African Airlines Struggle To Balance Cooperation and Competition

 - July 15, 2013, 11:15 AM
RwandAir operates a Boeing 737-800 three times a week to Dubai via Mombasa. (Photo: Boeing)

Some 54 countries in Africa hold stakes in airlines and airports, but all must increasingly consider the invasion of their skies by international players, led by the likes of Middle East heavyweights Emirates and Qatar Airways.

The issue of the granting of fifth-freedom rights to international players has continued to vex the continent’s airlines, attendees of the Routes Africa 2013 Summit in Kampala heard on July 7. The 1999 Yamoussoukro Decision, building on the eponymous Declaration of a decade earlier, stipulates implementation of pan-African inter-regional “Open Skies,” but the recent arrival of international players has stymied development of local players. Qatar Airways’ establishment of a route to Maputo, Mozambique, last September raised its number of African destinations to 19. Emirates maintains 23 African routes in its network, including the Seychelles and Mauritius.

“There’s a new vocabulary called ‘coopetition,’ quipped RwandAir commercial general manager Alice Katiti. “Competition comes in but you can also cooperate. Definitely there is room for worry. These [international] airlines have financial muscle, and some African airlines don’t. We as African airlines need to work together to fight the competition side. At the same time we need to cooperate more rather than come to attack.”

Founded in 2002 and 99 percent government-owned, RwandAir operates two Boeing 737-700s, two 737-800s, two Bombardier CRJ900s and a Dash 8-100 turboprop. In 2010 it launched flights to Dubai–its only non-African route–via Mombasa, and now has its sights set on the Indian subcontinent and Asia in its five-year plan.

“I think the African regulators have a responsibility first of all to the African airlines,” added Katiti. “We need to be in cohesion and have a corporate strategy before we allocate slots, not the other way around. Slots are being allocated and the local airlines come to know after the event.”

Katiti recounted how, in March last year, the Ugandan authorities granted fifth-freedom rights to Qatar Airways from Entebbe to Kigali, including promotional flights to RwandAir’s home airport, without even informing RwandAir. “The glass is half full–and half empty,” she said ruefully, conceding that her network can benefit by feeding Qatar Airways’ Kigali traffic.

Asked to gauge the culpability of the African Civil Aviation Commission (AFCAC), which claims a mandate to implement the Yamoussoukro Decision, Katiti simply blamed faceless officials. “At the end of the day, it’s the technocrats who advise the governments. The regulators need to talk to the locals. What is required is cooperation between regulators and operators.”