Aircraft operators stop pretending rules don’t apply in African skies

Thursday March 17 2022
Overflight fees

Much like we can pay tolls to use roads, aircraft operators must pay for the benefit of flying through sovereign airspaces, through overflight fees. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


For aircraft operators, the sky is a place without physical barriers, governed by common rules. But for some, this changes when they reach Africa. From the small and local through to intergovernmental organisations and global NGOs, a minority of aircraft operators still believe the rules don’t count when it comes to our continent.

Much like we can pay tolls to use roads, aircraft operators must pay for the benefit of flying through sovereign airspaces, through overflight fees. This is a principle enshrined by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), and for generations, it’s been a rule adhered to across the globe.

For the countries in Africa that can collect them, these fees can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually. But their real value is greater, as overflight fees are mandated under UN law to be reinvested back into the airspace, ensuring safety and, crucially, infrastructure development that generates far broader economic value.

Fee avoidance continues to be an Africa-wide problem, preventing our skies from being a modern space of seamless travel and trade that can power our economic prosperity, and drive forward sustainable, self-generating development.

Whether it’s refusing to pay fees, or flouting safety requirements, global and local operators engaging in these behaviours are not only disregarding the sovereignty of African nations, but are risking lives, and robbing us of money we’re owed by law.

Every dollar collected in overflight fees can generate up to $20 back for the national economy, encouraging greater trade, tourism, and providing a pipeline for talent and wider global integration with the world marketplace.


When these aren’t collected, however, the economic impact goes into reverse. And the scale of this abuse is not pocket change.

Unpaid fees worth more than a fifth (21 percent) of the total infrastructure development funding that South Sudan's lower airspace should have generated are owed by intergovernmental organisations and NGOs that are household names. Imagine if a loss of this proportion was applied to the entire continent.

Without the support of fees, the highest safety standards cannot be maintained. More than this, the world’s biggest international airlines can struggle to get the insurance they need to fly and avoid the skies of a country entirely.

The impact this can have on trade, one of the greatest forces for poverty reduction, is grave, especially for the region’s landlocked countries.

In South Sudan, the civil aviation authority (SSCAA) has embarked on a project to make our airspace a truly modern gateway to the globe, to increase safety, and make it work as an engine for national prosperity.

In just nine months, South Sudan has claimed full control of its lower airspace, with state of art technology enabling us to safely manage traffic and bill overflight fees. And now, we’re on the cusp of rolling this out across our upper airspace, and in doing so, truly opening our skies to the world.

All this, among other milestones we’ve achieved, has been made possible because most operators have paid overflight fees when billed, providing us with the revenue to invest back into the airspace. However, there continues to be a great deal of resistance from a few domestic operators, intergovernmental organisations, and NGOs.

Further still, many of these are flying aircraft defying minimum standards of safety. With out-of-date models which are poorly maintained, and that can’t be accurately tracked — in some cases because pilots turn off transponders to avoid incurring overflight fees. These have no place in African skies and pose a risk to lives.

The International Monetary Fund predicts Africa will be the slowest-growing region to emerge from coronavirus. Fees are a small price to pay.

In this context, the emergence of Africa’s Continental Free Trade Agreement is timely. But key to its success will be a seamless ability for inter-state trade to occur between African nations, an issue that was noted during last week’s Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development in Kigali.

Until our infrastructure deficit is corrected, the ACFTA will not transform our economy at the rate and scale needed.

Our message to local operators is this recovery, and growth, belongs to you as much as it belongs to us. And for the minority of international operators flying in the face of rules across our continent, we say that Africa’s skies are not a frontier where rules need not apply.

Our airspaces are becoming as modern as anywhere else in the world. Now, we simply ask for modern attitudes to follow.

Captain David Subek Dada is CEO of the South Sudan Civil Aviation Authority.