Ethiopia's national airline is investing heavily in a new fleet. Here, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner takes off from the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

Taking a flight between cities in different African nations is often expensive, circuitous, and unsafe. But better days for travelers may be coming.

Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is one of the biggest cities in Africa, with an estimated population larger than London and a skyline that peers over the wide, snaking Congo River. But if a traveler wants to go from there to Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital and Africa’s largest metropolis, it’s impossible to fly nonstop. Roughly 1,100 miles separate the two megacities—about the same distance as New York to Minneapolis. But there are no direct flights. Instead, a traveler will need to change planes at least once and pay a minimum of $1,200. There’s a good chance the journey will take well more than 12 hours.

Across Africa, the situation is similar. Commercial flights are infrequent, expensive, and circuitous. To get from one country to another, an African traveler may have to go thousands of miles out of their way and transfer through the Middle East or Europe.

The continent is home to roughly 12 percent of the world’s population and will be responsible for most of the global population growth over the next three decades. But it accounts for just 1 percent of the world’s air travel market. The flights that do exist are often more expensive than routes of similar duration elsewhere in the world.

“Time-wise, it can be a bit frustrating,” said Sarah, 29, an American NGO worker living in Kampala, Uganda, who asked that her last name not be published. Sarah routinely travels around the continent for work and vacation. This Thanksgiving, she’s flying to see friends in Bujumbura, the lakeside capital of Burundi, 450 miles away. The distance is roughly the same as Boston to Washington, D.C. But instead of a short 90-minute hop, Sarah will need to fly first to Kenya, change planes, then make another stopover in Rwanda. The trip will cost her more than $600 and take more than six hours; other flights that day would have taken more like 10 hours.

Why is it so difficult to fly around Africa? Blame a combination of protectionist legal barriers and regulatory hurdles, mixed with inadequate infrastructure, high taxes, and stubborn nationalism. Airlines trying to launch a new route between African nations need to first secure permission from both countries, which can be a lengthy and expensive prospect that may or may not involve significant bribes. Forty-four African nations signed on to a 1999 agreement promising to promote competitive markets and remove regulatory barriers. But to date, few have actually implemented the plan, known as the Yamoussoukro Decision (named after the Côte d'Ivoire capital in which it was reached).

Countries across the continent have displayed protectionist tendencies to limit others’ access to their own airspace. Those instincts began a generation ago, when newly independent nations sought to assert themselves by creating national airlines, and continue today. Yet even as flag carriers across the continent edge toward financial ruin, additional countries, including Uganda and Nigeria, are eyeing creating federally subsidized airlines of their own, in what University of Nairobi professor Evaristus Irandu called a “costly show of patriotism.” To prop those carriers up, countries may be reluctant to grant easy access to an outsider.

At the moment, that means that the airlines best positioned to dominate African skies are behemoths often based in Europe or the Middle East. “In the absence of competition, these mega-carriers have no incentive to lower fares,” said Irandu.

The problem is compounded by the generally poor state of Africa’s transportation infrastructure. Roads and rail links are limited, and the continent itself is vast: When Africans need to travel, flying should be the best option. Yet there are few large airports, major aircraft maintenance facilities, or training academies around the continent, so African airlines pay more than their competitors elsewhere. The continent has also led the world in major accidents and other safety incidents, partly because of the prevalence of older and outdated aircraft.

Various fees and tax schemes also contribute to big ticket prices. Taxes for fuel in some countries are more than twice the global average. The pre-tax base price of a KLM ticket from Freetown, Sierra Leone, to London is roughly $350. But several hundred dollars in fees and taxes are added by the time it’s purchased by the passenger, pushing the sticker price up to $825.

The largely empty African skies have a tangible economic impact on the people below: The economies of the planet’s poorest continent are missing out on more than a billion dollars in possible growth. In the U.S., aviation accounts for more than 5 percent of the country’s GDP, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, supporting nearly 11 million jobs and contributing $1.6 trillion in economic activity. As CityLab’s Richard Florida recently reported, hosting a major international hub has been a boon for places like Dubai and Singapore. Studies show that a 10 percent increase in airplane passengers increases the local service sector by 1 percent, and that a 10 percent boost in international flights causes a 4 percent growth in the number of large firm headquarters nearby. In other words, if people can get a direct flight from their city to yours, they’re likely to increase business relationships. If they can’t, they won’t.

Adopting open-skies policies would help encourage competition, which grows traffic by as much as double, according to a study backed by the International Air Transport Association, an industry group. Other analysis by the organization found that 12 leading African nations could boost their collective GDP by $1.3 billion and attract 4.9 million new travelers by implementing bilateral agreements. Ticket prices would go down by as much as 35 percent and trade would grow by $430 million. Ethiopia alone would benefit from 15,000 new jobs and $60 million in economic uplift—that’s as much money as Ethiopia received from China this year to build an industrial park in the resort town of Bahir Dar. When South Africa and Zambia reached a bilateral open-skies agreement, fares between the two countries fell by nearly 40 percent. Likewise, Morocco’s 2005 opening to European airlines dropped fares and more than doubled the number of passengers.

“We know that [aviation is] a driver of interregional trade,” said Adefolake Adeyeye, a research fellow at NTU-SBF Center for African Studies in Singapore. “We know that it’s very useful for landlocked developing countries.”

The best argument for liberalizing Africa’s air market comes from Europe. When European countries banded together to create a single aviation zone in 1993, annual traffic grew by twice as much over the next decade than in previous years. In its wake came a slew of low-cost airlines such as Easyjet and Ryanair. Subsequent growth expanded the European Union’s GDP by 4 percent. There is some indication that Africa would benefit even more. According to the World Bank, 20 percent of Africa’s tourism-related jobs are from foreigners traveling by air. In North America, that number is only 4 percent.

One African nation that appears to be eager to tap its air power is Ethiopia. The state-owned airline is the only profitable African carrier and has some of the best reach across the continent. Ethiopia is also investing heavily in a massive new airport, as well as an expansion of the current hub outside of Addis Ababa. CEO Tewolde GebreMariam has described infrastructure and human resource training as two of the four “pillars” of the airline’s 15-year plan, called Vision 2025. In the absence of a continental open-skies agreement, Ethiopian Airlines has sought out bilateral deals with other carriers, and GebreMariam has praised his government’s refusal to interfere with the airline’s operations. In the process, however, the country has ratcheted up its debts and outsourced much of its infrastructure financing to China.

Ethiopia was the world’s third-poorest country at the turn of the millennium, but since then has been one of the fastest growing economies and the continent’s biggest manufacturer. The flourishing of Ethiopian Airlines is just one small piece of that growth—but it’s not an accident that the country’s economy has ballooned as its airline has taken off.

As the continent looks towards the future, it’s expected to undergo a massive population boom: By 2050, Africa’s population of working-age people will triple to 1.25 billion, and its middle class is expected grow significantly. Nigeria is projected to overtake the United States as the world’s third most populous country. To improve the economic prospects for those residents, improving Africa’s air travel may be a strategy that leaders can’t afford to ignore.

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