On September 1, during her keynote address at the launch of the first ever AfriCaribbean Trade and Investment Forum (ACTIF) host Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados called for direct air links between the Caribbean and Africa saying the two regions “have business to do” and underscored the urgent need for connecting the Caribbean and Africa through airbridges.
Ms Mottley’s statements were congruent with statements made by her in September 2021, during the virtual Caricom Africa Summit under the theme – Unity Across Continents and Oceans: Opportunities for Deepening Integration.
At that summit, Mottley proposed that the two regions agree to weekly direct flights between Africa and Caricom “even if it means that we may have to, initially, subsidise it.” According to Mottley, “the only thing that stops us from having direct air links between Africa and the Caribbean is the will of those of us who continue not to recognise the importance of unlocking 1.4 billion people who have a common ancestry to be able to work with each other.”
At the second International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) meeting on the Sustainable Development of Air Transport in Africa held at Ghana in March 2017, a special side meeting was convened on promoting tourism and air links between African states and the diaspora, especially in the Caribbean. Participants reiterated the “need to celebrate and preserve the shared heritage between Africa and peoples of African descent in the diaspora.”
The meeting decided that “to overcome the irregularities or non-availability of air links between the two regions, a dedicated coordination group consisting of African Union Commission, Caricom and ICAO experts, should develop a model air services agreement.”
At an ICAO air transport meeting held in November 2018 at Guyana and attended by several African states, the delegates lamented the inaction on the outstanding matter of air links between Africa and the Caribbean and clamoured for immediate action.
The Guyana meeting ended with a declaration recalling the outcome of the 2017 special meeting at Ghana in March 2017 for promoting air links between the African states and the diaspora. The declaration supported the African Union and Caricom in developing an action plan on the establishment of air links, tourism, trade and investment consistent with the African Union declaration of the Global African Diaspora Summit.
The large African diaspora in the Caricom region has tremendous opportunities for business, tourism and culture which can create air travel demand on both sides of the Atlantic. The governments of Caricom and African states must propel these opportunities by providing the right environments for exploiting business prospects including the removal of trade barriers.
Air links are a major catalyst for connecting Caricom and African states to regional and global markets thereby facilitating economic growth through travel, tourism and trade.
However, travel time to Africa through North America or Europe is lengthy. A flight from TT to Senegal, if flown through the US takes approximately 36 hours, and if flown through Europe takes approximately 30 hours.
A direct TT to Senegal flight using a Boeing 737 MAX will take approximately six hours and 30 minutes. However, there are regulatory limitations regarding Extended Twin-engine Operations Performance Standards (ETOPS) over oceans which apply to direct TT to Senegal flights using a Boeing 737 MAX aircraft.
Two critical factors must be considered regarding air links between Africa and the Caribbean.
The first is air service agreements. African and Caricom countries are signatories to the Chicago Convention of which Article 6 – Scheduled Air Services states that no scheduled international air service may be operated over or into the territory of a contracting state, except with special permission or other authorisation of that state, according to the terms of such permission or authorisation.
Therefore, before operating the African-Caribbean airbridges, the obligatory air service agreements must be in place.
The second is building profitable route networks. Airlines develop route networks using structured processes such as comprehensive feasibility studies. These studies identify the levels of demand for air travel and its growth potential based on political and socio-economic factors.
Airlines will only operate new routes which have the potential to be sustainably profitable. Operational losses will be incurred during the route development phase, but the airlines will recover these losses as travel demand grows.
To this day, there has been no movement on the African-Caribbean airbridge which may have well prompted Ms Mottley to say at the ACTIF in reference to the airbridge, “I have spoken to enough people in the last three years to know that this is now an act of political will and individual will.”
Finally, Caricom leaders’ vision of an airbridge between the Caribbean and Africa is laudable. Now is the time to make it a reality.