African airlines seek single air traffic control region, open skies

Africa could benefit significantly if its governments were to come together to establish one air traffic control region for the entire continent, according to an airline industry chief.

June Crawford, chief executive of the Board of Airline Representatives of South Africa, said that despite air traffic volumes into, from, and within Africa having grown exponentially, African airlines have not maximised benefits from this growth. “This drawback is borne out of the fact that there is no regional open-sky and bilateral agreements, which means that African airlines are mainly restricted to flying inside their home territories,” she said.

She pointed out that Africa is divided into 52 air traffic control regions, compared with just two in the Unites States and one in the European Union region, and that, despite accounting for less than 5 per cent of global air traffic, has 227 airlines compared to just 10 in the US.

“The Pan-African approach to deregulation is something that African governments need to expedite through opening African skies,” she argues.

Think-tank Oxford Business Group points out that these multiple air traffic control regions protect state-owned national carriers from competition when really Crawford argues that governments should be actively deregulating their domestic aviation sectors and opening their skies to participation by more airlines, particularly low-cost carriers (LCCs).

“This protection prevents competing African airlines from attaining landing rights in other African countries,” said Crawford. “The overall downside to this protection is that travellers pay more than what they should be paying for air tickets, restricting the number of people that could potentially use aviation to travel or to do business around the continent and visit exotic African tourist destinations.”

BARSA noted however that this would need to be done in a manner that does not result in overcapacity and threaten the overall financial viability of the industry.

“We have seen the positive effects of de-regulation in South Africa, whereby since after the 1991 de-regulation we saw many operators entering the sector, resulting in national carrier South African Airways reducing its market share from 95 per cent in 1990 to 36 per cent in 2016,” the BARSA chief said, adding that competition had decreased ticket prices and enabled more people to access air travel.

“Today, around 17 million people travel by air in South Africa, which is something that was unthinkable about three decades ago. In the US, deregulation led to the emergence of LCCs, resulting in low-cost competition to 70 per cent of US routes.”