Mr. Aaron Munetsi, the Director, Government, Legal and Industry, African Airlines Association (AFRAA),was once the Regional General Manager, Africa and Middle East for South African Airways. In this interview with OLUSEGUN KOIKI at the just concluded Akwaaba Africa Travel Market held in Lagos, Munetsi spoke on issues affecting the continent’s carriers, and the need to embrace the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) of African Union (AU) by governments. Excerpts:
Can you summarise the paper your presented at the Akwaaba Africa Travel Market?
The theme of the Aviation Day: ‘Impact of Airport Development and Airlines on Tourism Growth,’ brings together the two most important components of any aviation industry; the airlines and the airports. Everything else is peripheral to these two.
That is why when we are discussing the impact of airports, we realised that there are some things that we needed to highlight, the first one is that there is need for critical planning process and the planning process must be all inclusive.
Every elements of the planning process must address the objectives and the strategies. What do you want to achieve in these airports in relation to your geographical location? The geographical location has been in Africa and how many markets do you want to operate to? Even an airport in Calabar for instance cannot say it’s only catering for passengers in Calabar alone.
It can’t be like that. There has to be traffic throughput into Calabar and out of Calabar. So, they must understand that there is no such thing as a standalone airport.
The second element is with all these planning that are taking place, where are the finances coming from? Where are the finances for the airlines coming from? And third is now that you have got the plans in terms of the finances, what is the futuristic approach? That is why I spoke about the airlines and airports operating together.
How are you going to come up with the merge process?
How will the acquisition going to take place? It’s a major ideas, policies and procedures.
Do you have fears that the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) may be a failure on the long run because of the attitudes of some countries to the policy?
If there is anybody that has more confidence about SAATM, that person is me. As a matter of fact, the Yamoussoukro Decision (YD) was never abandoned. There is a perception and we need to correct that perception.
Yamoussoukro Decision was successful. How many African airlines are operating intra-African routes with fourth, fifth and sixth traffic right? It’s because of Yamoussoukro.
Actually, when the Head of States came together in January 2018 and pronounced SAATM, they said SAATM was going to make Yamoussoukro to be more successful. So, SAATM is actually executing policies for Yamoussoukro. Yamoussoukro was never abandoned, it was never a failure and SAATM, too is not going to be a failure because it is built on the successes of Yamoussoukro and the realisation of governments of Africa who said by the virtue of 2063 Africa that we want to realise, SAATM is going to be one of the flagships that will be used to realise that.
About two weeks ago, we only had 28 countries that had signed the treaty, but at present, two additional countries have signed and four more are going to sign into the treaty before the end of the year.
How much more successful can it be?
We have crossed the Rubicon now, we can never go back. The next phase is for them to sign Memorandum of Implementation. 18 countries have signed already and we are moving forward with African Airlines Association (AFRAA) and African Civil Aviation Commission (AFCAC). We are moving together to those countries that are not ready. We are approaching them and asking of their problems and challenges with the policy and how we can help them to make it work.
What is your say about the imbalance charges imposed on airlines by some African countries?
AFCAC is a regulatory authority, but it is also the executing agency.
It is empowered by the African Union (AU) to make sure that SAATM is implemented. But, remember, AFCAC is also a combination of International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) saying that member states need to come together to have one voice in African aviation. AU has given AFCAC the authority to be the regulatory agency on African aviation.
What can the government do to assist African airlines to increase its participation in the airlifting of air travellers on the continent?
My view is that the days of government doing everything are over.
Government is the regulatory authority. Governments must create enabling environments through policies, processes and procedures and make sure that these policies, processes and procedures are executed with discipline.
Let business take over. The notion that the government must help airlines is wrong and I think we are the ones pushing the government to do the wrong thing. Government must stay out of the way to allow business survive. There are countries on this continent where governments have stepped aside and their airlines are prospering.
We must not continue to force the government to be involved in aviation.
The government must put the regulations in place and they must make sure they discipline in ensuring safety and security in all the policies that are required. Government must not run business.
African countries has over 400 airports, do you think these airports are optimally operated?
The fact is that the airports we have are so under-utilised.
The statistics that was shared recently by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) showed that all the airports in Africa utilise only 19 per cent of their capacities, which means over 80 per cent are abandoned. Even, the busiest airports, 80 per cent of their facilities are abandoned. The idea is to make sure that the ones we have are utilised to the maximum. It is only when we exceed their utilisation capacity that we can think of building new airports.
How is AFRAA addressing the roadblock mounted by some African countries that stop some airlines on the continent from flying into their airspace through unfriendly charges?
The first thing is those airlines that are experiencing any challenges whatsoever, number one; they must come to AFRAA to tell us what the challenges are.
Once we know the problems, then, we can now know how to address them with AFCAC.
We have a very strong relationship with AFCAC. If anyone is facing challenges that are unresolved by AFRAA, they can approach AFCAC and if they are not satisfied with the resolution, you can now escalate it with the AU.
For us at AFRAA, our doors are open for 24/7. That is why I am here. Once you have a situation, just let us know. The most important thing is that African airlines must become members of AFRAA.
How many of such issues have you resolved at the AFRAA or AFCAC level?
One of the issues that have been raised before us is the issue of block funds. Airlines do their sales, then, they collect money, but they can’t repatriate their money.
We at AFRAA and with our partnerships with AU, AFCAC and IATA, we addressed this issue with various governments. Of course, we know some governments don’t have options, they don’t just have the money and Nigeria was a typical example.
We came here, we spoke with the authorities in this country and advised them on how to address the challenges. Of course, Nigeria did and you can see the result and Nigeria is a shining example in that regards right now. Wherever we go, we talk about how Nigerian Government had listened to us, implemented the solutions and now they are no longer seen as a problem where you can’t fly to Nigeria because you can’t get your money.
There are other countries that we still have a problem with and Zimbabwe is an example of that. We are continuously engaging with the Zimbabwean authorities on the issue. We make them realise that some of this money stuck in their country can actually prevent other airlines from coming in, thereby preventing money from coming in.
What is your view about the plan of the Nigerian Government to set up a national carrier for the country?
I believe the Nigerian Government should have the best interest of the Nigerian population. Whatever they are coming up with is what they are going to implement. However, they must also be able to look at other countries and see what are the best practices that have led to successes? For example, look at Ethiopian. Ethiopian Airlines is a national carrier that is owned 100 per cent by the government of Ethiopia, but the Ethiopian Government has made a resolution never to get involved in the day-to-day running of that airline. That is an example.