Marketizing Africa’s Crumbling Aviation Sector

Aviation in Africa

Individuals familiar with air transportation in Africa will agree that flying from one country to another is often an ordeal rather than a pleasure. It can be quite expensive and time wasting, too. Moreover, flight experience is not made any better by the bad routing system across the continent due to state restrictions and over-regulation of air transportation.

As Umaru Fofana of the BBC detailed in 2017, flying between the West African capitals of Freetown and Banjul—normally an hour flight—takes roughly between 24 to 72 hours. This he noted was usually caused by the absence of direct flights.

Ordinarily, the proximity between these two cities warrants the need for direct flight. But this problem does not stop in either cities. Sometimes, travelers from Freetown have to first fly to Abidjan in Cote D’Ivoire, then Dakar in Senegal before arriving in Banjul. There are cases of passengers having to first fly from Freetown to Brussels in Belgium before connecting to Banjul, which surprisingly is cheaper and faster.

Where Africa is Losing Out

This problem is not going away overnight, and no African government seems to be interested in solving it without calling for greater state control of the sector.

The economic loss due to the hardship in air transportation has left many African leaders bitting finger as the rest of the world reaps the benefit in a growing global aviation market. And due to their bad policies, non-African airlines now control about 80 percent of intercontinental traffic to and from Africa.

This a shame. At a time where there are more African airlines than ever, we should be actively involved in and benefit from our own market.

The decision of the African Union to launch the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) during the 30th AU Summit in Addis Ababa is a timely development, which hopefully should address this problem.

SAATM was a flagship project of the African Union Agenda 2063. It was designed to create a single unified air transport market in Africa. It also prioritizes the liberalization of civil aviation as an impetus to the continent’s economic integration agenda.

Where the Potential Lies

The aviation sector in Africa currently supports over $72 billion in GDP and about 6.8 million jobs. Clearly, there is a lot of potential for growth here.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), addressing market barriers to air transport by only  12 African countries alone could lead to 4.9 million additional passenger trips. IATA further stated that this should unlock around $1.3 billion additional economic activity and create 155,000 new jobs.

The demand potential for intra-African air travel remains large and the economic benefits of policy reforms on the issue of intra-Africa connection could be quite significant.

Demand for air travel on the continent is forecast to more than triple over the next 20 years, growing from 75 million passengers in 2016 to more than 240 million passengers per annum by 2035. What sector could be more economically promising?

Improving the Aviation Sector in Africa

If appropriately implemented, the provisions of SAATM should force countries to reduce their protectionist policies and eventually enhance the free movement of people and goods. It may also be in the best interest of the countries that will implement the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) agreement.

Africa can be hopeful in SAATM. The twenty-three countries currently signed to the agreement all have the potential to benefit massively, including economic giants like Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa.

These countries have a combined population of roughly 670 million and a GDP of $1500 billion. These in themselves water the ground for the benefits of a liberalized aviation sector.

Also, yet interesting, these countries account for more than 80 percent of intra-Africa traffic and they are destinations to 54 percent of the 63.5 million international tourists visit in 2015.

If state restrictions are lifted in some airspace, this single market will in no time ensure that passengers connect with any African cities without the need to go through the airline’s home hub. For instance, South African Airways could fly Johannesburg-Nairobi-Cairo on the same trip and Ethiopian Airlines could go to Nairobi and Johannesburg in a single trip.

Full adherence to and implementation of the terms under the single air market policy by the various African governments is crucial. Although, a full liberalization and unification of the African air transport market are necessary to further help this promising sector.

Bukola Ogunyemi is a policy analyst and media executive based in Lagos.