Some smaller African carriers may have to be sacrificed for the greater good of the continent's airline industry, says the head of the regional airline association.
"We cannot compete with carriers from outside Africa unless we make our airlines strong by opening up the African market," says Elijah Chingosho, secretary-general of the African Airlines Association. "In the process, some smaller airlines are going to disappear, but it will strengthen some of our carriers to take on the world carriers."
There has been some liberalisation since the ratification in 2000 of Africa's Yamoussoukro open skies agreement, but this has yet to be fully implemented amid concerns about the consequences for certain national airlines.
"Some countries cite the excuse that if they open up, then the local carrier will disappear. Others are concerned about the lack of competition rules to prevent capacity dumping or unfair competitive practices," says Chingosho.
With Africa one of the few regions remaining to be fully liberalised, AFRAA thinks these are all "lame excuses" which are preventing its airlines from being able to compete on the world stage. "Our major threat comes from outside Africa from the big carriers. They realise that Africa is a growing market and are coming in. And opening up the market is the only way we can strengthen African airlines."
AFRAA is recommending that open-skies efforts should be kick-started by those countries already willing to liberalise, like Kenya and Nigeria. "If we wait for all 54 countries to agree, the day may never arrive," says Chingosho.
And the worry over the local impact is also misplaced, he adds. "Small national carriers are draining their country's resources, whereas you could allow the free flow of capital into that airline. It will strengthen it so it can then play its part in developing that country."