Open skies policy or not, RwandAir is raring to conquer the continent’s airspace, with a growing fleet, beginning with the first of a pair of Airbus A330’s delivered last month with another one expected to arrive next month.
“Lack of an African open skies policy continues to slow our growth. High operating costs on the continent continue to burden us,” RwandAir CEO John Mirenge said.
To side-step the challenges of the invisible borders in the African sky, Rwanda has successfully negotiated 52 bilateral air service agreements ratified with different countries, most of them in Africa.
RwandAir currently serves 19 destinations, which it plans to grow to 30 over the next five years while growing its fleet from nine to 12 aircraft by May 2017.
RwandAir’s growth plans are moving in tandem with the development of a new airport at Bugesera, 25 kilometres south of Kigali, whose first phase is expected to be complete in December 2018.
With the new routes, RwandAir which already flies to seven destinations in West Africa will make a bid for the Asia–Africa market currently dominated by Ethiopian Airlines, the Gulf carriers and Kenya Airways.
Although RwandAir’s fleet development has been financed mainly by debt, Mr Mirenge hopes to turn an operating profit by 2018.
“Passenger growth is in line with our business plan. Revenues are also growing but not as well as they could because of the economic slowdown in key African economies,” Mr Mirenge said.
Mr Mirenge says African governments are not helping the continent when they restrict air travel which has great potential for growth, but rather ends up hurting both business and economic growth.
According to the International Air Transport Association, an open skies policy between just 12 African states would create five million new passengers for an airline group, generate $1.3 billion and create 155,000 jobs.
In 1998, African policymakers laid down the so-called Yamoussoukro Decision, which aimed to tear down restrictions on airline operations and create a single air transport market across Africa by 2002. It was signed by 44 member states of the African Union at the time, but few have implemented it.
As of 2015, only 13 African states had reaffirmed commitment to implementing the decision by 2017.
According to the African Development Bank, despite increased liberalisation of the African aviation industry, some African governments are still reluctant to open their skies; fearing competition could undercut their national airlines, some of which are “short of commercial viability besides being just symbols of sovereignty.”