ANALYSIS: Safety and open skies still the big issues for Africa

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Consensus at the 43rd annual African Airline Association (AFRAA) general assembly in Marrakech, Morocco was that safety and open skies over Africa were still the principle barriers preventing rapid growth in the continent's aviation industry.

Improving the safety record of African airlines is the biggest challenge facing the continent's aviation industry, according to AFRAA secretary general Elijah Chingosho.

He said the continent's accident rate and therefore its image has been being tarnished by the poor safety record of a few countries, with the Democratic Republic of Congo topping that list.

But he also reiterated his criticism of the European Union's airline blacklist. The list which bans airlines and, in some cases an entire country's carriers, from operating in Europe includes blanket bans on operators from a number of African countries. Chingosho said this "achieved nothing in terms of improving safety" and that it simply served to "further the commercial interests of EU carriers", arguing that when a country was blacklisted, an EU carrier would then open a route there.

"IATA does not believe that banning airlines improves safety," said IATA director general Tony Tyler during the AGM. "None-the-less, the list of banned airlines is a political reality that is not going to disappear. And improving safety is incumbent on all in this industry."

While some African airlines negotiate the ban by operating leased aircraft under air operators certificates from countries not on the blacklist, this solution is not one the airlines wish to be permanent.

Sudan Airways is working with the country's Civil Aviation Authority to help in efforts to lift the current European Commission ban on Sudan's operators serving the EU as it targets resuming London services next summer. "The EU knows Sudan Airways had been flying routes to Europe for decades. Sudan Airways is 64-years-old. We used to operate daily to London as well as twice a week to Paris, Rome, Frankfurt and Athens," said the carrier's secretary general, Abdul Rahman Fadl M Salih.

African aviation's other long-standing topic of debate is the issue of open skies. Yet since the Yamoussoukro Decision created a framework for the intra-African liberalisation of the airline industry in 1999, progress has been notoriously slow. Despite customary calls for its implementation at AFRAA meetings, Africa is a long way from liberalised skies.

Consultant Kenneth Gray, head of the African Aviation Group of commercial law firm Norton Rose, said that progress had been made on liberalisation, citing individual countries that have unilaterally adopted open skies policies such as Togo and Uganda and a bilateral agreement between South Africa and Cameroon. Gray feels that liberalisation will continue in this manner with individual countries and regions taking the lead.

Citing the need for liberalisition, Gray said: "It's absolutely ludicrous that if you want to fly from East Africa to West Africa you have to go through the Middle East or Europe." He said that there were pockets of resistance preventing open skies from countries such as Zambia which no longer has a national carrier, but still has protectionist policies in case one starts-up. He said that although liberalisation meant some "smaller less efficient carriers will go out of business...the lack of protection they'll get means that they'll have to create a viable business plan".

He said liberalisation is "going to be a slow and gradual process, but there are definite signs in some individual countries that there are movements towards this".

But Gary Tokoph of South African carrier InterAir voiced his concern about liberalisation, which he said was contrary to entrepreneurship and would see the continent carved up among a few mega-carriers. He felt any benefits it would bring would be short term and ultimately implementing Yamoussoukro would mean a decreased choice of airlines for passengers and a decline in on-board service levels due to decreased competition.

Meanwhile Royal Air Maroc's chief executive Driss Benhima outlined his backing for wider open skies between African countries and other regions, even though the Moroccan flag carrier is undergoing a painful restructuring in part as a result of the increased competition following Morocco's 2006 open skies deal with the EU. Under its restructuring Royal Air Maroc will reduce its staff by 1,500 employees in a bid to shave €100 million ($134 million) a year from its operating costs.

Yet highlighting the social and economic benefits liberalisation has brought to Morocco Benhima said: "We have to consider what's more important, the passenger or the airline.

"The goal of civil aviation, especially for those in charge of civil aviation, is to increase frequency in countries and lower fares for passengers. Therefore, the liberation of the skies - which favours big carriers, whether they are low-cost or legacy - brings the solution," he added.