Will Open Skies Really Benefit Africa?
One fine day long ago in Yamoussoukro, in 1988 to be exact, 44 African states sat around a table in the capital city of Côte d'Ivoire and agreed that they would all want to play a fair game in a huge air bubble. Fast forward 30 years later to 28 January 2018, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the signing of 23 participating governments marks the birth of the Single African Air Transport Market (“SAATM”) agreement. Voilà – the game has officially started.
to the layman it all sounds French, but to aviation industry players, it’s only just the beginning of what will hopefully be a burgeoning fully fledged, competitive airline industry thereby levelling the African playing field between airlines. The Single African Air Transport Market (“SAATM”) is one of the flagship projects of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 ensuring that aviation plays a major role in connecting Africa in achieving social, economic and political integration and boost intra-Africa trade.
Originally evolved from and known as the Yamoussoukro Declaration in 1988, which then became the Yamoussoukro Decision (“YD”) in 1999, the recently signed SAATM remains the single most important air transport reform policy initiative by African Governments to date.
Why was this agreement necessary at all? Do we not have enough airlines flying the skies, or is all not as it seems to be? This is, of course, a naïve question if you are a role player in aviation – but not to the man in the street – of which there are millions in Africa who are simply not even aware of SAATM, but will be indirectly affected at one time or another in the future.
Simply put, it means changing old aviation rules in order to let players explore undiscovered frontiers in the game. The SAATM was implemented by recognising and acknowledging that restrictive and protectionist intra-African regulations existed based primarily on Bilateral Air Services Agreements (“BASAs”). These very agreements impeded the growth and improvement of air transport on the African continent. One of the vital parts of the Decision was air service liberalisation, which was viewed as a means to develop and free up African airspace. In essence, it is meant to open up air new travel routes within Africa and allow the 23 signatories multilateral exchanges of up to fifth freedom air traffic rights between African destinations.
In order to fully understand what this actually means, we need to understand the concept of freedom of the air rights. Freedoms of the air are a set of commercial aviation rights granting a country's airline an allocated permission to enter and land in another country's airspace. The formulisation of these rights came about as a result of disagreements between international states over the extent of aviation liberalisation at the Convention on International Civil Aviation of 1944, known as the Chicago Convention. These “freedoms” are the fundamental building blocks of international commercial aviation route networks and confer entitlement to operate international air services only within the scope of various applicable multilateral and bilateral treaties (air services agreements) between countries.
Since 1944 aviation has grown exponentially and IATA’s work duly expanded, however, the Chicago Convention could not initially resolve the issue of who flies where, which resulted in the thousands of bilateral air transport agreements between countries in existence today. Governments and aviation industry role players needed a mechanism that would not only disable protectionist strategies that many African States employ to protect the existing (and future) market share of their domestic airlines, but would also realise the full potential and benefits of the Yamoussoukro Decision, thereby unlocking the full potential of the African aviation industry and help to enhance connectivity, facilitate trade and tourism, create employment, and ensure that the aviation industry plays a more prominent role in the global economy and significantly contribute to the AU’s Agenda 2063.
Ultimately, how will the new SAATM benefit aviation in Africa and open up the playing fields? We spoke to aviation expert Linden Birns, managing director of Plane Talking:
“Under the current regime of restrictive bilateral air transport agreements, crossborder airline flights must either originate or terminate in their home country. SAATM envisages unrestricted access and operations between any points on the continent, without flights having to start or end in the airline's home nation.”
“This is precisely what has taken place in Europe under the EU and what gave rise to the big low cost carriers such as Ryanair, easyJet and Vueling as well as niche regional feeders like FlyBe.”