How African governments grounded their own aviation ambitions
African states adopted the Yamoussoukro Declaration in 1988 to liberalize and unify the African aviation industry. Thirty-five years later, progress has been slow.The African Union established the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) in 2015, setting 2017 as the implementation deadline.
However, as of today only 36 of the 55 AU members have adopted the agreements. SAATM remains far from implementation as all African governments continue to employ protectionist policies that shield their national carriers from competition.African airlines must still negotiate bilaterally for traffic rights to fly between African states.
“Kenya Airways applied to fly from Mombasa to Entebbe two years ago. We’re still waiting for traffic rights approval,” said Dalmas Okendo, Kenya Airways’ head of regulatory affairs.
He spoke at the 11th African Airlines Association (AFRAA) convention in Addis Ababa. African states impose fewer restrictions on non-African airlines, indicating a double standard. While African airlines remain small and fragmented, non-African carriers like Qatar Airways, Lufthansa, and Emirates enjoy open access.
Mesfin Tassew, CEO of Ethiopian Airlines Group, said: “African states fear unfair competition from other African carriers. They believe their national carriers will be at a disadvantage if they open up.”
The CEO added: “Paradoxically, most African states have opened up to non-African airlines while remaining closed to African airlines.”
He says big non-African airlines fly to African states with higher frequency. “When traffic rights are allowed only based on bilateral agreements, SAATM cannot become operational.” He believes African airlines remain fragmented and small due to high taxes, traffic right restrictions, and obstacles to cooperation.
African airlines make up just three percent of the global aviation industry despite there being around 200 of them. In contrast, non-African carriers dominate Africa’s aviation sector due to their larger economies of scale and privileges they enjoy in Africa.SAATM would have allowed African airlines to fly as frequently as they wanted to African destinations. “Why have African states signed SAATM at the AU level if they are not going to implement it?” Mesfin asks.
When asked by The Reporter about what leverage AFRAA has to change African states’ rigid position, Abderahmane Berthe, AFRAA’s Secretary General, said, “We cannot force member states to open up their spaces or implement SAATM.”
After a long wait, however, the convention’s panelists and attendees appear to have lost faith in SAATM. They also stressed the need to pressure governments to allow competition and cooperation in their airspace.
“Unfortunately, it is not happening, but ET Group is pushing Ethiopian authorities to open up the airspace,” Mesfin said, adding that they have given authorities the green light to open the airspace to African airlines. In the past, he says, everything was based on bilateral air service agreements.
Opening up means granting traffic rights to airlines that currently lack access to Ethiopian airspace, he explains. Rwanda Air has not flown to Ethiopia yet. If they want to fly now, authorities in Ethiopia are willing to allow them.
“Kenya Airways flies to Addis Ababa twice daily, and if they want to double that, Ethiopian Airlines is fine with that. Morocco’s Royal Air is asking to fly to Addis, and Ethiopian Airlines gave consent,” Mesfin explained.
Reducing restrictions on traffic rights and hefty taxes would allow African airlines to charge less for flights. Currently, only 10 percent of Africans can afford air travel, according to research presented at the convention.
African airlines could have a greater voice in negotiations with global aircraft, fuel, and spare parts suppliers if they joined forces and made bulk purchases. Boeing would have less bargaining power with a unified African airline than with a single aviation company ordering an aircraft.
Many agree that opening up and cooperating are essential for African airlines to recover quickly from the pandemic. Implementing SAATM could enable African airlines to serve 16 million additional passengers, generate USD 4.2 billion in additional revenue, and create nearly 600,000 new jobs.
Ethiopian Airlines is a prime example of how cooperation can boost profit and efficiency. It is now trying to form partnerships in Nigeria and the DRC following its success in Togo. After signing an agreement with the DRC government, it is preparing to establish a new national carrier.
According to Mesfin, Ethiopian Airlines has an agreement to establish a new DRC flag carrier. “Congo Airways, fully owned by the government, exists but the government is dissatisfied with Congo Airways’ service,” he said.
Mesfin claims the government is eager to launch this airline soon. “We await their word. We’ll find a way to integrate the new airline with Congo Airways,” he said.
Ethiopian Airlines is also preparing to establish a national airline in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy.
“The Nigerian government invited us to help establish a national carrier,” Mesfin said.
Ethiopian’s goal, he says, is to help Africans develop their airlines. He invites African airlines to partner to establish joint ventures.
“We’ve made major progress. We’re close to signing an agreement with Nigerian investors and the government. We were ready to establish Nigeria Air, a new carrier,” Mesfin added.
However, some smaller Nigerian airlines requested that a Nigerian court block the new airline’s establishment on the grounds it would threaten their business. The court temporarily halted formation. Ethiopian Airlines awaits the final ruling to lift the injunction and proceed with establishing Nigeria Air as soon as permitted.
Ethiopian Airlines has sought partnerships with other large African economies but they were not ready, Mesfin says, noting that Nigeria, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire declined. “We asked them to partner with us to establish their national carriers. They said no, but smaller Togo was ready to work with us.
Today, Mesfin claims that Ghana is also asking to work with the Group.
“Nigeria is requesting that we set up an airline there. This is after they saw the success of ASKY, which is now profitable after it partnered with ET,” said Mesfin.
The Ethiopian government is also committed to expanding ET’s airport capacity from 22 million passengers per year to 100 million passengers per year within the next five years. Transport and Logistics Minister Alemu Sime stated at the convention that the new airport city will be completed within five years at a cost of five billion dollars, just 40 kilometers from Bole International Airport.
While airlines like ET utilize partnerships, the AU is developing a new strategy to convince member states to adopt SAATM. SAATM is one of Agenda 2063’s primary objectives.
African Civil Aviation Commission’s Secretary General Adefunke Adeyemi said: “We have to negotiate with African states individually to persuade them to implement SAATM. Each country has its own issues. In Nigeria, for example, there are restrictions on frequency and capacity constraints.”
Free visas on arrival are also a problem in all African countries. Inadequate aviation infrastructure is an issue across Africa, according to her.
“We’re negotiating with customs offices, civil aviation authorities, airports, transport ministries, airlines and other relevant bodies in every African country. This way, we hope to bring all African states on board to implement SAATM,” Adeyemi asserts.
Abderahmane says Africa’s 54 states cannot have 54 international airlines, speculating “we may have five global aviation operators even at the international level.”
“The only solution is for as many regional operators to collaborate and work together as possible. We will strive for this,” he lamented.