Implementing SAATM inevitable, but...

We don’t seem to hear much about the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM), the African Union flagship project seeking to liberalise and unify the continent’s skies.

Perhaps it is because not much appears to be happening. The process of opening up the continental skies seems a bit too slow more than a year after the SAATM launch in January 2018.

This is puzzling, as there’s much to look forward to if one looks at the projections for the market. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecast a 5.9 per cent year-on-year growth in African aviation over the next 20 years, with passenger numbers expected to increase from 100m to more than 300m by 2026.

The bigger promise, however, is in the projected job creation, growth in trade resulting in growth in GDP, and lower travel costs resulting in the projected high numbers of passengers.

To realise this it will have to take SAATM being operational, but which, at the moment, there seems to be a reluctance to join by many of the countries.

As of February this year, 28 countries had joined the SAATM. This is only five countries more than the 23 that had signed their commitment at the launch.

At such a pace of adoption, it is doubtful 40 countries will have joined by the end of this year as projected by the African Union.

And, if the slow pace persists, it may even not be possible that all 55 member states of the AU will have joined by 2021 as expected.

Why the apparent reluctance to join?

 To find the answer, one would have to begin with the five of the Freedoms of the Air that SAATM will guarantee.

They begin with the First Freedom in ascending expansion of rights culminating with the Fifth Freedom, which accords rights for an airplane to take passengers from its home country, deposit them at destination in the second country and then pick up and carry passengers on to another international destination.

It is in the provisions of the fifth freedom that reservations have been expressed. Signs of concern first appeared at the May 2018 meeting in Lome, Togo, when only 14 states, including Rwanda, signed the memorandum of implementation of the Single African Air Transport Market.

The remaining 13 countries were scheduled to sign in December 2018. But when the day came none of the countries signed the memorandum.

The countries included regional economic leaders, including Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, which was disappointing because of the high level of their air traffic. Their failure to sign was despite having signed their commitment at the launch of the SAATM.

Similarly, the other failed signatories were Botswana, Burkina Faso, Chad, Egypt, Gabon, The Gambia, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

Their signatures would have been a great boost, as they would have amounted to more countries other than the 13 that have started implementing the open skies policy.

Among the concerns that kept coming up as to why some of the countries didn’t sign the memorandum included terms and conditions that states need to develop between the regional countries vis-à-vis local implementation.

There are concerns of protectionism, such as in high airport charges not commensurate with some countries home charges leading to the claim that the SAATM does not guarantee a level playing field.

A recent analysis by Deloitte, the international consulting and financial advisory firm, gives credence to some of the concerns underlying the SAATM adoption challenges across the continent.

Its report’s title poses, is Africa ready for a Single African Air Transport Market?

Deloitte finds that SAATM lacks the proper mechanisms required to govern the different airlines. That, SAATM differs with the original 1988 Yamoussoukro Declaration in its lack of clear mechanisms and rules that would be used to implement the single air transport market.

Among other suggestions, it urges the AU to not be in a hurry to implement all provisions of SAATM at once. The Yamoussoukro Decision proposed a phased approach through regional blocks that would be necessary to allow the proper harmonisation of the air transport market to the benefit of all stakeholders.

That said, the dividends make it positive that implementing the SAATM is inevitable. However, given the slow pace of adoption and outright reluctance by many of the states, Deloitte’s findings are worth looking into if implementation by all 55 states is to be realised.

In the meantime, IATA projections remain rosy with a forecast that the top ten fastest-growing markets in percentage terms will be in Africa: Sierra Leone, Guinea, Central African Republic, Benin, Mali, Rwanda, Togo, Uganda, Zambia and Madagascar.

Each of these markets is expected to grow by more than 8 per cent each year on average over the next 20 years, doubling in size each decade.

It is further noted that the potential growth of the African air transport is further showcased by the fact that Africa is home to 16 per cent of the world’s population and yet only has a share of 2.2 per cent of global air passenger traffic.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.