Making his opening remarks at the just concluded Africa Aviation 2017 conference in Kigali, President Paul Kagame threw his weight behind the Africa Open Skies crusade.
But he wasn’t just lending a voice to a cause that’s been much talked about with little progress made towards its achievement by African states, Kagame was also letting his peers know that his government was actively working with others who are willing to liberalise African airspace.
The highlight of his opening address was when he asked why an African travelling to another country within the continent should transit outside the continent, a question that left many policy makers hanging their heads in shame.
The issue is not new. In 1988, an aviation meeting of African states in Cote d’Ivoire came up with the much talked about Yamoussoukro Declaration.
Ten years later, in 1999, nothing much had happened except for the commitment of 44 signatory countries to deregulate air services, and promote regional air markets open to transnational competition.
It was not until the year 2000 that Africa heads of state and governments made this declaration binding – a very long time for an idea that would have made significant changes in how air travel on the continent is carried out.
In January 2015, under the auspices of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, African governments gave their solemn commitment towards the establishment of a single African air transport market by 2017.
The Yamoussoukro Declaration remains largely on paper, except for a few countries that agreed bilaterally to implement it.
What does open skies mean? And who closed the skies in the first place?
Simply put, it is an international regulatory framework to promote air services by allowing unrestricted traffic rights between treaty partners.
So essentially, country A will enter a bilateral air services agreement with country B with clear stipulations of the designated carrier(s), airports to be served, frequencies per week, and in some cases seats allocated and fares to be charged.
Back in 1919 a meeting dubbed the Paris Convention gave countries sovereign rights or control of their airspace.
Later in 1944, another meeting in Chicago – USA established an international air transport framework that defined among other things how counties will exchange air traffic rights or “Freedoms of the Air”.
As most of Africa was just gaining Independence in the 1960s, many countries launched national carriers not only to assert their newfound Independence but also as symbols of national pride.
Since most of these newly established carriers were not motivated by economic motives or intra-Africa connectivity, they embarked on restricting their air services market to protect these symbols of national pride.
The irony here is that while African governments were busy blocking or restricting their airspaces from each other, they remained very generous with non-African carriers. As such, nearly 80 per cent of African air traffic is still carried by non-African lines.
These freedoms of the air or privilege to carry passengers and cargo between territories are globally restrictive by nature.
Take for instance Ethiopian Airlines, which serves both Nairobi and Mombasa in Kenya with several flights a day, but cannot operate a triangular flight of Addis Ababa–Nairobi–Mombasa-Addis Ababa.
Hence, if you want to fly the airline from Nairobi to Mombasa, you would have to go via Addis Ababa. There is no direct flight.
On the other hand, RwandAir cannot operate a Mwanza–Kisumu flight and neither will Kenya Airways operate Eldoret–Arusha route regardless of demand, since the traffic rights do not allow it.
In other parts of Africa, governments still have restrictions on the number of passengers or volumes of cargo that a foreign airline can uplift from their territory.
These kinds of restrictions are largely responsible for the poor connectivity, high fares and unsafe air transport services.
Liberalised African skies would see passengers enjoy better and reliable, affordable, safe intra-Africa travel and boost economic growth and tourism.
As per World Bank data, 20 per cent of Africa’s tourism-related jobs are supported by visitors arriving by air, compared with only four per cent in North America.
Until then we can only wait for the coalition of the willing — Benin, Cape Verde, Congo Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa and Zimbabwe — to implement the open skies agreements with each other.