips Consulting Ltd last week, said Africa had a huge population of over one billion people, adding that in terms of global traffic, Africa accounted for just three per cent of traffic.
According to her, “we have poor air connectivity, and we have low traffic because on some routes, the fares are just too high and so, there isn’t enough traffic. The cost of the ticket is prohibitive; a lot of people would want to travel to go see places, to go see people they cannot do it.
The cost of tickets is high because the cost to the airlines is also high. “There are various taxes and charges, and we have restrictive visa policies because, in Africa, everybody is afraid that they are coming to steal ideas, to dump people forgetting that Africa is not where people want to go but all the same, they keep protecting their own market. “African leaders sat down and said to themselves what can we do?
They tried it years before and they thought let us give it a try again and see how they can help their airlines, how they can help their people, and how they can integrate Africa and they came up with the Single Africa Air Transport Market (SAATM). Why is it not working?”
The former AFCAC scribe explained that the African air transport initiative was not working because a lot of people do not fully understand the relationship between starting a single African air transport market and the Yamoussoukro Decision (YD) which she said was an initiative that was endorsed by the Heads of State in 1999. “I dare say that it failed mainly because of the airlines because the airlines are not willing to venture out.
They were afraid they were going to die and convinced their principals that if they open up they will die and that is why it has not worked. It still holds true for certain that once the airlines, powers, and shakers convince their governments not to open up, Africa will continue to suffer, and Africa will not become the giant that you have in the rest of the global space.
“We also have high operating costs and that is one of the reasons it is not working, limited access to funding for airlines, and financing is difficult for them. I agree with George on that. The initiative that we put in to make it easy for airlines to access funds and improve their fleet and modernize their fleet these have not been utilized by a lot of our airlines,” she said.
The aviation industry is a very peculiar industry and the few countries/governments and individuals that have come to really understand how it functions have, without any reservations, wholeheartedly opened up their skies for new entrance and competition.