Frequent flyers across Africa are often frustrated by two things: the lack of intra-African connectivity and an onerous visa regime. Restricted airspace has resulted in a situation where to visit an African country it is easier to fly out of the continent and then back in through some connector in the Gulf or Europe.
Entry into some African states is in some cases easier for non-Africans, even when the states share a common border.
The sum total of all this is a stunted air transport market, some of the highest airfares in the world, and a dismal share of global aviation, which for a long time has stagnated at just 1.9 percent.
Industry experts believe that, with its natural resource base — a huge and young population — Africa’s share of global aviation should be close to 15 percent. Most of what is required for that to happen, or the pre-conditions for take-off, is already in place but needs a leap of faith and change of mind-set to actualise.
Despite knowing the obvious, African leaders are hostage to a myriad of fears, including the fear of domination, even for countries that don’t have a single designated airline. That is why nearly three and half decades since the promulgation of the Yamoussoukro Decision, liberalisation of Africa’s skies has remained more of a slogan than a reality.
Suffocating bilateralism has taken centre-stage, creating an elite club of a few airlines that enjoy near-unfettered access. As this happened, the Yamoussoukro Decision has over time, been changing names, with SAATM, the Single African Air Transport Market, being its latest iteration.
Against that background, the news this week that 15 SAATM signatory states had agreed to bring the initiative to life by opening up their aviation markets to each other is cause for celebration.
The African Union’s own studies conclude that opening up intra-African travel would generate an additional $4.2 billion in GDP, 600,000 jobs and shave nearly 30 percent off current airfares. The 35 countries that have so far signed up to SAATM represent 85 percent of air traffic in Africa today.
Airfares in Africa are a function attitude, infrastructure and a lack of competition. Restrictions mean that there is no competition and airlines buy aircraft that are too large to economically operate to secondary airports. Meanwhile, the limited operations tempt regulators and infrastructure providers to overburden the few existing operators with fees and taxes.
In 2013, regional aircraft manufacturers Embraer and Bombardier Aerospace estimated that there were 250 additional routes that could be opened up among African countries if they liberalised the market and airlines bought aircraft that fit thin routes better.
African governments need to wake up and smell the coffee. Opening up the skies will attract private capital to free the sector’s potential.
Importantly, the other 20 SAATM signatories need to join the pilot.