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African Airlines Wait for Open Skies

Thousands of air travellers face complicated choices when flying between cities across the African continent. Although transiting through Europe when flying between two African cities is for the most part no longer necessary, still, choices remain constrained by sub-optimal travel conditions including long layovers, relatively high fares, uncertain flight schedules and poor quality of services, underscoring the challenges facing air carriers trying to attract passengers and at the same time make profits.

As such, the African Union and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) are urging countries to open their skies to market competition. African airline executives are pushing back against what they are calling government intrusions, red tape, high taxes and political meddling.

Since relocating to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) two years ago, Firmin Agossou has had a variety of options when traveling home to Benin. Employed in the eastern city of Goma, he often returns to Cotonou to spend time with his family.

The quickest way would be by car from Goma to Kigali and from there take a five-hour direct flight by RwandAir to Benin, Mr. Agossou told Africa Renewal.

Or he could fly out of Goma to Kinshasa and then fly home aboard ASKY, a West African airline with an active hub in Lomé, Togo. There is also the option of flying through Addis Ababa. But when it comes right down to it, the best choice for Mr. Agossou is to fly out of Kigali or risk getting stranded in Lomé should he miss a connecting flight.

"Flying out of Kigali is the most convenient option. It's simple and no hassle," he says.

Thousands of air travellers like Mr. Agossou face complicated choices when flying between cities across the continent. Although transiting through Europe when flying between two African cities is for the most part no longer necessary, still, as Mr. Agossou has discovered, choices remain constrained by sub-optimal travel conditions including long layovers, relatively high fares, uncertain flight schedules and poor quality of services, underscoring the challenges facing air carriers trying to attract passengers and at the same time make profits.

The African Union and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) are urging countries to open their skies to market competition. African airlines executives are pushing back against what they are calling government intrusions, red tape, high taxes and political meddling.

Indebted growth

Last year Ethiopian Airways, Kenya Airways and South African Airways, three top airlines on the continent, sold two-thirds of the estimated 9.2 million seats purchased for travel within sub-Saharan Africa. The remaining one-third was spread among more than a dozen smaller carriers such as Nigeria-based Arik Air, Air Mauritius, and RwandAir.

Just over "10 million seats were offered in 2001," says Heinrich Bofinger, senior transport economist at the World Bank. "That capacity more than doubled to 22.7 million in 2015."

Experts say air traffic on the continent will grow by an annual average of 5.1% in the next 18 years, outpacing the global projected average of 4.7%, according to IATA.

Yet while more flights are linking big cities than they did are decade ago, most airlines based in sub-Saharan Africa are losing money due to stiff competition from Gulf, Turkish and European carriers on transcontinental routes.

Of Africa's big three carriers, only Ethiopian Airlines posted a profit last year. Kenya Airways and South African Airways suffered losses.

Collectively, African airlines posted losses of around $700 million in 2015 and $800 million in 2016, and aviation experts at IATA and the African Airlines Association (AFRAA) say this trend may continue.

To make the air travel industry profitable, African countries need to liberalize air traffic, according to IATA and the African Union. As far back as 1999, 44 countries agreed in Yamoussoukro, Côte d'Ivoire (the Yamoussoukro Decision) to deregulate air services and promote the opening of regional air markets to transnational competition. Since then, however, implementation has been slow and inconsistent. Industry experts often criticise African countries for having more bilateral open sky agreements with partners outside the continent than with African partners.

As demand for air travel grows, countries are rushing to launch or revive national carriers. "Countries often want to have their own carrier as a matter of national pride," Mr. Bofinger observed. However, African aviation history shows that state-owned carriers are hardly commercially sustainable.

Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal are struggling to establish viable national carriers. Undaunted by past experiences, some of these countries are dusting off old plans. And now a rising middle class and new economic opportunities are reawakening national aviation dreams.