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Open skies across Africa

After years of delay and setbacks, 17 African countries will finally pilot the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM). The SAATM is a flagship project of the African Union’s Agenda 2063, which promises to liberalise civil aviation by eliminating the need for separate bilateral air service agreements (BASAs) between individual countries. The SAATM aims to create a single market, with liberalised air tariffs, unrestricted frequency and capacity; liberalised cargo services; and recognition of the powers and function of the African Civil Aviation Commission.

In 1999, 43 African states adopted the Yamoussoukro Decision, but implementation had been slow on account of a lack of government commitment and persistent protectionist policies. Now, in the aftermath of the disruptions in aviation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and amid broader calls for African integration, the industry is in a position to implement the provisions under the SAATM.

Know your neighbours 

Africa is home to 15% of the world’s population but accounts for only 3% of the global air service market. Travelling within the continent is often cumbersome with only 35% of Africa’s major cities directly connected to one another. This is primarily linked to the limited availability of local and regional flights reinforced by protectionist policies. 

Across the continent, there is thus an untapped potential for trade, tourism and learning that has historically been blocked by poor market access. For example, while Abuja and Dakar are proximate West African capitals, there are no direct flights between them. 

Turbocharge  travel and tourism

Tourism drives the demand for travel. Approximately 20% of Africa’s tourism-related jobs are supported by visitors arriving by air, compared with 4% in North America. 

Recognising the opportunity, Kenya Airways is leveraging the SAATM and kicked off a new service between Accra and Dakar on 11 December. In Nigeria, the government is seeking to revitalise the elusive Nigerian Air and has entered into a Public Private Partnership (PPP) with Ethiopian Airlines. This partnership is expected to bring the latter’s wealth of experience to Nigeria’s aviation sector. 

Some pushback against the SAATM has come from smaller airlines with concerns that larger African carriers – such as Ethiopian Airways, South African Airways and Kenya Airways – would benefit from economies of scale. In response to the Air Nigeria-Ethiopian Airlines agreement, for instance, local Nigerian airlines took legal action describing the partnership as “anti-competitive”. 

Simultaneously, visa restrictions, as well as high flight prices, continue to pose significant challenges. According to the Visa Openness Index Report 2021, 51% of African countries require citizens of other African countries to obtain entry visas prior to travelling. Only 25% of African countries welcome some or all African visitors, visa-free, while 24% allow some or all African visitors to obtain a visa on arrival. Only Seychelles, Benin and The Gambia offer visa-free access to all Africans.

Achieving the shared goals under the AU 2063 Agenda will require the conscious development of an African identity forged through greater connections. The continent’s present and future strength is firmly placed in an ability to leverage competition, open its markets and prioritise interconnectedness. The success of the AfCFTA also cannot be separated from the progress  of the SAATM. Open skies will promote multilateralism for air transport in Africa, loosening tariffs, increasing travel flows and driving economic integration. 

About the Author

Iniye Spiff is a consultant at Africa Practice, with a particular focus on political economy in Anglophone and Francophone Africa. She can be contacted at [email protected].

Photo credit: AFCAC – African Civil Aviation Commission

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