Open skies: Hopes high for single African air market to fly

2018-03-07 06:30 - Suren Naidoo
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Johannesburg - A single African air transport market or the so-called ‘Open Skies” policy could be a game changer for the aviation industry on the continent and boost intra-African trade and travel.

These were the general sentiments by speakers and delegates at the Board of Airline Representatives of South Africa (BARSA) Aviation Summit in Rosebank on Friday, 2 March.

Aviation bosses, especially those from airlines based in Africa, expressed high hopes for the much vaunted Open Skies policy to deliver for the continent. The AU officially approved its  Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) policy to open up African skies at the 30th AU Summit in Addis Ababa in January.  

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“It’s definitely a huge positive for aviation growth on the continent and Africa will benefit from greater intra-African business, investment and tourism. It has taken a long time, but we definitely support it,” said Ashraf Al Sayad, Regional Manager of Egypt Air in Southern Africa, who spoke on a panel at the summit.

Intra-African business, investment and tourism 

“The Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) could be huge for the continent. Research indicates that if only 12 countries signed up to this policy, which is being led by the African Union (AU), more than 155 million new jobs will be created in Africa. It could also increase GDP on the continent by $1.3 billion. Some 23 African countries have signed up, but what about the others. We have a great opportunity here and African governments need to stop protecting their home carriers,” he added.

Vuyani Jarana, South African Airways’ (SAA), new boss who has been in the hot-seat since November, welcomed the open skies policy finally being ratified by the AU. However, he would not be drawn into commenting on how SAA could take advantage of the policy and grow its African network. SAA’s financial woes has seen the airline cut or reduce flights to several local, African and international destinations as part of its rationalisation and stabilisation efforts.

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“The single market is a welcome development, but for it to truly take off we need greater collaboration and alliances in the African aviation space. There is no doubt that it will stimulate growth in air travel on the continent as well as growth in intra African trade,” he said.

Jarana added that in order to take advantage of the policy and increase its benefits, issues such as establishing an African passport and VISA regulations needed to be addressed. He also called for increased investment in Africa’s airports.

“We need to be looking at how we facilitate travel to benefit from the upside on the open skies policy… Things like VISA regulations and poor airport infrastructure could undermine the greater success of the open skies initiative,” he said.

Carla da Silva, Chairperson of BARSA and a director of Air Mauritius states, “Air transport lies at the heart of global business and tourism. Connectivity between cities and markets boost productivity.”

'Africa is one of the fastest growing aviation markets' 

Michael Gill, Executive Director of the Air Transport Action Group, said during his keynote address at the BARSA Aviation Summit, that aviation globally employed over 60 million people and contributed 3.5% to world GDP annually.

“Africa is one of the fastest growing aviation markets in the world and this is set to continue with initiatives like Open Skies… In Africa, there is currently more than 7 million people with jobs linked to the aviation industry, and it generates US$70 billion for Africa’s GDP,” he said.

Speaking to Traveller24 at Meetings Africa in Sandton Central last week, Mmatšatši Ramawela, CEO of industry body the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA), said it was up to Africa to seize the opportunities from the Open Skies policy.

“It has been almost 20 years in the making. The much talked about Yamoussoukro resolution has effectively been agree upon at the AU. Whether we call it that, Open Skies or SAATM, doesn’t matter. What matters is how African business, tourism and the aviation sector collaborate and take advantage of the opportunities that will be opened up by the policy,” she said.

'Work more closely to advance Africa' 

“African businesses, airlines and governments need to work more closely to advance Africa… Open Skies will effectively make it easier and more cost effective to travel in Africa. It is crazy that in this day, if you wanted to travel from Southern Africa to Algeria, for instance, you have to fly via Europe. This is the case with many cities in Africa, which still don’t have intra-African direct connections,” added Ramawela. 

Ramawela said, while it was “still early days”, she believed the initiative would gain momentum under the strong leadership of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who took over as chair of the AU at the AU Summit.