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Africa News of Thursday, 15 April 2021


Tanzania Aviation: Mixed views over opening up of African skies

The question on when the long-held dream of opening up Africa’s skies and creating a unified air transport market for the continent would be realized, remains to be a riddle for many.

This is because most African countries, Tanzania included, still take airline as one of the strategic sectors, thus furthering protectionism.

That is happening despite the launch of the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) program by the African Union (AU) in January 2018, with the aim of developing air services and harmonizing associated regulations in Africa and stimulating the flow of private capital in the industry.

The initiative was thought by the aviation stakeholders that could be the renewed push to implement the Yamoussoukro Decision.

The major groundwork to create open skies for Africa was done in the build-up to 1988’s Yamoussoukro Declaration and the Yamoussoukro Decision of 1999, signed by 44 members of the AU.

With the implementation of the Yamoussoukro Decision, the fifth freedom flights will now take its course: providing airlines the right to fly between two foreign countries on a flight originating or ending in one’s own country.

It is on that grounds, many states continue to drag their feet on open skies to protect their local airlines and go alone.

Experts and the aviation stakeholders have mixed views about the planned liberalization, with others demanding more assessment before moving forward. TCAA director general Hamza Johari tells The Citizen that the issue of liberalisation of African skies needed a thorough evaluation on what the move implied to the aviation industry.

“Liberalisation of air transport needs no rush, but enough preparations. We need to establish what it means to local airlines and revenue as well,” cautioned Mr Johari.

His sentiments were echoed by an aviation expert with 46 years of experience John Njawa on the grounds that Tanzania needed to examine thoroughly on what have been the weaknesses of the non-ratification of the pact.

“Let us take stock of any, if any, of whichever countries who have gone forward and joined the pact- have there been any tangible benefits: can they demonstrate freedom and economic impetus from such moves?” he recommended.

It may be more important to improve domestic infrastructure to enhance usability of the industry through more market liberalisation and have more domestic players.

This, Mr Njawa suggests, should go to a level where air transport becomes a more common means of transport, then suffice to get into such agreements.

“I am a strong proponent of market liberalisation and the Yamousoukro agreement gears towards that, but do the players have equitable strengths and opportunities?” he asked.

Efforts to get comments from airlines proved futile.

On why it is taking long to implement the pact, Mr Njawa says, when you have a nascent industry, you feel the need to protect it till it matures to a level where you can have an equitable playing field.

Furthermore, still national airlines might also act as a strategic security organ in case of conflict where you may move armies by commandeering the airline for transportation.

With open skies: any airline can operate routes including internal ones through multiplicity of International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) freedoms.

“You can see there are many reasons why African countries still feel that national carriers still need to be nurtured: whether this has achieved those goals is another matter altogether,” says Mr Njawa.

Nas-Dar Airco Head of Corporate and Government Relations Evans Mlelwa seemed to have been reading from a different script, suggesting for joining the SAATM initiative on the grounds that it would only be a win-win situation for the country.

The benefits, he says, include better connectivity, lowering ticket costs and improving services which would encourage the movement of people and goods.

This in turn would drive economic prosperity and creation of job opportunities as per the underlying objectives for the establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

An International Air Transport Association (IATA) survey suggests that if just 12 key African countries opened their markets and increased connectivity, an extra 155,000 jobs would be created. Furthermore, approximately $1.3 billion in annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would be generated in those countries. “We should note that AfCFTA which seeks to promote intra-Africa trade and build a stronger position for Africa’s voice in the global markets will not succeed if the SAATM is not fully implemented,” alerted Mr Mlelwa.

But even if the African skies were suddenly opened, industry experts believe it will not be enough to ensure sustainability.

Other challenges will have to be addressed, such as high costs of operation and poor infrastructure.

“How can we liberalize airlines when heavy taxes remain a huge challenge?” queried Mr Mlelwa.

Implementing uniform charges and taxes across the continent are crucial to the SAATM.

For the success achievement of SAATM initiatives, he adds, there should be a level playing field for all airlines regardless of ownership.

IATA is on record warning that protecting small, fragmented and closed markets could end up hampering the development of air services by limiting their potential to contribute to development and economic growth.

At the same time, experts are urging African countries to create more airlines, especially low-cost carriers, to serve the continent’s internal air transport needs.

Tanzania had Fastjet which became dormant in 2018 after encountering financial problems.

Were African airspaces to be fully liberalized, there would be better services, cheaper fares to stimulate additional traffic and greater trade flows, an IATA study found in 2014.

“Opening borders, lowering barriers and implementing the open skies agreement is always favorable to the industry,” the IATA just retired director general, Mr Alexandre de Juniac was once quoted by the Aviation and Allied Business Journal, a magazine that focuses on African airlines news. “There will be winners and losers, but it will be favorable because it will boost their traffic.”

Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways and others have taken advantage of the Yamoussoukro accord by aggressively promoting fifth freedom flights in sub-Saharan Africa, providing a persuasive argument for liberalization.

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