AUC: Leading Africa’s Aviation Change Amidst Crises

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Africa is hoping for sustainable restart and recovery of the economy and aviation industry on the continent. H.E. Dr. Amani Abou-Zeid, Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy of the African Union Commission (AUC), in this exclusive interview with Aviation & Allied Business explores efforts to drive Africa’s urgent objectives, including issues on vaccines and continental trade and transport liberalization.


HE Amani Abou-Zeid, Commissioner, Infrastructure & Energy, AUC

Q: You were recently re-elected as the Commissioner for Infrastructure & Energy of the African Union Commission (AUC), what is your main focus especially regarding air transport in Africa?


A: The African Union (AU) has overall responsibility for formulating policies for the aviation industry with the aim of accelerating the political and socio-economic integration of the continent and foster a safe, secure, efficient, affordable and sustainable air transport industry in Africa.

My immediate focus is to ensure that the AU vision which is anchored under the Yamoussoukro Decision (YD) on the full liberalization of air transport in Africa and the removal of non-physical barriers to the movement of persons, goods and services is achieved. Once those two goals are achieved, the socio-economic benefits to the African continent will be enormous.


You will certainly agree with me that liberalization must go hand-in-gloves with improved aviation infrastructure. The growth that would be achieved as a result of the implementation of SAATM would only be sustained if there are modern, cost and efficient aviation infrastructure. This includes not only airports, air navigation services and air traffic control systems but extends to the ground transport infrastructure and digital solutions that are required to facilitate seamless movements of passengers and cargo to and from air terminals and cities.


At the policy level, we are working hard to achieve a structured and globally harmonized Airspace and Air Traffic Management (ATM) framework, supported by a cost-effective and sustainable Communications, Navigation and Surveillance (CNS) infrastructurein order to support SAATM.


While working to address infrastructure deficiencies and policy constraints, African aviation also needs increased multi-sector collaboration and air transport policy integration with other continental policies (trade, tourism, health, digitalization etc.). This will create an environment that both supports and encourages a strong air transport sector which in turn will lead to growth and economic integration of our continent.


The AUC has its Specialized Agency on all civil aviation matters and Executing Agency of the YD which is ably led by a Secretary General and competent subject matter Experts. My main priority is also to continue strengthening AFCAC in order to enable it deliver its mandate as expected.


Q: The devastation of the COVID-19 has been far-reaching in aviation industry in Africa, what is the AUC doing currently to drive recovery given the need for financial support to operators?

A: There is no doubt that the current pandemic has a broad humanitarian, social and economic impact in the short, medium and long term. The most evident impact, obviously has been on the African Airlines. Most important to note is that the pandemic also has implications to every aspect of the AU Agenda 2063.


Upon the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic in 2020 and after considering the immediate impact it had created on the aviation industry, the AUC in coordination with AFCAC quickly mobilized various stakeholders to develop and propose immediate relief measures for the African aviation sector. A High Level Task Force (HLTF) on Restart and Recovery Strategies during and after COVID-19 for the African Aviation Sector was established and managed to submit its report for consideration by the Ministers responsible for air transport. One of the key recommendations is to enable African air transport industry access sufficient financial, human resources and equipment to support operations as well as resource mobilization by African States, financial institutions, international partners and stakeholders to contribute to the financial package with the objective to competitively reposition and enable African aviation sector to survive as well as recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.


In order to lay a sound foundation for our industry’s recovery, different institutional and policy decisions by governments, financial development institutions, technical partners and all stakeholders are required to, not only support the swift recovery of the air transport industry through the crisis but also guarantee African airlines sustainability. I have personally taken the initiative to respond through establishment of Stakeholders meeting for development of immediate relief measures.


Q:What is AUC doing to ensure travelers from Africa are not denied travel access due to absence of vaccines and certificates of vaccination in Africa?

A: In Africa, the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic was first reported in February 2020, by the end of March 2020, 31 Member States had reported their first cases. More than 13 million tests have been conducted on the continent so far with positivity rate around 10%.

The COVID-19 pandemic in Africa continues to progress in the absence of an effective pharmaceutical intervention. Cognizant of the harm that the pandemic is exerting on the socialand economic development of the continent, the AUC through the Africa CDC launched the Africa against COVID-19 campaign: saving lives, economies and livelihoods. The campaign was launched during the joint Ministerial meeting between the AU Member State’s Ministers of health and Ministers of transport, together with the AUC.


The launch followed a joint partner’s technical consultative meeting co-organized by Africa CDC in partnership with the World Health Organization – Africa Region and with participation of the UN organizations, AUC departments, Regional Economic Communities (RECs), NGOs, and the private sector. The discussion identified calls-to-action in order to recommend collaborative and harmonized approaches for the safe reopening of Member States’ borders, economies, and schools.


On the raging issue of vaccine passports, the African position is that only testing – PCR test or antigen test – and digital certificates be used as the only prerequisite for international travel until when the vaccines are made widely available. In addition to that, all the States of the world are requested to implement the ICAO CART Phase III recommendations and guidance, which are based on the latest development of the COVID-19 particularly on testing and vaccination. Consequently, I would like to call on all stakeholders to support the African common position on the issue of vaccine passports being imposed by some States as a prerequisite for air travel.

With some positive signs of recovery, especially in countries with high rates of vaccination, I believe that a sustained global recovery will only be realized with an escalation of vaccination campaigns.


Q: What is your expectation on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) launched January 2021, given that several African States are yet to join the project?


A:The Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) which started its operations on 1st January 2021 is another important flagship project under AU Agenda 2063 which is very much supported by the full operationalization of the SAATM, the protocol on free movement of persons, goods and services as well as the African passport initiative. At the time of operationalization of the AfCFTA, we have established a clear link between AfCFTA and SAATM.


On one side the SAATM will support the improvement in intra-africa transport connectivity which will support important cargo and trade routes within the AfCFTA framework, and on the other hand the implementation of AfCFTA will support the demand in travel within the continent which will obviously justify the need to expand intra-African air transport route network, improve the air transport services and encourage a more competitive and efficient air transport industry. Another important expectation from the AfCFTA is the reduction of tariffs and the review of various taxes regimes, which will contribute to the reduction of current high cost of air transport in Africa.

Q: How would the continent ensure the AfCFTA does not become a tool for dumping of inferior goods into African States from foreign countries who may have affiliates in Africa?

Recent high-level political development on the continent such as the adoption of the AU Agenda 2063 and its flagships projects i.e. the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) requires air transport to play a pivotal role in the continental integration

A: The African Union Commission has established the AfCFTA Secretariat with the mandate to put in place all required legal and regulatory framework and to address the various challenges to ensure effective operationalization of the Market for the benefits of African continent.


Q: Air Cargo is much under-developed in Africa, given the centrality of trade and exports to the development of air cargo in Africa, what is the AUC doing to drive strong trade and economic base on the continent?

A: Air Cargo plays a catalyst role for economic growth as it provides African countries with quick and efficient access to worldwide supply chains, markets and destinations. Urgent items such as medical supplies or spare parts also tend to use airfreight. Similarly, perishable goods demand a rapid mode of transport otherwise they lose their market either through physical spoilage or through being out-of-date. The air cargo industry provides a ready source of lift for emergency food aid and medical supplies at short notice to meet emergencies – as we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic for distribution of vacinnes. However, air cargo is more generally associated with the carriage of high value items and these goods are required within a specific time limit.


However, one of airfreight’s characteristics, and one that differentiates it from passenger business, is directionality and this is attributable to an underlying imbalance in the trade of goods. As we saw during the covid-19 outbreak, integrated carriers will continue to become an important component of the air cargo industry as the combination carriers will continue to utilize wide body freighters.

Having said that, within the context of SAATM and AfCFTA, it is expected that SAATM will definitely facilitate trade in Africa and allow connections beyond areas where the cargo airlines have not reached. We are also urging the sstakeholders in the logistics space to take advantage of SAATM by considering optimisation in terms of costs and transit time as this may call for a change in their business models.


We are equally pushing through AFCAC and other stakeholders for greater collaboration between airlines and Member States in order to unlock intra-regional market potentials and increase air carrier competitiveness.


Q: The Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) is yet to be signed by many African States, while it is also not implemented among several States that have signed the Solemn Commitment; how do you hope to overcome this challenge?


A: Recent high-level political development on the continent such as the adoption of the AU Agenda 2063 and its flagships projects i.e. the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) requires air transport to play a pivotal role in the continental integration and prosperity of Africa through sustainable economic and social development.

So far and just recently, the Republic of Zambia became the 35th Member State that has signed the Solemn Commitment to implement the SAATM, making it about 64% of AU member States that are on board the SAATM flight. Furthermore, the AUC in collaboration with AFCAC has been able to bring together all the stakeholders – AFRAA, IATA-Africa, ACI-Africa, CANSO-Africa, ICAO, RECs, RSOOs, financial development partners such as the AfDB, Afrexim Bank, EU, OIE, etc. – who have now developed a Joint Prioritized Action Plan (JPAP) for the operationalization and implementation of SAATM that is anchored on six major pillars namely: advocacy and communication strategies; SAATM regulatory framework; operationalization of SAATM; Aviation infrastructure; enhancing safety and security; and aviation financing.


AUC has also engaged International Air Transport Association (IATA) to undertake a comprehensive analysis of the socio-economic benefits of SAATM or each of the 55 AU Member States, map the status of implementation of YD and SAATM and also develop a communication strategy for SAATM advocacy. This will assist AUC and AFCAC to improve advocacy efforts to bring on board the 20 remaining Member States and to ensure those who have signed can be supported to fully implement SAATM concrete measures.

AFCAC being the Executing Agency of the YD and SAATM is the secretariat of the JPAP. The JPAP has a monitoring mechanism with key performance indicators, which are being reviewed bi-annually. With this mechanism, we have been able to achieve so much and we hope that by 2022, all the other member States should have signed the solemn commitment based on the ongoing advocacies and campaign at the highest level.


With regard to implementation of SAATM, AFCAC has been imploring all eligible African airlines to test the functionality of the market within these 35 member States that have signed the Solemn Commitment to unconditionally open up the market to all African airlines that meet the eligibility criteria and AFCAC is readily available to assist in the resolution of any challenges that might arise therefrom.

Q:African Civil Aviation Commission (AFCAC) has the responsibilities of serving as the Executing Agency of the YD/SAATM, driving the African Aviation Training innovation as well as Security; how do you ensure AFCAC has the financial support and resources to run these mandates effectively?

A: The African Civil Aviation Commission (AFCAC) is the Specialized Agency of the African Union (AU) on all civil aviation matters on the continent. AFCAC was given additional responsibility as the Executing Agency (EA) of the YD and the SAATM. What we did was to identify some specific priority activities in the Roadmap of the SAATM and the AUC submitted a request for an AfDB funding to support the full implementation of the Yamoussoukro Decision (YD) towards the establishment of the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM). You may recall that SAATM was finally launched by the AU Head of States and of Government in January 2018.

HE Amani Abou-Zeid, Commissioner, Energy & Infrastructure, AUC

I am glad to inform you that the request was approved by the AfDB’s Board of Directors in February 2020; the grant protocol was signed in March 2020. The fund pledged by the AfDB is estimated at UA 5.58 million. $7.65 million and is co-financed by the Bank Group (89.54%) and AFCAC (10.46%).

The specific objectives of the project are: to strengthen the SAATM and YD Implementation Agency in order to be fully operational in order to carry out its mandate effectively; advocate for the implementation of SAATM within an effective and applied legal and operational framework; contribute to improving the levels of compliance of African States and airlines in terms of safety, security and environmental protection, and strengthen the capacity of RECs and other stakeholders involved in SAATM.

AFCAC has fully opertationalized the Executing Agency of the YD through deployment of Enforcement Officers and Air Transport Experts. It is coordination with AFRAA to enable African Airlines of States party to SAATM receive IATA’s Certification (IOSA and IASA).

Q: Industry operators are deeply worried about the high taxes and air fares in Africa which readily works against the success of the SAATM; in what way can the AUC intervene to address this major setback?

A: Let me start by saying that high aviation charges, taxes, and fees limit the functions and catalytic importance of civilaviation in socio-economic development and Africa’s continental integration. More so, many of the carriers that compete with African airlines come from operating environment that provide them with significantly low operating cost thereby putting them at an edge over their African counterparts. However, and whatever the type of taxes, charges and fees, whether they are directly collected from the passengers or the airlines, it all add up to the cost of travel that ultimately will be borne by the travelling public as the airline will pass on these charges to the passengers as cost of ticket.


As you may be aware, COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on Air Transport Services in Africa, particularly passenger services and with the current cost structure of African airlines, it is increasing becoming more difficult to survive the fierce competition and forces that are lined-up against them during and post COVID-19 especially the highcosts ofoperations exacerbated by taxes, high charges and fees.


Having established this basis therefore, we at the AUC level have been working through our specialized technical Agency on civil aviation matters – the African Civil Aviation Commission (AFCAC) and all the relevant stakeholders: AFRAA, IATA-Africa, AAIG, RECs, ICAO, to see how we can collectively address the highcosts ofoperations exacerbated by taxes, high charges and fees on the continent.

It may interest you to know that recently, the AUC and AFCAC in collaboration with these stakeholders organized 2 workshops on economic oversight and regulation aimed addressing taxes, high charges and fees on aviation in Africa and I can confirm to you that recommendations from these workshops were quite germane.

The workshops reaffirmed the importance of member States’ compliance with ICAO’s policies on charges, fees and taxes, domestication and application of the relevant provisions of the African Civil Aviation Policy (AFCAP) and the Yamoussoukro Decision (YD), as well as the need for member States to establish strong economic oversight systems.


The participants at these workshops called for the harmonization of RECs and member States’ policies in line with ICAO policies on taxes and charges and other non-tariff barriers and equally urged governments to stimulate air transport demand by removing all government taxes on air transport as well as reduction of passenger charges as excessive and unjustified taxes, charges and other government-imposed fees and levies on international aviation have negative impacts on the industry’s competitiveness and national economies.

These recommendations and many more are being processed through the relevant organs of the AU for adoption by our Ministers. Thus, in order for Africa to realize the objectives of the AU Agenda2063, ensure sustainable development of Air Transport and to realize the benefits of socio-economic development promised by air transport, all stakeholders would need to work together to reduce the cost of travel so as to make it affordable to a larger sector of the African population who currently are excluded from the use of air transport because of the high fares.


Q: Developing multimodal transportation system is vital for the success of the AfCFTA, especially for last mile delivery of cargo and access of passengers to remote economies; from the AUC perspective, how can this be achieved across Africa?

A: Air transportation is particularly suitable in countries where surface infrastructure is poorly developed as well as for island countries. Development of air transport is driven by economics and by security considerations, since in a number of dangerous zones, air transport remains the safest way to travel. This transportation mode is set to continue to grow for a good many years to come. Infact, air transport along with ICT is set to be the major feature of development in the years to come.


In addition to air transport the Commission is also developing other modes of transport in a multimodal and corridor approach. The cross-border trade and movement of persons, goods and services require an intermodal transport system including land and maritime transport.  In fact, developing a multimodal transport strategy in the framework of the Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA) in its second phase ( 2021-2030) will be very key and will support the transport connectivity that is paramount for the success of AfCFTA

The AUC is hoped to expedite efforts to improve air transport and trade integration in Africa

Q: There are strong views that Africa should enhance local finance institutions and frameworks to support air transport development, how do you think this will work out?

A: Under the SAATM joint Prioritized Action Plan, AUC in collaboration with AFCAC and other air transport stakeholders is planning to organize a conference of development partners of the aviation sector to develop an appropriate framework for resource mobilization that will guarantee access to sustainable funding of the African aviation sector. In addition to that, the AfDB is in the process of embarking on a feasibility study for the creation of a leasing platform for African airlines. We believe that access to investment finance should include major aviation infrastructure projects including airline financing in the priority list of international public finance and assistance for development. The development of a continental aviation infrastructure master plan is also among the priorities under the PIDA PAP

I believe that international public finance and assistance should be used to unlock additional finance through blended or pooled financing and risk mitigation for infrastructure and airline financing. In addition, it can catalyze additional resource mobilization from other sources from both the public and private sectors.


Q: There are worries that foreign interests are slowly taking over Africa in various aspects including aviation, how could the continent ensure that its relationship with other regions is more beneficial to Africa?

A: The small scale of Africa’s internal market is a function of many factors, not least infrastructure and aero political restrictions. Based on the 2019 passenger numbers for African States (IATA), we can see that the African market flew over 161 million passengers in 2019. In 2019, air passenger transport in the European Union (EU-28) amounted to over 1.1 billion passengers.


This is despite Europe being three times smaller than Africa. This shows the significantly smaller base African airlines have to build intercontinental operations in competition with other airlines.

However, we will continue to focus on multi-sectorial approach through collaboration, coordination, and communication as the most robust mechanism to comprehensively ensure that we reach global consensus on multilateral approach and try to secure political will that will enable safe and efficient recovery of global aviation, and to build strength in the foundation of resilient aviation sector after COVID-19.


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