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Liberalising the Arab skies
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 14 - 11 - 2002

EgyptAir has become a leading proponent of the liberalisation of air transport in the Arab world. Amira Ibrahim reports
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As EgyptAir's national monopoly over air transport gradually becomes a thing of the past, the carrier is advocating liberalisation to its Arab peers. In accordance with the transport liberalisation guidelines adopted by the Arab Civil Aviation Council (ACAC) two years ago, Egypt's national carrier is moving ahead with measures to liberalise the country's skies.
"Egypt's aviation policies have changed considerably, and we are willing to respond positively to regional and international plans, provided they do not cause us harm," said Major General Samir Abdel-Ma'boud, director of the air transport department of the Aviation Ministry.
Abdel-Ma'boud said that under the first phase of liberalisation, which began three months ago, charter and irregular flights have been permitted to use Egypt's international airports, with the exception of Cairo International Airport.
Civil aviation officials are now discussing the second phase which is scheduled to be implemented during the first quarter of 2003.
Egypt's aviation minister, Ahmed Shafiq, who was appointed earlier this year, is known to be a staunch proponent of liberalisation. Shortly after he took office, Shafiq started to push forward plans to gradually dismantle the state monopoly over air transport activities. Such a drive had previously been met with firm opposition, most notably on the part of former EgyptAir chief Fahim Rayan who was against privatising the carrier.
However, the tide began to turn six months ago when EgyptAir was transformed into a holding company. The carrier's management is now one of the major proponents of liberalising the air transport industry in the region.
At an ACAC conference on air transport liberalisation held last month in Dubai, EgyptAir Chairman Abdel-Fatah Kato called on Arab states to permit foreign ownership of Arab carriers and to end state control over the enterprises.
"Air transport requires such exorbitant investment that [in the past] only governments could afford. Unfortunately, profit-making does not fall within the priorities of Arab governments and this has had a negative impact on the development of the air transport industry in our region," Kato said.
"It is time for Arab carriers to fight to survive without the assistance of governments, whose contribution to the business should be limited to regulating safety and security criteria," he added.
The ACAC conference focussed on various approaches to liberalising the sector with the aim of preparing for the fifth air transport conference by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) scheduled to take place in Montreal in March.
If the heated debates between management of various Arab carriers and civil aviation authorities are any indication, liberalisation of the sector is a topic of considerable controversy.
ACAC liberalisation guidelines recommend a number of phases, beginning with the liberalisation of irregular flights and culminating in the complete liberalisation of regular air transport among Arab states by 2006.
The ACAC said Egypt, Oman, Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen have modified their bilateral air transport agreements to implement the first phase of the programme, while Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia have leapt ahead to sign comprehensive open skies accords with Arab and non-Arab countries.
One of the leading opponents of the ACAC's liberalisation guidelines is the Arab Air Carrier Organisation (AACO). AACO chairman Abdel-Wahab Tiffaha questioned the seriousness of the drive for liberalisation in the sector and suggested that a complete retreat by the Arab state from commercial transport would be detrimental to Arab airlines.
"Arab aviation authorities have to choose either to maintain the slogan of liberalisation without a legal mechanism to apply it or to conduct bilateral agreements and completely ignore the various Arab aviation authorities and organisations," Tiffaha told Al-Ahram Weekly in Dubai.
He noted that ACAC's liberalisation guidelines do not outline mechanisms for implementation or enforcement and do not carry any guarantees that the airlines would survive under liberalisation.
"When an international airline buys into an Arab airline, there have to be sufficient guarantees that the new foreign ownership will uphold agreements reached with other Arab parties," Tiffaha said.
Other opponents of ACAC guidelines expressed fears that poorer countries would lose their national carriers because they would be unable to compete with giant airlines in an open market.
In Montreal next year Arab carriers, opponents and proponents of ACAC guidelines alike, will find that liberalisation, and the American approach, in particular, promoted for their sector.
Speaking at the ACAC conference, David Modset, head of the US air transport department, recounted, "We started air transport liberalisation in 1974, forcing American airlines to operate within competitive conditions. Now the United States has reached 60 open skies accords with different countries including six Arab countries."
Recommendations of the Dubai conference are to be presented in an Arab paper during to the ICAO in Montreal next March.


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