The Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) is the first flagship project of the AU Agenda 2063. It was launched and established on the 28th January 2018, during the 30th Ordinary Session of the AU Assembly held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The SAATM is critical to the African Union’s integration agenda; in particular, it is a crucial logistic infrastructure for the successful operation of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area, complemented by the protocol on the Free Movement of People and goods and the African Passport. The liberalisation of air transport in Africa is an impetus to the Continent’s economic integration agenda. It is a historic and vital milestone towards the continental effort to start the implementation of the 1999 Yamoussoukro Decision (YD). The YD provides for the full liberalisation of intra-African air transport services in terms of market access, the free exercise of first, second, third, fourth and fifth freedom traffic rights for passenger and freight air services by eligible airlines.

Initially championed by twenty-three African States at its launch, the number of States that have signed the SAATM has reached thirty-five as of September 2021. The SAATM was launched with the objective eliminate the need for separate bilateral air service agreements (BASAs) between individual countries. It promotes multilateralism for air transport in Africa, as envisaged under the YD, with a view to making the entire African aviation market a single market.
The essential pillars of the SAATM have been identified as follows: 1) Continuous improvement in Safety and Security 2) The effective operationalization of the Single Africa Air Transport Market (SAATM) through notification of implementation of the SAATM concrete measures. 3) Regulatory & policy harmonization. 4) Optimized infrastructure and establishment of a seamless Airspace Architecture. 5) Ease of intra-African mobility (Visas/customs) 6) Reduced taxes and charges (Competitiveness) 7) Strengthening the capacity of implementing agencies and Member States 8) Human capacity development (Skills and personnel pipeline) and 9) multi-sector collaboration (Tourism, Finance, Health, Agriculture, Education etc. The COVID-19 pandemic hit the travel sector hard in all parts of the world and as such, Africa was no exception. According to the AU, the COVID-19 pandemic considerably affected the African air transport industry (Airlines, air navigation service providers, airports and Civil Aviation Authorities) and national economies at large.

This negatively impacted the operationalization of SAATM and drastically reduced intra-Africa air transport connectivity which is needed specially to support the transportation of vaccines, health and pharmaceutical products (According to recent data from IATA, air connectivity in Africa has reduced due to COVID-19 from 907 city pairs in April 2019 to 100 city pairs April 2020).

The African Union has been taken the necessary steps towards addressing this. On September 15, 2021, Dr. Amani Abou-Zeid, the AU Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy met the President of the Togolese Republic Faure Essozimna Gnassingbe to discuss progress in the operationalization of the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) and the needed actions to support the recovery of the African air transport industry during and after COVID-19 pandemic. The Commissioner updated on the progress made in the implementation of the SAATM and the activities led by the AU Department of Infrastructure and Energy to ensure the restart and recovery of the African air transport sector.

In a press release, the AU said that the Commissioner provided updates on the development of a continental study on the benefits of the SAATM for the 55 AU Member States which will support the advocacy efforts to urge remaining Member States to join and fully implement SAATM. The study demonstrated the wider social and economic impacts of liberalization for each member State such as passenger benefits, regional and continental connectivity, tourism, trade, investment, job creation, economic development and social mobility. The planned activities include the finalization of the Dispute Settlement Mechanism and the development of a seamless airspace and air navigation services architecture to support SAATM. He further highlighted the challenges that are currently affecting a sustainable restart and recovery of the African air transport sector including the lack of harmonization of health protocols (entry requirements at airports, the cost of the PCR tests), slow pace in ensuring digitalization of health information, the high taxes and charges that contribute to the high cost of air transport and the issue of vaccine passports being imposed by some countries and regions as a pre-requisite for international travel.

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