Open Skies for Africa
It is no secret that air travel in Africa can often be a frustrating, expensive and an uncomfortable experience. Ideally, the quickest route from one country to another, even over short distances is via Europe or the Middle East. To get to another country in Africa, you most likely have to go through Dubai or London.
According to the World Bank, Africa accounts for less than 1% of the global air service market, although it makes up more than 12% of the world's population. For Instance, in Nigeria, with a population of almost 200 million, only 4.2 million passengers travelled into and out of the country in 2018. A very mediocre figure for the African giant.
The subpar state of the continents aviation industry is not only stressful for passengers but costly for business and bad for the economy. Apart from the hassle with flight connections, many of the airlines operating in the continent have a poor reputation with service delivery. To put this into perspective, what should typically be a 3-hour journey from Algeria to Cameroon takes around 24 hours via Istanbul and costs over $1000.
The Yamoussoukro Decision
Although several air markets between Africa and countries outside of Africa have been liberalised to a large extent, many intra-African aviation markets are still closed and burdened with restrictive policies which hinder the growth and development of air services.
In an attempt to reverse this trend, on the 17th of November 1999, African Ministers responsible for civil aviation adopted the Yamoussoukro Decision on the liberalisation of access to air transport markets in Africa. The Yamoussoukro Decision is a multilateral agreement signed by 44 countries which permits the "multilateral exchange of up to fifth freedom air traffic rights between any African Yamoussoukro Decision party-state using a simple notification procedure". In essence, it meant allowing a carrier to fly between two countries on a flight originating or ending in its own country. It was also meant to promote competitive markets, remove regulatory barriers and encourage cross-border investment.
The agreement became fully binding on 12 August 2002, after it was endorsed by heads of states and governments of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in July 2000. However, 20 years down the line implementation remains a myth.
Painful prices and crazy connections
It is costly travelling to and from Africa, but it is even more expensive to travel within Africa, a factor driven by a lack of competition and very few domestic airlines.
The aviation industry has tremendous potential to fuel economic growth. Yet, several barriers still exist. Some of which include; dilapidated airport infrastructure, long delays, frequent cancellations, high ticket prices, poor connectivity, lack of liberalisation and lack of political will among key players. These challenges further deter the goal of integrating the continent and achieving the Pan-Africanist vision of a "United Africa".
African carriers encounter higher costs than their counterparts. Jet fuel, for example, is more expensive in Africa (30% more) than in other parts of the world. Although over 20 African countries produce oil, jet fuel remains costly in these countries due to a lack of refineries and onerous taxes.
There is also a regional disparity in Africa's aviation industry. Most of the aviation hubs are located in East, South and North Africa; where they operate within limited routes. Conversely, West and Central Africa are lagging and have consistently failed to establish hubs and successful state carriers; Nigeria is an example.
Amidst the turbulent journey, Ethiopia is still flying high.
You cannot talk about aviation in the continent without citing Ethiopia. The state-owned airline is the only profitable African carrier and has the best reach across the continent and beyond. Their remarkable success story is owed to a consistent operational strategy, efficient service delivery, and a feasible governance framework; a path many African countries are encouraged to follow. Interestingly, Uganda just relaunched its national carrier, Uganda Airlines, after an 18-year hiatus. The new entrant will increase the competition in the East African aviation industry that is presently dominated by Ethiopian Airlines.
Connecting Africa, one airline at a time
Africa needs to open up its skies. Restrictive regulations and protectionist policies that hinder free movement have economic costs. For instance, in 2016, Asia-Pacific carriers made a profit of $900 million while African airlines lost US$ 800 million. African states are clearly missing out on a huge financial opportunity here.
Liberalisation in the aviation sector will bring numerous benefits such as; new routes, frequent flights, better connections and lower ticket prices. These improvements in the aviation industry will drastically improve air traffic, which will have a direct, indirect and induced positive impact on trade, inward investment, productivity and tourism across the continent.
The image below estimates the impact of increased aviation activity in 12 African countries. Liberalisation between the 12 countries is estimated to reduce fares by 35%, create over 155,000 jobs and contribute US$1.3 billion to annual GDP.
Summary of the Economic Benefits of Liberalisation
Visa policies also need to be revisited. In 2007, Bill Gates was denied a visa because he had to provide evidence that he would not reside in Nigeria indefinitely and become a free rider. African Billionaire Aliko Dangote, has also expressed his frustration at visa requirements within the continent. Although the African Union (AU) has tried to address the issue by introducing the Africa Union Passport in 2016; there is still so much work to be done towards achieving the goal of a visa-free Africa.
Finally, the misconception that air travel is a luxury needs to be altered. In the US and Europe anyone can go anywhere at anytime without breaking the bank. Africa's geography emphasises the need for a fully functional and efficient aviation industry. The terrain is difficult to navigate on land, making air transport the best mode of transportation across the continent.
Aviation is more than planes and fancy airports; it underpins the entire economy. It facilitates exports, encourages connectivity and supports the integration of diverse ecosystems. African governments should work towards making air travel accessible to all; whether you are a student, tourist, working professional or a business owner.
Thank you for reading,