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Africa’s Airspace Still an Open Question

FILE - An Ethiopian Airlines plane in flight.

Many topics are up in the air at this year’s African Union summit among them, literally: air. For nearly three decades, African aviation officials have tried, and failed, to get the continental body to implement an agreement to make the entire continent one connected, free airspace for civilian aircraft. Proponents say that enacting this treaty would boost African airlines and provide much-needed transportation options for people across Africa.

African nations agreed in 1988 in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, to create one vast, free civilian airspace - stretching from the mouth of the Nile to the Cape of Good Hope, from the Gulf of Guinea to the Horn of Africa.

The so-called Yamoussoukro Decision has since been written into law, but has yet to be actually implemented by all 44 African countries that adopted it. That has prompted some aviation industry figures -- like the CEO of Ethiopian Airlines -- to appeal to leaders at this year’s African Union summit to push for wider compliance.

Charles Schlumberger, the Lead Air Transport Specialist for the World Bank, is passionate about this treaty.

He’s also the author of “Open Skies for Africa: Implementing the Yamoussoukro Decision.” It’s not exactly a bestseller: online retailer Amazon ranks the book at number 5,336,740.

He spoke to VOA via Skype from Washington, and said the decision was made with good intentions.

“Twenty years ago, it was seen that African carriers need to develop, need to compete. And basically, it was decided to liberalize aviation throughout Africa,” said Schlumberger.

However, after the ink dried, the open airspace never actually materialized. Most African nations continue to charge airlines to land. Schlumberger said many non-compliers are trying to protect their own, often fragile, state-run airlines. The few countries that have complied, like Ethiopia, have airlines that are competitive and successful in their own right.

He also notes that many states that ignore the declaration have a financial motive.

“And the major reasons are landing fees. Landing fees are very expensive because airports are cash cows. So it is all about political will. But you don’t hear that. You hear that 'we need to do studies of the competition; we need to have a competent regulation agency; we need to do more studies in workshops; travel and meet and then make declarations,’” said Schlumberger.

He is a proponent of the treaty’s implementation for many reasons. He said implementation would allow airlines to develop, it would bring in much-needed investment, and it would provide more choices for consumers.

And, he answered a question that has plagued African travellers for decades: why on earth is it easier -- and often far cheaper -- to fly from one African city to another by transiting through Europe?

Schlumberger’s answer: Europe’s airspace has been liberalized, making it cheaper for many airlines to take that route.

“If we don’t develop aviation in Africa through liberalization, with the help of Yamoussoukro, European carriers will fly passengers from Lagos to Nairobi via London. And then they benefit. And you see so often, when I travel in Africa, same problem. It’s crazy to fly over Paris or London to another neighboring African country because there are not sufficient direct flights... So Yamoussoukro is basically an opportunity to develop domestic air services for African carriers,” he said.

For decades this tantalizing possibility has hung over Africa’s skies -- and may continue to do so for much longer.