Exciting prospects ahead for carriers opening up Africa

Bernie Baldwin

The continent continues to offer huge potential for aviation growth, explained Abderahmane Berthe, secretary general of AFRAA.

African airlines are eager to link with Europe but are just as eager to increase their intra-Africa flying, thus creating better connectivity across both continents. That was the message from the conference session titled, “Powering the development of the African market”.

Africa has more than 52 countries, many of which lack road and rail infrastructure, and is now working to create a liberalised aviation market with SAATM (Single African Air Transport Market), for which 35 countries have signed up.

Abderahmane Berthe, secretary general of the African Airlines Association (AFRAA), updated delegates on the current status of the African aviation industry. He reported that in January 2023, airlines had reached 85.7% of 2019’s traffic. “Some hubs like Addis Ababa, Cairo, Lomé and Abuja have even exceeded the connectivity level they have before Covid-19. However, the connectivity still needs to be improved,” he emphasised.

Berthe reminded CONNECT 2023 delegates that attempts to liberalise the market began with the Yamoussoukro declaration in the late 1980s. “However, it was not working very well, so in 2013, the African Union came up with three flagship projects, one of which was the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) to improve inter-African productivity.

“Another one was Africa Connected, to have a free trade area to increase intra-Africa trade because African states are not trading enough between themselves, they are trading more with non-African countries. The level of intra-African trade stands roughly at 25% of overall trade. The third project is the Free Movement Protocol of people goods, capital and services,” Berthe noted.

“With SAATM, we have 55 states committed, 31 of which have signed what we call the Memorandum of Implementation. Those 31 States now need to review the bilateral air service areements to bring them into compliance with the Yamoussoukro decision,” he continued. However, “so far, as per a study made by the African Union, two-thirds of the bilateral air service agreements do not yet comply.

“So, what are the challenges for air services? To summarise, it’s the high cost of operation, high fares, then the affordability of air transport for African citizens because the GDP per capita in Africa is very low.

“We have real connectivity issues. Only five African countries have more than 20 other countries directly linked. For example, I’m sure many [Africa] attendees perhaps went through a city outside Africa to come here. I came to Morocco last year from Nairobi and had to go via Doha. Also, there’s the visa requirements – 50% of Africans travelling between one African country and another need a visa before the start. So, these situations need to be improved,” Berthe advocated.

An airline that links into Africa is Canary Islands-based Binter. Manuel Jonay Lobo Torres, the carrier’s chief of network, confirmed its ethos, saying: “It is true that we are European, but also we are African geographically. We operate to countries in northwest Africa. And we also created a company to fly within Cape Verde.”

“Connectivity in Africa needs to be improved since this is one of the big disadvantages we experience compared with other continents. Africa seems like a continent that is created from north to south, not from west to east. There are some parts like the Sahara and then the jungle forest, so creating trains and motorways has been difficult, because the weather is very extreme. That doesn’t happen in Europe which is more east–west and the weather is more or less the same,” Jonay observed.

“After connectivity the Binter executive believes that the second step is to deal with taxes. “In the airports, because the taxes are very high, you have fewer passengers and it’s difficult to create economies of scale to reduce prices,” he added, noting the need for incentives.

The airport executives agree. Namory Camara, managing director of Ahmed Sekou Toure International Airport in Conakry, Guinea, believes that, to strengthen African aviation markets, governments or states must adopt a broader view of the sector and its needs, and improve their governance. “We have high taxes in Africa because the markets here are not liberalised. When you do that for the airport and airline sectors, prices will come down. Morocco is a good example of this. The EU and Morocco open skies agreement is one of the most ambitious. Morocco has really gained from that,” he stated.

“Infrastructure also is key. We’re starting to see the development of world class airports within Africa. In 2018, for an African to try to connect, he or she would have to go through Dubai. But today, the connecting point for Africans is Addis Ababa. So, good things are happening,” Camara reported.

Askin Demir, CEO of Dakar Blaise Diagne International Airport, argued that while the USA, China and Europe could together fit into the Africa continent, there needs be a strong focus on growth across regional markets first. “For my airport, for example, we have several countries around us like Mali, like Guinea, like Burkina Faso, and it is much more important [for our customers] to go to them than it is to go to Nairobi,” he confirmed.

Going back to the subject of taxes, to travel from Dakar to Abuja, passengers need to pay three times more than if they were travelling between destinations in Europe. “There you pay less than €100. For Dakar–Abuja, one of the most frequent destinations from our airport, it’s more than €300,” he explained.

Demir also balks over where airport charges go. “They are not really airport charges. We get only 12% and the remaining 88% goes to the government,” he explained to delegates.

Things have to change, and Berthe believes SAATM is the key. “The African Union ministers have approved a guideline of our service agreement between African countries and non-African countries which was adopted in June 2022. It allow every country to have a guideline to know if they want to open their sky with any of our regions,” he stated. “SAATM has a joint process action plan with pillars – infrastructure development and safety are parts of it. Taxes and charges are also part, as is granting fifth freedom traffic rights.

“Many states have committed to it but are not yet ready to really implement it fully. So, we need to speak out and continue to fight. AFRAA is asking members to tell us in which countries they have challenges regarding SAATM and we will do our part to make change happen in terms of advocacy,” Berthe concluded hopefully.

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7-9 Feb 2024
Turin, Italy