Open Skies: Nigeria Takes Back Seat As US Carriers Consolidate

United’s resumption of flights to Washington from Lagos has again shifted focus to the US-Nigeria Open Skies deal and how Nigerian carriers have failed to take advantage of the deal 21 years after it was signed, writes WOLE SHADARE

The pact

When Nigeria and the United States signed the ‘Open Skies’ agreement in the year 2000, little did the country know that it was going into a lopsided agreement. Yes, over the years, the world is seeing a shift from protectionism to stiff competition occasioned by air transport liberalization.

To grow the sector and offer customers a wider range of choices by connecting cities and hubs, not a few had backed the idea of connecting countries with another. The idea is even spreading so fast with the Africa Union’s desire to promote easy travel within the continent has seen it push for the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM).

SAATM takes cue from existing initiative

The Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) is a flagship project of the African Union Agenda 2063, an initiative of the African Union to create a single unified air transport market in Africa to advance the liberalisation of civil aviation in Africa and act as an impetus to the continent’s economic integration agenda.

SAATM will ensure aviation plays a major role in connecting Africa, promoting its social, economic, and political integration, and boosting intra-Africa trade and tourism as a result. SAATM was created to expedite the full implementation of the Yamoussoukro Decision.

United Airlines’ aircraft

The United States and the Nigerian governments saw far beyond what AU saw by ensuring air transport liberalisation took root around the world with its ‘Open Skies.’

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At the time the agreement was signed in Abuja by former Presidents Bill Clinton and Olusegun Obasanjo, prominent persons in the aviation industry, including a former President of Aviation Round Table (ART), Capt. Dele Ore, said the country was not ready at the time it entered into the agreement with no sign that any of the country’s airlines would take advantage to fly to the United States.

Dwelling in the past

While the Nigerian operators may be lauded for protecting themselves, they seem to be dwelling in the past. Their view about global aviation, many think, should have changed by now.

They seem to dwell so much on factors that have been kept down for ages rather than collaborate and seek ways of being part of the huge air transport market of Africa.

The US government had given the country a five years head start with little or nothing to show for it. Dr. Peter Obafemi’s Ritetime Airways’ partnership with World Airways tanked so badly it left many Nigerians stranded in the United States some years back, leading to a spectacular end to a business deal that looked promising on paper.

That was the period before Delta and United Airlines began operations. Had Nigerian carriers made a success on the route, they would have consolidated on the lucrative Nigeria-US route under the ‘Open Skies’ pact.

Defying the norm

‘Open skies’ defy the principle of reciprocity, which countries deploy to protect their commercial aviation from exploitation by foreign carriers, especially as it provides parties to the agreement equal stake.

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Consequently, the agreement has given the U.S. the liberty to designate to Nigeria as many airlines as possible, provided they have the wherewithal to operate to the country. Delta Air Lines was the first to launch services to Nigeria.

The carrier, on December 4, 2007, began non-stop service between Lagos and Atlanta and remained the only U.S. carrier on the route until another United States carrier; United Airlines joined Delta Airlines on the route that it eventually exited route five years ago.

Arik as pretender

Arik Air was the last Nigerian carrier that provided a modicum of competition or at best insignificant competition to the two mega U.S. airlines when it operated to New York.

The carrier, after receivership from the Assets Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON), put an end to all its international operations, including the New York route. This situation places the country in a disadvantaged position.

Because Arik then did not have the kind of connections paraded by the American carriers, Nigeria’s earning capacity from the airline’s operations to the U.S. was further limited.

Delta and United are either in One World, Star Alliance, or other airlines’ networks, which take their passengers to every corner of the globe.

No show for Air Peace yet, others

Many Nigerian airlines like Medview and Air Peace had since been designated by the Federal Government to operate different routes chosen by the airlines. Years after their designations as Nigerian flag carrier airlines, the carriers are yet to fulfill that obligation. While Air Peace is still in operation, Medview had ceased flight operations.

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Considering the huge market offered by the country, it is unknown yet that many more American carriers would ‘invade’ the country to have a share of the market, and there is no corresponding move by more Nigerian airlines to take advantage of the agreement to also fly into the U.S., with a view to reducing the stakes of the Americans.

Showing the way

The United States carriers have unarguably been the leader in the sub-sector for several years. Thanks to the support and consistent policies of its government.

The carriers have several things going for them, while several agreements were signed with other countries in a bid to give their airlines the leverage to continue to dominate the global aviation sector. In fact, the U.S. carriers have always been comfortable with the policies and its collaboration with smaller and less developed aviation countries.

Delta Air’s aircraft

Stakeholders and professionals are worried that with the open sky agreement with the U.S., the airlines may eventually turn Nigeria and some other less financially strong countries into their local markets, which may benefit the air travellers, but spell doom for the country and local operators whose passengers would be taken over, especially when there is no national carrier to promote its course.

Last line

Consequently, stakeholders in the industry fear that the Americans may have, by this, been given a path to follow to maximise their inroad into Nigeria’s aviation sector once more.

Wole Shadare