The dream of a continent-wide open skies agreement took a step closer in Addis Ababa yesterday at the annual African Union (AU) Summit, when the organization launched the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) initiative, designed to improve intra-African air connectivity.
Under the SAATM agreement, first proposed three years ago, 23 African nations agreed that airlines from any participating country can fly to airports in any other country that signed on with the SAATM. These states that have signed the agreement include Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Swaziland, Togo and Zimbabwe.
In his opening speech at the 30th AU Summit, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, current AU head, called the SAATM “a major step forward for transportation,” adding that the group was “nearly ready to adopt the Continental Free Trade Area. It needs to be done this year.”
Enhanced connectivity, the AU said, will stimulate demand, improve the competitiveness of the African airline industry, and make air travel more accessible. This, in turn, os expected to enable higher volumes of trade, expanded tourism and growing commerce between African nations and the rest of the world, the organization said.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) praised the launch of the agreement, calling it “momentous” and “an important step forward” for the continent. “SAATM is a decisive step towards greater intra-African connectivity and delivers the framework on which to achieve it,” said Rapahel Kuuchi, IATA’s vice president for the African region.
Kuuchi, however, cautioned that the agreement needs to have the full commitment of the governments of the participating countries. “The benefits of a connected continent will only be realized through effective implementation of SAATM — firstly by the countries already committed and also by the remaining 32 AU member nations still to come on board,” he said. “Now it’s time to get down to the work of implementation. Greater connectivity will lead to greater prosperity.”
In the past, poor implementation of previous open skies pledges bogged down the process, IATA said. The 1988 Yamoussoukro Declaration and the follow-up Yamoussoukro Decision in 1999 did not have the required regulatory structure in place to ensure that the agreements would be followed. Today, under the framework for SAATM, IATA added, competition, consumer protection and dispute settlement will be covered to help safeguard the efficient operation of the free-trade market.
An earlier IATA survey suggested that if just 12 key African countries opened their markets and increased connectivity, “an extra 155,000 jobs and US$1.3 billion in annual GDP would be created in those countries,” Kuuchi said.