Airlines Airports

COVID-19 Highlights Need for Transparency in Africa’s Air Travel Sector

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, “a staggering one million jobs are being lost every day” due to the economic effects of the pandemic.

The International Air Transport Association has asked governments to consider supporting airlines and airports struggling to survive through tax relief and loans, arguing that airlines will be essential to getting the world up and running again once the outbreak is over.

The IATA is likely right about that. In an increasingly connected world, many of the fastest-growing industries depend on air travel, and key sectors like tourism will be critical to kickstarting domestic commercial revenue in African countries. Before we sign any blank checks, however, it’s worth asking if getting back to business as usual is good enough.

South African Airways, for example, is currently under investigation by the Commission of Inquiry on State Capture, with accusations ranging from improper procurement procedures to corruption—in one case, paying Chinese-owned baggage handling vendor Swissport without a contract or even the required license. At the root of SAA’s financial troubles is the chronic overpayment to contractors who coerce or corrupt officials into awarding them sweetheart deals without adequate transparency or oversight.

Swissport is a repeat offender in the region. According to media reports, in Tanzania, Swissport has held a contract with the Tanzania Airport Authority (TAA) since 2001, controlling what is effectively a monopoly that has led to hidden fees, sky-high labor costs and poor working conditions. The TAA has taken key first steps toward greater transparency by announcing the first-ever open tender for the contract, though it is still unclear when that tender is taking place, while others report that Swissport Tanzania has allegedly continued being paid without a valid contract.

Governments in sub-Saharan Africa have been grappling with endemic corruption for years, with successive administrations in several countries trying to sustain slow, hard-won gains and avoid backsliding. Part of the problem is the asymmetric relationship between governments and the air travel industry. Countries like Tanzania rely heavily on tourism, which means they need to attract industry investment to grow air travel.

For perhaps the first time, however, African airlines and associated vendors will need African governments as much as governments need airlines.

Continue reading the full text of this article on The Citizen.