ACI Africa conference held in the Rwandan capital city of Kigali emphasised continued partnerships as the key to Africa’s aviation and economic transformation.

Airports in Africa have discussed resolute steps to strengthen their businesses and the collective growth of the aviation industry in Africa amidst ongoing recovery and various challenges facing the industry. African airports and their global partners met at the 69th Airports Council International Africa Region (ACI-Africa) Conference in Kigali, Rwanda from February 25 to March 3, 2023.

Also at the event, Rwanda’s Minister of Infrastructure, Ernest Nsabimana, said Rwanda, as a landlocked state, has prioritised aviation travel as key pillar to Rwanda’s economic growth. He noted that “the airport industry is very crucial in driving the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA),” calling on airport stakeholders “to play our part in shaping a better airport industry for the Africa we want.”

The Secretary General of the ACI-Africa, Ali Tounsi, said “ACI Africa, as the leading voice of African airports, continues to connect and unite airports on the continent for the advancement of the air transport industry especially in those challenging times with numerous headwinds such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war, and the looming global economic recession, just to name a few.”

With the theme, “Shaping up a sustainable African airport industry: time for action”, the conference provided the platform “for the industry’s senior executives and experts to brainstorm and share their new vision for an efficient, resilient and sustainable air transport industry to meet growing expectations in airport safety, security, service level, technology and environment whilst remaining economically and financially sound at all times,” Tounsi added.

Charles Habonimana, the Managing Director Rwanda Airports Company, emphasised that Africa’s fast recovery rate resulted from the commitment of industry stakeholders.

Remarkably, it was highlighted at the conference that airports will continue to encounter local and global challenges in 2023. In this realisation, discussions at the ACI-Africa conference aimed to effectively manage these challenges. Specifically, given that the Africa region has predominantly government-owned airports, delegates emphasised the need to ensure the adoption of smarter airport business models suitable for the prevailing economic conditions.

Further, the long-running challenge of over-regulation and taxes, charges and fees was seen as an issue that needs careful resolution. “While user charges are generally collected to be used for investments in the airport, the taxes often go directly to state coffers often without any reinvestment into the industry,” the conference stressed.

Given the continued challenge of limited number of women in leadership positions, the conference equally strategised on how to enable women excel in the industry. Tounsi emphasised the need to “provide women the place they deserve in the aviation human capital on the continent.”

The President of ACI-Africa, Emmanuel Chaves, said ACI-Africa is streamlining its activities with the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM), which is a flagship project of the African Union (AU) for the liberalisation of air transport in Africa and acceleration of Africa’s economic transformation.

“I am also pleased to announce that ACI Africa has crafted its strategic orientation for the coming three years, premising on the development of a robust and sustainable air transport industry for Africa with the SAATM project as the backbone,” Chaves said. He applauded the government of Rwanda for building the new Bugesera International Airport and providing political stability making Rwanda “a regional hub for conferences, transport and tourism.”

He further revealed that “ACI-Africa is currently in advanced discussion with the ICAO Regional Office WACAF towards providing support and contributing to the Comprehensive Regional Implementation Plan for Aviation Safety in Africa (AFI Plan) on aerodrome certification in line with the project of ICAO to assist a number of airports in Africa in the certification process over the next two years.”

While the conference stressed the need to increase the availability of renewable energy and secure funding for new technologies for alternative power, it called for strong action to achieve net zero target of the industry, noting that net zero airports globally, including Mombasa, are considering or “already creating their own renewable energy power sources.”

Chaves identified climate change as one of the biggest challenges, noting that “African airports have begun to embrace ACI's Airport Carbon Accreditation programme, which is the only global carbon management standard for airports.” He said ACI-Africa is pursuing “numerous green initiatives in the pipeline over the next three years,” including the Sustainable Aviation Academy launched last year to deepen knowledge in Africa on environmental sustainability.

At the event, the ACI Africa and ACI World signed a Memorandum of Understanding “for the mutual recognition of their training courses, and to combine and complement their efforts in the delivery of quality training on the continent.”

The attributes of the African economy and aviation industry created optimism as crucial airports’ discussions in Kigali. Air transport supported 7.7 million jobs and US$63 billion in economic activity in Africa pre-pandemic, while aviation added 2.7% of all GDP in African countries.

Though Africa with 1.4 billion people representing about 17% of the world’s population contributed just 2.5% of the world’s passengers in 2021, the ACI World also showed passenger traffic in Africa recovered from 114.8 million to 178.6 million in 2022, or a 78% recovery of 2019 levels. Interestingly, ACI World’s new World Airport Traffic Forecasts (WATF) also indicated that Africa’s passenger traffic, compared to its 2022 volume, is set to almost triple by 2041, and Africa’s air transport business models and competitiveness would be key drivers for Africa.

Considering Africa’s strong growth potential, the conference called for the strengthening of the spirit of ‘No Country Left Behind,’ to make appropriate provisions that enable big and small airports in Africa excel, under a liberalized air transport market that opens new markets in the continent.

Overall, the event emphasised on continued partnerships as the key to Africa’s aviation and economic transformation. The benefits of the ACI-Africa conference in Kigali is expected to be far-reaching in Africa, as the 71 member airports operate in 53 African states, managing over 265 airports.

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