African aviation experts vented their frustration at the slow pace at which African countries are implementing the African open skies agreement during a recent “White Paper” presentation in Toulouse. Launched by 23 African states in January at the African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa, the African Single Air Transport Market (SAATM) aims to liberalize African skies by eschewing bilateral service agreements. Although the number of signatories has increased to 27, the SAATM remains a work in progress, sowing discontent over its slow implementation. Conceived as a vehicle to improve air connectivity and reduce unit costs, the initiative received the backing of the African Airlines Association (AFRAA), the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as well as aircraft manufacturers including Airbus and Boeing.
During a panel discussion convened to address the challenges facing the African airline industry, IATA vice president for Africa Raphael Kuuchi noted that although stakeholders agreed to fast-track the implementation of the SAATM in a meeting organized by the African Development Bank (AfDB) in May, little progress has occurred since then.
“There was a need to sensitize states, airlines, and civil aviation authorities to why the SAATM is important for the development of African tourism and trade,” he said. “We could not start the sensitization program because of low funding. The AU is currently in the process of mobilizing funding. AfDB is also trying to source funding but it would appear that will be available sometime next year.”
Girma Wake, former CEO of Ethiopian Airlines and board chairman of RwandAir, criticized the AU and the African Civil Aviation Commission (AFCAC), the executive agency of the SAATM, for lack of leadership. According to Wake, the only air transport expert in the AU—hired by the European Union—saw his term terminated in July. “The executive agency, AFCAC, does not even have a head,” Wake lamented. “Currently, it only has an acting secretary general. An acting person cannot decide.”
Wake added that the AU did not delegate its authority to AFCAC. According to him, finance should not present an issue. “AfDB was ready to make money available but there was nobody to take it, to be honest with you. I think it is lack of leadership,” he said.
Kuuchi argued that that the heads of states should not abdicate their responsibilities after signing the agreement, leaving the assignment for others. “There is a need for monitoring by heads of states on what we are doing,” he said. “They should ask the AU and AFCAC, ‘where are we on this?’”
Kuuchi expressed bewilderment over why the signatory states haven’t implemented the SAATM. “You have decided to open up. Who are you waiting for to come and tell you to start implementing it?” he inquired.
AFRAA secretary general Abderahmane Berthé told AIN that the implementation of SAATM requires political will. Berthe said AFRAA has tried to create awareness on the benefits of SAATM, with little success. “In January 2018, 23 states signed the agreement,” he pointed out. “Only four more signed since then. Today we have 27 signatories out of the 54 member states of the AU. We were expecting to have 40 states by now.”
According to Berthe, the small airlines fear that the bigger airlines will absorb them if their markets open. However, he said the small airlines could collaborate with the big carriers to create a “win-win” situation for all.
Berthe believes that more states will join the SAATM as they realize the benefits of the initiative. “It will happen but it will take time,” he said. “Governments should make decisions that can move us forward.”