It can take three days to travel from some African cities to others by air, often involving several connecting flights.  Astronauts travelled to the moon in less time. 

The problem is not unique to flights between these cities. Intra-African air travel is generally slow, inconvenient and expensive. Whilst many air markets between Africa and countries outside the continent have been liberalised, intra-African aviation markets remain largely closed. Most are subject to restrictive bilateral agreements that limit the growth and development of air services within Africa.

Open Skies

In order for airlines to set up new routes from one country to another within Africa, they need to obtain the prior agreement of both governments – something that can take years of lobbying if successful at all. The net effect is an inefficient aviation market, frustrating for all stakeholders not least the passengers who need to put up with a grueling travel experience.

This article provides background on the attempts to open up the skies in Africa and explains why the project has so far not been successful. It is an “indictment” of the failure to open African skies, and concludes with the formal accusation and sentencing of those responsible.

What are Open Skies?

Open skies refers to the liberalization of the rules and regulations of the international aviation industry. These rules are typically contained in bilateral and multilateral air transport agreements.

Open skies agreements contain support for the following key principles:

  • free market competition;
  • cooperative marketing arrangements;
  • dispute settlements;
  • liberal charter arrangements; and
  • safety and security.

These values manifest themselves in key provisions of the EU-US Open Skies Agreement, the ASEAN Open Skies Agreement and the Convention on International Civil Aviation (1944), also known as the “Chicago Convention”, which introduced the 9 Freedoms of the Air:

  • 1st: the right to fly over a foreign country without landing.
  • 2nd: the right to refuel or carry out maintenance in a foreign country without embarking or disembarking passengers or cargo.
  • 3rd: the right to fly from one’s own country to another country.
  • 4th: the right to fly from another country to one’s own.
  • 5th: the right to fly between two foreign countries on a flight originating or ending in one’s own country.
  • 6th: the right to fly from a foreign country to another while stopping in one’s own country for non-technical reasons.
  • 7th: the right to fly between two foreign countries, where the flights do not touch one’s own country.
  • 8th:the right to fly inside a foreign country, continuing to one’s own country.
  • 9th: the right to fly within a foreign country without continuing to one’s own country.

African Open Skies

For many years there has been a glorious vision of African open skies. An Africa in which the key principles of open skies – already at play in the US and EU – were successfully adopted across the continent.

The hope is that this will result in a range of benefits – to the passenger, to the economy and to the culture more generally:

  • Passenger benefits: lower fares, direct routes and increase route frequencies resulting in convenience and time saving.
  • Economic benefits: increased employment, enhanced trade and tourism and greater numbers of new businesses attracted to the region.
  • Climate of cooperation: partnerships, mergers and consortiums by African carriers and the strengthening of safety and security oversight.

This vision of African open skies was encapsulated in 1999 in Côte d’Ivoire by the Yamoussoukro Decision (YD), a multilateral agreement entered into by 44 African signatory states allowing for the multilateral exchange of up to fifth freedom air traffic rights by way of a simple notification procedure.

The Crime

Twenty years later open skies in Africa remains very much a vision. At best, implementation of the YD is not where it should be; some would argue that there has been a criminal lack of progress. This manifests itself in various ways, including high ticket prices, poor airline cooperation, inadequate safety and security and limited intra-Africa connectivity.

If we take a quick flight around the continent, we can assess the progress made:

  • In North Africa, the states have yet to fully liberalize air services among themselves, although certain instruments exist such as the Arab Air Carriers Open Skies Agreement.
  • In West Africa, the predominant regional organization, the Economic Community of West African States, has failed to make meaningful progress towards liberalizing air services in my opinion.
  • In Central Africa, the Economic and Monetary Community of the region has implemented the necessary legislative and regulatory elements to comply with the provisions of the YD.
  • In South and East Africa, the Eastern Africa Community has elected to revise bilaterals to align with the principles of the YD; but the Southern African Development Community has failed to make any substantial advances in my opinion.

As can be seen, progress in realizing the vision of African open skies has been slow. That said, there have been some positive developments recently.  In 2015, the Declaration for the Establishment of a Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) laid the framework for a single market implementing the YD.  Rwandan President Paul Kagame officially launched the SAATM in January 2018.

Following this launch, eligible African airline carriers are in principle able to operate routes on the basis of their own economic considerations and without any limitations. Member states were also called upon to amend their current bilateral air service agreements with other African states in order to align them with the YD.

Whilst this is certainly a step in the right direction, implementation of SAATM principles remains to be seen. It is also notable that only 26 African countries have to date subscribed to the SAATM – even fewer countries than were signatories to the YD.

The Defendants

So who or what should be held to account for Africa’s closed skies?

Protectionist Policies

The protectionist policies of African states are arguably the single factor most responsible for the maintenance of the status quo. Governments have clearly been concerned that increased air connectivity could harm the commercial viability of existing national carriers.

An interesting case of protectionist policy is Zambia, which in 1994 liquidated its national airline Zambia Airways. Although Zambia has not had a national carrier operating for many years, the government has continued to plan for the reestablishment of such a carrier. This has resulted in a continued policy of protectionism when negotiating international air services agreements.

Discriminatory practices

While some states in Africa have refused to open their skies to each other, they have opened up to carriers from other continents. Such discriminatory practices are particularly apparent in West Africa, where non-African airlines tend to be accorded third, fourth and sometimes fifth freedom air traffic rights, while African carriers are denied such rights.

Fears of reduced revenues

When states give up oversight and control of their upper airspaces, they also lose out on revenues that could have been collected from airlines and users of that airspace.

Visa and documentary requirements

Onerous visa requirements in terms of time and cost for African people traveling with Africa inhibit demand. Notably, in South Africa, some African nationals are required to have transit visas even if they are merely transiting through the airport. Meanwhile, many European and American citizens do not require visas to enter South Africa.

Severe restrictions imposed by regulators outside of the continent

There have bene accusations against the EU of non-transparency in the way in which it applies its airline safety bans. African airlines with strong safety records have been prevented from flying to the EU due to lack of confidence in safety oversight provided by African regulatory authorities. Around 80 percent of intercontinental traffic to and from Africa is carried by non-African airlines.

The Sentencing

So how do we do justice to the ideal of African open skies?  Here are some concluding thoughts on what must be done:

  • The African Civil Aviation Commission needs to enhance its efforts to increase awareness of the benefits of liberalization and the SAATM. States should notify other state parties that their skies are liberalized in accordance with the YD, and that all restrictions on traffic rights under the 3rd, 4th, and 5th freedoms have been removed. Existing bilateral agreements should be amended to conform to the YD.
  • Continuous support of failing national carriers should be abandoned. Such carriers need to be privatized, disposed of or liquidated. There should be a recognition of the positive development in air services for countries that have abandoned failing carriers.
  • African governments urgently need to invest in airport infrastructure. Regional aviation hubs need to be developed to improve connectivity; and air navigational services and air traffic control need to be upgraded in order to improve safety.
  • Competition rules and consumer protection rights need to be developed; and formal arbitration procedures implemented. The executing agency (AFCAC) and the monitoring body (established by the YD) should meet regularly to supervise and follow up on implementation of the YD.

African open skies is not an impossible goal. All that is needed is the political will to make it happen.