Efforts to harmonise regional airspace control between East African countries have gained momentum, following the signing of an agreement between Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan.
The three countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding establishing a legal framework yesterday in Kampala, paving way for negotiations that will see local airlines attaining fifth freedom along Juba-Nairobi, Nairobi-Juba routes.
Fifth freedom means an airline has the right to carry passengers from one country to another and from that country to a third country.
The three countries signed the MoU to create a legal framework before they could negotiate with Kenya on an airspace agreement which would subsequently be signed by ministers in charge of infrastructure.
Earlier this month, Rwanda and Kenya signed a bilateral agreement permitting both RwandAir and Kenya Airways fifth freedom between Entebbe-Nairobi and Entebbe-Kigali route.
Under this particular agreement, RwandAir can now fly from Kigali to Mombasa and pick passengers there.
The latest regional deal follows a directive by Heads of State during the recently concluded 8th Northern Corridor Integration Projects summit in Nairobi, Kenya, to fast-track the harmonisation of airspace control within the region.
This, according to the Heads of State, will help reduce the cost of air travel in the region.
The Nairobi summit gave December, 31 as the deadline for concluding all agreements geared toward harmonisation of airspace control in the region and Rwanda was tasked to coordinate the exercise.
Monique Mukaruliza, Rwanda’s coordinator of the Northern Corridor Integration Projects, told The New Times that the development means RwandAir can now fly from Juba – Nairobi and vice versa without limitations.
“It’s also geared toward enhancing competition in the aviation industry which will ultimately make air transport in the region affordable,” Makaruliza said.
It also paves way for the line ministers from the three states to sign a bilateral air space service agreement before the next Heads of State summit, scheduled for February 2015, she added.
There has been a growing concern over air transport fares in the region which, according to aviation experts, emanates from unharmonised airspace control and high operational costs, including VAT on flight tickets and airport parking fees.
“We discovered that waiving Value Added Tax (VAT) on tickets was not going to solve the problem and that’s why partner states along the Northern Corridor have opted to harmonise their airspace and grant fifth freedom to airlines,” Makaruliza noted.
Technically, waiving VAT on tickets would only mean a reduction of only $7 which makes no difference, she added.
The most important thing is to create an enabling environment through airspace integration because reducing taxes cannot solve the problem, according to aviation experts.
Tony Barigye, the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority communications officer, said the signing opens doors for the removal of restrictions on air services operations among partner states.
“The seamless airspace entails, among other things, harmonisation of procedures, system infrastructure and operational activities in terms of air navigation services in the four countries which would also consider looking into favourable fares for the travellers across the bloc,” he said.
“The MOU will also ensure effectiveness in execution of tasks. This also means cutting huge costs through shared responsibility between states,” he added.
The harmonisation of the airspace use is also expected to internationally register enhanced safety and security assurances across the Northern Corridor airspace bloc.
Airlines welcome the initiative
John Mirenge, the Chief Executive Officer RwandAir, said the initiative will not only spur competition but also help serve East Africans diligently.
“The spirit from the Heads of State is to fully liberalise our airspace which technically means that airlines, including RwandAir, can fly to any destination within the region without any limitation,” Mirenge said.
Currently, flying from Kigali to Entebbe in Uganda costs between $214 and $300 while Kigali to Nairobi costs about $250 to $320 with some airlines charging close to $400.
This is almost equivalent to flying to Dubai in the Middle East.
A return ticket between Kigali and Juba costs almost $540. But there is hope that the airspace integration initiative will help bring down the cost and help make flying within the region more affordable.
Anne Hakizimana, a Kigali based businesswoman, said the initiative could not only reduce the cost of doing business but will also boost cross-border trade.
Rwanda is currently coordinating Comesa Aviation project which seeks to develop suitable legal and institutional requirements that will help establish a cooperative regional framework for a single seamless Airspace across the Comesa region.