The African Union on Monday launched the much-anticipated Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) amid strong criticism from member states and some African airlines.
The confederation officially launched SAATM at the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union, held at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa on January 28 and 29. The new chairman of the AU and president of Rwanda Paul Kagame declared the establishment of SAATM at the heads of state summit held on Monday. President Kagame said the launch of SAATM marks a big step forward for the development of the African air transport industry.
Kagame, AU chairperson Mossa Faki Mohamat, and Togo president Faure Gnassingbé, champion of the single market, cut a ceremonial ribbon at the plaque placed at AU headquarters to commemorate the launch of SAATM.
Opposition and Response
But not all Africans are celebrating the launch of SAATM. Some African countries have put up stiff resistance to its implementation while several African airlines continue to criticize the initiative.
Ugandan president Yoweri Musevini expressed fear that SAATM will lead to the supremacy of African skies by a few, already dominant African airlines. “Few airlines are going to dominate and that is not good,” Museveni said. He said he would prefer that African countries form regional airlines first before liberalizing their skies.
Nigerian private airline association Airline Operators of Nigeria has also denounced the policy and noted that ministers did not include the group in the discussions leading to the endorsement of its implementation. The Nigerian airlines argued for a “level playing field” where Nigeria can compete with other African carriers, which still enjoy some protectionism, lower interest rates on loans, and waivers on import duty for aircraft and spares.
Meanwhile, African aviation authorities reject assertions by modestly sized carriers that the initiative would benefit only big airlines such as South African Airlines, Kenya Airways, and Ethiopian Airlines. Sossina Iyabo, the secretary general of the African Civil Aviation Commission, told AIN that SAATM would benefit every African country and airline regardless of size by improving air connectivity, boosting passenger traffic, and spurring economic development.
“When you live in fear you do not make progress,” she said. “But you can overcome your fear by coming out and looking at what is in it for you and taking your share from the market...Even if you do not have an airline every state will benefit from SAATM. Because you benefit from increased passenger movement, your airport would benefit, air navigation services will benefit, your downstream sectors... the aviation value chain will benefit. Every entity that works in the airport environment will benefit.”
Nigeria stands as one of the 11 champion states that first expressed its commitment to African open skies in an agreement called the Yamoussoukro Decision, which provides for full liberalization in terms of market access between African states; the free exercise of traffic rights; the elimination of restrictions on ownership; and the full liberalization of frequencies, fares, and capacities.
“The Nigerian airlines are not yet able to see the benefits of SAATM as their government [does],” said Iyabo. “They are not as visionary as they should be.”
African Airlines Association secretary general Abderahmane Berthe told AIN that the small airlines should cooperate with the big airlines, rather than fight them. “The train of liberalization is there. You cannot stop it,” Abderahmane said, who stressed that SAATM incorporates a regulatory framework and dispute settlement mechanism that protects small airlines from unfair competition.
Ethiopian Airlines Group CEO Tewolde Gebremariam opined that little distinction between large and small airlines exist in Africa. “We all are small airlines,” he told AIN. “It is like two bald men fighting for a comb.”
SAATM is one of the goals of the AU’s Agenda 2063, which aims to connect Africa through air transport and other transport infrastructure to achieve economic integration and boost intra-African trade. Of 54 African member states, 23 have subscribed to SAATM and four have begun the process of joining the initiative.