The failure of the expected take-off of the Single African Air Transport Market this past week in Nairobi may have disappointed some, but was not completely unexpected.
First of all, though it is being touted as something new, Single Market is in actuality simply a warmed-up version of the decades-old Yamoussoukro Decision that was issued in 1988.
That 30 years later, the continent is still talking about opening up airspace, testifies to two facts:
One is that African states are at least aware of the benefits of an open air transport market.
The second is that old fears and short-term interests are still a formidable adversary that will require great patience to overcome.
Part of the current impasse has its roots in Africa’s colonial past.
When newly independent African states set up national carriers, their routes were mainly structured to create an air bridge between the new state and its former colonial master.
That not only created a culture of protectionism but also taught Africans to look at each other as adversaries.
In the meantime, offshore airlines moved in to fill the connection void left by the absence of an intra-African air transport network.
In a more nuanced way, the staggered signing-up is also indicative of a desire to buy time by those countries that are still in the process of setting up or reviving their national carriers.
The reluctance of countries that have entrenched national carriers should not be surprising either.
According to the air transport data consolidation firm Innovata, 70 per cent of current regional routes shorter than 1,500 nautical miles are monopolies operated by a single airline.
Signing up to the implementation of Single African Air Transport Market by an additional thirteen states was supposed to be the icing on the cake to the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s Air Services Negotiations conference (ICAN2018) in Nairobi.
It would have brought to 27 the initial number of countries ready to open up their airspace.
Had the full complement of 27 signed up, the Single Market would have been on a successful flight path, since between them, they account for 80 per cent of air traffic in Africa.
On their own, they can get this initiative off the ground if they choose to. But they first need to overcome their fears.
Contrary to popular belief, the Single African Air Transport Market is unlikely to be disruptive to existing business.
Many of the bigger carriers are structured to fly long-haul routes, leaving plenty of scope for complementarity.
Rather than swallow up small airlines, the big carriers will need them to generate the feed that grows their hubs and expands their reach.
So it is the small airlines that are going to have the right economics to sustain thin intra-African routes.
It could also be helpful for governments to look at the cost of not opening up.
Air travel is stunted and expensive in Africa because of the current alignment of the market.
Opening up will deliver the economies of scale needed to bring the cost structures of African carriers closer to global averages.
Studies have shown that if just 12 African states implemented the Yamoussoukro Decision, $1.3 billion would accrue in GDP growth and 155,000 additional jobs would be created.
There would also be a 75 per cent increase in direct air services, a 25-35 per cent reduction in air fares and access to air transport for an additional five million people.