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OPINION: Africa's potential is sky high - and the airline industry is key

Flying from London to Athens is not generally considered a massive undertaking. It's a given that the journey will be direct, take three-and-a-half hours, and Europeans will not require a visa. The biggest decision is likely to be which meal to select in-flight. Now imagine if the same journey was routed via Moscow - ridiculous!

Yet that is the situation when travelling across Africa, where convoluted flight itineraries are unfortunately the norm. Let's take the example of a trip from Algeria to Cameroon, as the crow flies, a journey the same length as London-Athens. There is no direct flight. The fastest route, via Istanbul, takes 24 hours and involves three separate takeoffs and landings. The less time-economical route can take up to 30 hours - half the time it took the Virgin Atlantic Global flyer to circumnavigate the globe. Adding insult to injury, the flight from Algeria to Cameroon costs 80 percent more than London-Athens. This is truly a disturbing paradox.

Sadly the problems caused by an unconnected Africa are not limited to inconvenient travel schedules. Far bigger are the opportunity costs to the economies of the continent's 54 nations and the region as a whole. Trade and tourism is hindered and investment opportunities lost. And it's not just about economics. Aviation connects people. Africa would be a less fragmented continent with greater air connectivity.

The benefits of connectivity are clear. Europe's air liberalisation was not only a coup for the industry but also passengers. In the short space of eight years (1992-2000), the 100 year-old industry witnessed a surge in activity. The number of direct flight between European countries increased by nearly 75 percent. Passengers enjoyed 88% more flight options and double the number of seats. Suddenly travelling by air became accessible to all, with a 15% drop in ticket prices.

The argument for connectivity is not limited to developed nations. Chile saw its air traffic increase at rates significantly higher than regional and world averages following liberalisation in 1979. In Costa Rica liberalisation boosted tourist arrivals by 400 percent and the number of airlines serving the country increase by 300 percent over a 20-year period.

In African countries that have tested the water, the same pattern exists. After South Africa opened its market to Kenyan airlines the number of passengers jumped by 70 percent. When Africa's most southern country granted traffic rights to Zambian airlines fares reduced by 40 percent and passenger numbers increased as much.

A study by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecast that if just 12 of Africa's economies opened their skies to each another, fares would drop by up to 35 percent and an extra 5 million African's could afford to fly. An additional 155,000 new jobs would be created and $1.3 billion added to the GDP. These are impressive numbers for an industry that currently supports around seven million jobs and more than $80 billion in GDP across the continent.

The benefits of a connected continent are clear. So why do non-physical barriers remain?

While open skies pledges - 1988 Yamoussoukro Declaration and 1999 Yamoussoukro Decision - are being signed by most African countries, implementation has been unhurried and restricted. Protectionist policies favouring national airlines remain abundant.

This is unhelpful. The continent cannot take off economically while its runway is incomplete. Governments in Africa need to treat aviation as a strategic asset and not as an instrument of foreign policy. Africa's past has long been defined by national insularity; its future lies in liberalization. Where better to begin than its skies?

Raphael Kuuchi is the Vice-President for Africa, IATA.

This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Africa series. You can read more here.

The World Economic Forum on Africa is taking place in Kigali, Rwanda, from 11 to 13 May.