Push for open skies not based on cogent rationale

Kenya Airways plane at the JKIA, Nairobi, on November 6, 2022. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Kenya's airspace, like any other resource, is a national asset. The overarching consideration of its use must be for the benefit of the country and its citizens. Access to it cannot be given gratuitously.

Nor should it be granted to foreign entities without commensurate value returns. Which is why Bilateral Air Service Agreements (BASAs) exist; to ensure that the country is not exploited by those who access its airspace.

BASAs are treaties between countries to allow international commercial air transport services between territories. An article from Lexology expounds on BASAs saying, "these agreements provide the framework under which identified airlines from two countries fly into designated ports in each other's country." The negotiation of BASAs is a complex affair often involving the Transport, Trade and Foreign Affairs ministries of the countries involved. This is because BASAs are reciprocal for their mutual benefit.

The Macmillan dictionary defines open skies as "an agreement in which aircraft can fly between countries without any restrictions." This definition repudiates the nature and design of BASAs in that it gives unfettered access by foreign airlines to a country's airspace without any reciprocal benefit.

Yet according to recent media reports, Coast tourism players have started an online petition asking President William Ruto to sanction the open skies policy to boost tourism. They say, "coast farmers are also losing out on the exports of fruits, fish and meat while the cargo section at the Moi International Airport is all but dead."

Perhaps these tourism players are misinformed. Certainly, their push for open skies is not based on cogent rationale. For starters, they give the impression that cargo facilities at the Moi International Airport in Mombasa are underutilised.

Reality shows that these facilities are not dead but rather underinvested in by Kenya Airports Authority (KAA). And unfortunately, whoever was given the facility to develop has been slow in doing so. Even then, Kenya Airways is the main customer having rented the facility from KAA.

That said, the open skies proponents are a little economical with the truth. They do not mention that shortly after the Covid-19 pandemic, KQ stationed one of its repurposed freighters to carry cargo to the UAE. Starting with one weekly flight, it was expected that the demand would grow organically to the point where the frequency would be increased. The airline only managed two flights. The anchor customer dropped out and the demand petered out to zero.

Currently, KQ has a passenger service between Mombasa and Dubai in addition to the Nairobi-Dubai route. This is to match the reciprocal 14 weekly frequencies by Emirates to Kenya. These KQ flights have space in their holds for cargo from Mombasa, yet not a single kilo of fresh produce or tropical fish is ever loaded on from Kenya's coastal city. The airline has invested time and money holding seminars and conferences on the quality and quantity expected of fresh produce and seafood from the coast. It has not resulted in an upsurge in the demand for cargo services.

Lobbying for open skies must be backed by compelling arguments. Kenya Association of Travel Agents chairperson Shazmin Manji recently said, "as we talk of open skies, we have to talk about infrastructure, facilities and products in place."

She added that to give access to all flights, the following questions should be asked: "Do we have sufficient products available to cater for demand? And does it meet international standards? Have the products been upgraded and are we able to command a price that will then enable them to be sustainable in the long-term?

The answers to these and other questions are not forthcoming for open skies lobbyists. Nor do they provide clarity on how the country would benefit from unfettered access of its airspace. Peeling back the veneer of "helpful suggestions" directed at the Transport CS and "constructive criticism" target at the national career reveals an animus that is driven by anything but patriotism.

-Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst

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