Africa has inched closer to achieving a seamless air travel following the move by 19 regional states to adopt an airspace agreement last week amid fears that some airlines might be adversely affected by the move because of their weak capital base.
Ministers of Justice and the Attorney Generals from Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) adopted the legal instrument on common airspace in Lusaka, a move that would see the cost of air transport decline by 25 per cent if fully implemented.
Efforts to have African countries have a common airspace have been frustrated by States that want to protect their weak airlines from competition, in what had cast doubt on whether this would be achieved.
Ministers of Infrastructure from Comesa in a report realeased last year October said some countries had been reluctant to embrace full implementation of a seamless airspace as it would expose their airlines to stiff competition.
Most African countries have been protecting their ailing airlines through financial support and protection from competition posed by foreign firms.
“The Comesa Airspace Agreement and its Enabling Regulations aims at achieving a seamless upper airspace for the region which will lead to enhanced competition in air travel and efficiency. This is in addition to reducing costs of regional air travel and providing value for money in air services,” says Comesa.
The seamless airspace would enable foreign airlines to fly from their home country to another, drop and pick passengers in one airport at the destination country then flies to another airport in the same country.
Zambia Minister of Justice, Given Lubinda, who opened the meeting, said the high cost of doing business in the Comesa region was largely due to high transport costs. He said the Comesa seamless airspace programme will contribute to bringing down the cost of air transport in the region.
“I am glad that, apart from considering draft legal instruments that will strengthen governance, we are beginning to move to instruments that will help us tap into trade in services,” he said.
“The draft legal instruments aimed at the implementation of the Comesa Seamless Airspace programme.”
In January this year African Union launched Single African Air Transport Market in Ethiopia, adding impetus to the continent’s quest to achieve open skies.
The planned launch of a common airspace has already seen 23 countries pledge commitment after years of delays since the plan was first mooted.
Regional states have been trying to create a seamless air travel since 1999 but they had not been able to come up with one due to lack of enforcement mechanism and domestication of agreements by member states.
The region received Sh1 billion from the African Development Bank in 2014, which is sponsoring the airspace integration project that will enable countries to share data and exchange information.
A Project Implementation Unit (PIU) made up of technical experts based in Kigali was established in 2011 following the signing of an agreement in Rwanda.
The four countries— Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan were to negotiate air service agreements with foreign countries as one bloc.
Rwanda in December signed a pact with Uganda and South Sudan to establish a legal framework for negotiations that would see local airlines attain fifth freedom rights along Juba-Nairobi, Nairobi-Juba routes.
In aviation, fifth freedom rights mean an airline is allowed to carry passengers from one country to another and from that country to a third country.
The three countries signed the deal to create a legal framework before they could negotiate with Kenya on an airspace agreement which would subsequently be signed by ministers in charge of infrastructure.