‘Africa cannot have 54 air hubs,’ says Afraa’s Secretary-General Abderrahmane Berthé

By Nelly Fualdes
Posted on Wednesday, 21 December 2022 17:43

Air Senegal plane is parked at Blaise Diagne International Airport, in Thies, Senegal, March 28, 2020. REUTERS

Afraa’s Secretary-General Abderrahmane Berthé is familiar with the tug-of-war between liberalisation and protectionism that has been tearing the African aviation sector apart for more than 20 years. He has no illusions about a market that is both fragile and essential to the continent's development.

During the organisation’s 54th annual general meeting at the Air Senegal headquarters in Dakar from 11 to 13 December, Berthé was reappointed to head the general secretariat of the Association of African Airlines (Afraa) for a second five-year term.

He previously worked for Air Mali, Société Nouvelle Mali SA and Air Burkina. From Afraa’s headquarters in Nairobi, and through his regular attendance of major aviation events, the Malian aeronautical engineer tirelessly communicates the demands of his member airlines to governments and airport managers. This includes the need to harmonise as well as reduce the various taxes and fees. Although he also tries to encourage them to cooperate to strengthen themselves, he has no illusions regarding the difficulty of the exercise.

Question: How is the African sky today?

Abderrahmane Berthé: It is in the process of being restored following the Covid-19 crisis, which hit it very hard. Even though this is the case in other regions of the world, African companies have not been able to obtain financial support from various countries – unless they were shareholders, and even then, it was sometimes difficult because they had so many priorities. The financial institutions that we approached were unable to follow up on this because governments did not provide a sovereign guarantee.

Nevertheless, in 2021, we saw a gradual recovery in activity, especially passenger activity, which continues to improve. Estimates say that African airlines carried 67 million passengers [compared to 95 million in 2019] in 2022. Our current concern is the global economic situation and the significant increase in fuel prices. This is an important factor to bear in mind regarding the operating costs of airlines, as it leads to a considerable increase in air ticket prices, which are 40 to 50% more expensive than before 2020. This is holding back air transport development.

How do you perceive the integration of a minimum quantity of SAF (sustainable aviation fuel) that is taking shape in the US and Europe?

We are very cautious about these issues. We have resolved to encourage our members to improve their operations’ efficiency to reduce emissions sustainably, and we would like to support them in improving their capacity in this area.

[However], we also bring up the issues that this raises for African operators. For instance, FAS can be part of the solution, but it costs three to four times more than paraffin. We urge decision-makers, especially governments, to find economically viable solutions.

The African Common Aviation Market project has been running for over 20 years. However, a month ago, 15 states embarked on a pilot project between “ready and willing” countries. Do you think that it will be the right one this time?

In Yamoussoukro, more than 40 countries signed up, but nothing happened. The African Common Aviation Market (SAATM) was implemented in 2018. Nearly five years later, we see once again that nations are signing it – 35 have approved this treaty to date – but not implementing it. We have been saying for a long time that we need to go ahead, even if it only involves a limited number of countries in the first instance. This pilot project, which is supported by the African Civil Aviation Commission, corresponds to the objective, provided that the signatories are sincere in their commitment to applying the Yamoussoukro agreements.

Nations are often hesitant about protecting their national company…

This is understandable, but in this case, we must be transparent. This programme is supposed to represent “ready and willing” countries. If the will is not there, then it would be better if they pass on it for now. If they decide to commit, they have to understand the consequences: no more restrictions in terms of frequencies, operators [on a continental scale]… It’s far from trivial, so I’m waiting to see how it develops in the coming months.

We have asked our members at Afraa to inform us whenever they have difficulties in terms of traffic rights, and we will be particularly attentive to the situations concerning these countries.

Should we move towards freeing up the sky between Africa and the rest of the world?

Yamoussoukro and SAATM only concern Africa. Between Africa and the rest of the world, it is up to each state to decide within the framework of bilateral agreements. The African Union is working on a framework document to help African states harmonise their policies on international air agreements. The latter is guided by a desire to maintain a certain balance in the relationship between Africa and the rest of the world.

Will there be more concentration on the continent?

Yes, because it is impossible to have as many companies in Africa as there are countries, especially as each one wants to have its hub. [However], Africa cannot have 54 hubs so efforts will be made to consolidate.

What is important, beyond the national companies, is how air transport helps a country and its economy develop. Even if a country doesn’t have its airline, it can still authorise third-party companies to operate. Africa is a vast continent, so I think there is room for five or six companies with a global vocation, as well as regional companies that cooperate.

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