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Analysis: Africa aviation — time to leave protectionist policies behind


By: Pratap John

Africa is on the cusp of an aviation boom. The continent is set to become one of the fastest growing aviation regions in the next 20 years with an annual expansion of nearly 5%.

By 2035, Africa is estimated to see an extra 192mn passengers a year to make up a total market of 303mn passengers, travelling to and from African destinations.

As I have written in these columns a few weeks ago, while it is evident that aviation has the potential to fuel economic growth in Africa, several barriers still exist. 

One major obstacle, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) points out, is the slow pace of implementing the proposed ‘open skies programme’ in Africa. 

Open Skies’ trajectory is at the heart of  Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM), a flagship project of the African Union (AU), which was launched in 2018. It was designed to open up Africa’s skies, allowing airlines to fly between any two African cities without having to do so via their home hub airport, boosting intra-Africa trade and tourism as a result. 

But progress in realising ‘African open skies’ has been rather tardy, analysts say.

At a recent industry event in Cape Town, IATA’s regional vice-president Raphael Kuuchi noted African aviation was at risk of falling behind if countries delayed the creation of open skies while waiting for others to implement the programme first.

Continent Africa comprises some 54 countries, but IATA says so far only 28 countries have agreed to SAATM. 

They are Benin, Burkina Faso, Botswana, Capo Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea Conakry, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Swaziland, Togo, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Cameroon. 

However, these countries represent more than 80% of the existing aviation market in Africa.  Obviously, SAATM’s key objective is to create a single unified air transport market for African airlines, which can boost local economies through increased intra-African trading.

Like the European market benefiting the European airlines, African carriers too can tap into a “bigger local market”, keeping them on a similar competitive advantage by reducing what many describe as “protectionist policies”.

Africa has 731 airports and 419 airlines with an aviation industry that supports around 6.9mn jobs and $80bn in economic activity, data show.

At the same time, the continent’s share of the global tourism industry is diminishing, figures reveal. In 10 years, it had fallen from 4.8% of global arrivals and receipts in 2006, down to 3.3% in 2016.  

An IATA survey earlier suggested that if just 12 key Africa countries opened their markets and increased connectivity, an extra 155,000 jobs and $1.3bn in annual GDP would be created in those countries. 

At the Aviation Africa Summit & Exhibition at Kigali, Rwanda, in late February, Qatar Airways Group Chief Executive, HE Akbar al-Baker highlighted “the need for a global repositioning of Africa’s aviation industry as well as the changing political approach” to aviation in the region.  “Although Africa makes up 16% of the world’s population, it only captures approximately 3.1% of the world’s air travellers. Now is the time to reconsider how Africa’s aviation market is positioned in order to maximise its full potential. Governments should leave behind protectionist approaches to regulating aviation and embrace liberalisation, because when such policies are adopted, countries benefit from improved connectivity and a positive impact on trade, tourism and employment, al-Baker had said.

Despite its rosy outlook, Africa’s aviation sector still faces enormous challenges. Indeed, protectionist trends have resulted in a rather lacklustre response from many member countries, concerning competition rules, ownership and control, consumer rights, taxes, and commercial viability.

Weak infrastructure, high ticket prices, poor connectivity and lack of proper liberalisation are some of the headwinds on African aviation’s path, albeit the continent currently sees an economic boom with tourism started benefiting from greater prosperity. 

Airport infrastructure in most African countries remains outdated and cannot effectively serve the growing passengers or cargo volumes. Airlines and airports are often managed by government entities or regulatory bodies while foreign investment is generally discouraged. Undoubtedly, Africa’s aviation potential remains massive. SAATM was clearly a bold step towards unlocking Africa’s aviation potential. 

But it may end up as another “unfulfilled dream” in African aviation, unless the industry works closely with respective governments to break the barriers that restrict the continent from reaching the levels, it really is capable of. 

Until African governments recognise the wider benefits an efficient aviation system can bring in, with its impact on economic development, aviation potential may remain the “same old cliché.”


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