Twenty-three African states have launched a single aviation market in an effort to improve connectivity, lessen fares and fuel economic growth on a continent that has earned the notoriety as being one of the most expensive and tedious to fly around.
Some of the more prominent African nations that signed on to join the initiative are South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya.
Thirty years after the idea was first broached, the 55-member African Union unveiled the first phase of the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM). Officials are hopeful that it can duplicate the European Common Aviation Area, which lets airlines from member states fly between any member states.
Airline executives and industry experts called the development a “seismic event” but remained cautious of the work that still needed to be accomplished to finally establish open skies on the continent.
Africa makes up an estimated 15% of the world’s population. However, they only comprise 3% of the world’s aviation traffic, according to data from the International Civil Aviation Organization.
“The continent is beset by airlines that are government owned, incredibly inefficient arms of the state and not really fit for commercial purpose and the travelling public suffer as a result,” relayed Tim Coombs, the Managing Director of Aviation Economics, a consultancy that is based in London.
Connectivity between several nations on the continent is so substandard that passengers often have to fly through Europe of the Middle East.
David Kajange, the head of the AU’s Transport and Tourism Division and one of the minds behind the landmark project, said:
“The cost benefit analysis of protecting a few jobs compared with the total economic benefits of opening up is just not there. Aviation is a luxury product in Africa but in the US and Europe anyone can go anywhere for a weekend. That’s what we want here.”
A 2015 study that was commissioned by the African Civil Aviation Commission and the International Air Transport Association (IATA), pegged that complete liberalization of the sector among 12 of the biggest economies on the continent would add a whopping $1.3 billion to their economic output, and support 155,000 new jobs and fare decreases of up to 35%.
Kajange added that he is hoping that airfares can drop by as much as 30%, especially as carriers obtain the freedom to expand routes between second and third-tier cities.
“We’ve come to realize that if you liberalize, you create the business conditions for investors to exploit those opportunities, the secondary markets,” Kajange said.
The new market traces its roots to the 1999 Yamoussoukro Decision, wherein 44 states consented to liberalize air transport. However, that has never been applied until now.
Raphael Kuuchi, IATA’s Vice-President for Africa, called the new single market as “momentous” but noted that the “benefits of a connected continent will only be realized through effective implementation”.