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Why Open Skies policy is not such a good idea for Kenya

Proponents of the Open Skies allude to shadowy figures as being behind the frustration of the policy. [iStockphoto]

Open Skies is a civil aviation term that refers to an agreement in which aircraft can fly between two countries without restrictions.

 It is not a carte blanche that allows unfettered ingress by foreign aircraft. Rather, the degree of access is determined by the grant of some or all the nine freedoms of the air according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation.In many instances, the agreement allows direct flights from foreign countries to multiple destinations within a country.

Proponents of the Open Skies policy in Kenya have accused the national carrier Kenya Airways (KQ) of stifling tourism at the coast. This, they say, is through the prevention of traffic rights to other airlines, yet KQ is reluctant to launch direct flights from Europe to Mombasa.

Information in the public domain shows the contrary. If anything, KQ is a major driver of tourism. Sixty-six per cent of the airline’s customers are tourists. KQ provides 10,000 seats weekly to and from Mombasa and Nairobi. At an average seat occupancy of 75 per cent, this translates to 1,000 passengers to the coastal city via KQ.

A case for foreign direct flights to Mombasa would have to be supported by numbers. As it is currently, no single source market to the coastal city boasts such numbers. All operators that seek to fly to Mombasa are via other points just as KQ is via Nairobi. For that reason, the operationalisation of Open Skies is a zero sum game. It is noteworthy that KQ, in the past, operated direct scheduled flights from Nairobi to London through Mombasa and to Johannesburg via Mombasa. The performance of these flights was consistently poor forcing the airline to suspend operations.

The travel and tourism sectors are like conjoined twins. They depend on each other to thrive. However, one notes that all successful and sustainable tourist destinations have direct linkages to national carriers or a functional domestic aviation sector. Empirical evidence attests to this. Examples of this are drawn from a study of the top five African countries that attracted the most tourists in 2018 and 2019. In 2019, Egypt had 13 million tourists, Morocco 12.9, South Africa 10.2, Tunisia 9.4, and Algeria 2.4. One indisputable fact is that all of these were facilitated by national carriers that enjoyed a lot of support from their governments.

Further, proponents of the Open Skies allude to shadowy figures as being behind the frustration of the policy. They blame “monopolistic cartels” and “fetid regulations” for the restriction of free air movement. Yet international airline access is controlled by Bilateral Air Service Agreements (Basas) which are negotiated on the basis of reciprocity.

It then becomes foolhardy to grant foreign carriers unfettered access to Kenya’s airports when the same access is denied KQ. Basas are only mooted when they facilitate common good and interests. In addition, most countries limit access to some airports as principal gateways to support the growth of their local aviation industries.

Open Skies is not necessarily a bad idea. It is just that it must be implemented systematically with controls to avoid abuse by the big players who would kill local airlines. There are also safety and security considerations. A lot of regulations are therefore developed based on and in full compliance with international standards guided by the Warsaw Convention. Regular audits are conducted to ensure compliance. Any Open Skies agreements must lend themselves to such audits and go through all the regulatory hoops.

There is great value for a country in developing a strong travel hub. Addis Ababa, Dubai, Qatar, and Amsterdam are hubs that are reaping huge benefits without Open Skies proving that the problem with Mombasa tourism is not flights or access. Rather, it is the product which is inferior to many beach destinations. Beach boys and all-inclusive budget accommodation certainly put a damper on what should be a premium destination. No doubt proponents of Open Skies are sincere. But on this, they are sincerely wrong!

 -Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst