Trade within the region could increase significantly if the proposed plan to reduce the air travel charges is implemented across the East Africa Community bloc, traders and experts have said.
This as the Heads of State and government from Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan, Burundi and Tanzania last week directed the responsible technocrats in each country to develop plans on how air travel fees in the region can be cut.
The officials in the five-member bloc are expected to present their strategies at the next leaders summit that will be held in Kigali in June to review the progress of this and other regional projects.
According to available data, East Africa has the highest air transport rates in the world. Experts say unless the issue is addressed, the region will continue to experience challenges as far as doing business and movement of people is concerned. High airfares also hurt the tourism sector.
Monique Mukaruliza, the national co-ordinator for Northern Corridor projects, said the Heads of State directive seeks to support regional initiatives aimed at making the EAC bloc an investment and tourism hub.
“The idea is to make air transport affordable to everyone in the region and foster trade and business, especially in the hospitality industry,” she said. So, the ministers responsible will have to work out the best way to achieve these goals.
The move is also in line with the EAC Treaty Article 93 that compels partner states to harmonise policies on civil aviation to promote the development of safe, reliable, efficient and economically viable civil aviation with a view to developing appropriate infrastructure.
EAC member countries are also expected to harmonise civil aviation rules and regulations; and to co-ordinate to ensure safety and security in the industry.
Most business operators in the region use road transport to ferry imports and exports to and from Mombasa in Kenya or Dar es Salaam in Tanzania; as well as within the region. Goods are transported by trucks which take many days to reach their destinations. Due to delays of goods in transit, business operators are forced to hike prices, making consumers bear the burden.
Tony Barigye, the communications officer at Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority, said the issue requires a collective effort from stakeholders in East Africa.
“We have been working together, especially exchanging aviation expertise and knowledge. So, I think it’s possible to have uniform and affordable rates if stakeholders work together,” he noted.
The East African Community bloc operates under the same regional framework, the Civil Aviation Safety and Security Oversight Agency, to develop the sector. Failure to harmonise the operations is currently regarded as the biggest challenge hindering the growth of the region’s aviation industry.
Emmanuel Gakuba, a trader who imports goods from Uganda and Nairobi, said the move would be a relief for businesses.
“Most people cannot afford to import or export by air because of high costs; if it is cut, more business people and other travellers will opt for this mode of transport,” he said.
A return ticket from Kigali to Entebbe, Uganda costs $300 (Rwf202,500), Kigali-Nairobi is $370, $426 for Kigali-Dar es Salaam and Kigali-Bujumbura is $257. Traders and travellers say these fares are too high.
Regional aviation experts will be meeting in Kigali this week to discuss the challenges hindering the growth of the sector in the EAC bloc.