SADC aviation leaders call for open skies to promote economic growth in the region

An aircraft being prepared for take off at an airport. Picture: Unsplash

An aircraft being prepared for take off at an airport. Picture: Unsplash

Published Mar 18, 2024


According to Natalia Rosa, the project lead on SADC Business Council Tourism Alliance, the current state of aviation in SADC is a massive own goal for the region’s economies and the region can talk about a free trade area and regional integration, however, if people and goods can’ t move efficiently then it’s all just empty promises.

Rosa was speaking at the Southern African Industrialisation Forum (SAIF) held in Sandton recently.

Aviation experts at the forum echoed similar sentiments and highlighted that burdensome aviation regulations, stifling visa requirements, and a lack of cross-industry collaboration are hampering the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) economic potential.

Panellists at the forum highlighted that fragmented regulations, inconsistent bilateral agreements, and disharmonised licensing requirements for pilots create unnecessary complexity and operational costs for airlines.

Dr Namhla Tshetu, Airlink Executive Manager Corporate Services said that achieving greater connectivity within the SADC aviation industry requires harmonising regulations across countries and that while protecting a country’s sovereignty is important, when regulations are misaligned, it hinders collaboration on regional routes.

She said that overcoming this requires finding common ground, using global standards and most importantly, considering airline perspectives when formulating bilateral agreements or policies that impact operations.

“Without substantial involvement of airlines in drafting aviation rules, suboptimal regulations often emerge that inhibit cross-border operations – whether due to protectionist agendas or simply lack of practical industry input.

“Rectifying this limited participation will be integral to unlocking connectivity and forging viable, integrated air networks across the SADC region,” said Dr Tshetu.

Another panellist, Aaron Munetsi, CEO Airline Association of Southern Africa, said that onerous visa requirements for many SADC nationals travelling within the region impede tourism, business, and the free movement of labour whilst limited visa openness also restricts SADC’s competitiveness as a travel and investment destination.

“If Africans cannot travel within Africa themselves freely, everything else that we are saying here is a pipe dream. How is it possible that today as we speak in 2024, up to 45% of African countries need visas to go to each other’s country, when 23 of these African countries give Americans entry without visa?”

The panellists also pointed out that silos often exist between aviation, tourism, and other sectors, hindering effective route development and a cohesive tourism product offering which is why collaboration is key to addressing issues around route sustainability and promoting the region internationally.

Jon Howell, CEO and founder of AviaDev Africa, said that effective route development involves more than just launching new routes and it requires collaborating with stakeholders to support the expansion and sustainability of existing routes over time.

“This could mean increasing flight frequency, passenger numbers, or aircraft gauge to continue stimulating demand.

“Airlines like Airlink, with a diverse fleet suited for thin routes have an advantage here, whereas an airline like FlySafair running large 737-800s cannot viably serve some lower-volume regional routes without 5th Freedom Rights,” said Howell.

He noted that the target for increasing 5th freedom route proportions is from 15% currently to 30% by 2025, while the goal is leveraging liberalisation to drive economic growth through aviation.

The forum also heard that excessive charges, airport taxes and fuel levies hinder SADC’s regional competitiveness, deterring airlines and inflating costs for travellers and businesses.

A key priority of the air access study being conducted by the SADC Secretariat is pursuing affordable aviation taxes and charges.

The study found that currently, prohibitively high airfares are hindering tourism growth across the region.

“For governments trying to promote their country as an attractive destination, unaffordable flights pose a major barrier limiting visitor volume and spend. Without viable air transportation options, tourism sectors cannot thrive,” said the secretariat.

In conclusion, the panellists at the forum emphasised the need for comprehensive policy reforms, with the adoption of the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) initiative, public-private partnerships for infrastructure development, and creating a conducive environment for airlines to operate seen as essential steps.

“Collaborative problem-solving is indispensable to tackling the multifaceted challenges in creating world-class aviation infrastructure across SADC.

“Our vision is of a truly integrated network where goods and people can move seamlessly across African skies which requires bringing all the critical players to the table including national tourism organisations, regulators, airlines and private sector tourism stakeholders,” said Rosa.