By the Blouin News Business staff

Africa needs open skies

by in Africa.

US Sec. of Defense Leon Panetta Visits Dijbouti

Africa’s aviation industry might be one of the best catalysts for the continent’s economic development. Foreign countries and companies are eager to develop new business opportunities, Japan being the latest one to succeed. The continent’s middle class is growing. Tourist numbers are swelling, too. However, Africa has work to do to bring its aviation up to date. Hosting the 69th International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) general meeting, just completed in Cape Town, is far from being enough.

Yet that meeting could prove a turning point, if the industry takes heed of one of the power player in the global aviation scene, Qatar Airways. Its chief executive, Akbar al-Baker, highlighted at the meeting one of the African airlines’ biggest problems: protectionism and the lack of competition, mainly due to cosiness between state-owned carriers and their national administrations. “The state airlines distort information to their governments to prevent us from gaining slots or landing rights, as they claim we will be putting them out of business,” said the (also state owned) Qatar Airway’s boss. “This closed-door policy is not in the interests of the African people,” Al-Baker asserted.

What sparked his anger was a recent incident when Qatar had to scrap a flight for which it had already sold tickets after being denied landing permission by an unnamed African country. Qatar Airways is one of the world’s fastest growing carriers, and Africa is a market the company sees as a source of growth. Though al-Baker didn’t mention it, Qatar has recently expanded in capacity with the North Africa: at the beginning of this month it added non-stop flights between the Gulf and Tripoli and Casablanca to add to those it already flys to Tunis and Alexandria.

This closed-door policy is not in the interests of the African people.

Safety is one pressing issue. Accident rates in the region are high compared to the rest of the world: IATA says that the total accident rate for all jet airliners in Africa during 2012 was 10.85 accidents per million flight hours, compared to a world average of 2.0. Fuel taxes are another. The fuel bill for African carriers is 21% higher than for those from any other region.

Infrastructure development and deregulation to create easier connectivity between African cities are two other priorities. National carriers need to modernize so they have the financial muscle to compete with the global airlines that will increasingly target the continent.

In March, IATA forecast that operations in Africa would generate a profit of $100 million in 2013, the least for any region in the world.  “It is hard to imagine that we can transform Africa’s structural growth without a concomitant improvement in Africa’s aviation industry,” said South Africa’s Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.

Nevertheless, air traffic continues to grow. It is forecast to expand by 5%-6% a year in the next few years. Several African cities are shaping up to be among the fastest growing destinations for international travelers.

IATA’s next annual meeting is to be held in Doha for the first time. The Gulf is becoming a hub of global aviation and its competitive carriers, Qatar, Emirates Air, and Eithad, have grown to be among the world’s leading airlines. It is an example that visiting African aviation executives and administrators would do well to study.