FEW places still capture the romance (and frustration) of the early days of flight quite as Africa does. Although air travel in the continent is safer and more common than ever before (see page 53), it still has some charming anachronisms. In Nigeria everyone applauds when the plane touches down. On tiny propeller-driven planes in Botswana the cabin attendants hand you a little bag of biltong, the dried meat that once fed people on long overland treks. In Tanzania, where on some flights almost half the passengers are taking to the skies for the first time, many of the faces in the cabin betray a sense of wonder tinged with fear.

Yet African airlines feel like a prop-blast from the past in regrettable ways, too. In most places, schedules are about as reliable as they were when planes could take off or land only in clear weather. Tickets are costly. Routes are convoluted: a passenger wanting to fly from Algiers to Lagos may have to go via Europe, turning a four-and-a-half-hour journey into one that takes at least nine hours. Most airlines are state-owned and protected from competition. Like a lot of national carriers elsewhere, they tend to be chronically unprofitable and to need frequent bail-outs from taxpayers.

Across Africa, airlines wanting to fly new routes from one country to another need the agreement of both governments first. Getting this can take years of lobbying and, in some cases, bribes. If the airline is not owned by one of the two states, its chances of winning permission nosedive. Fastjet, a London-listed low-cost carrier with operations across Africa, had to wait three years for a green light to fly between Tanzania and neighbouring Kenya. Zimbabwe recently announced that it would not let any airline besides its national carrier fly from Harare to London—although Air Zimbabwe does not currently service this route, for fear that as soon as its planes land they will be impounded by creditors.

Closed markets carry jumbo-sized costs. It is not just that badly run African state airlines lose money ($300m last year, or $3.84 for every airline ticket sold on the continent). Far bigger are the opportunity costs. Lousy air links inhibit trade, exports and investment. In many parts of the world air travel grows about twice as fast as GDP. In Africa it has been expanding by about 5% a year, which is slower than the 6% or so that economic growth has averaged over the past decade.

The lesson from other parts of the world is that when markets are freed, fares fall. This stimulates a huge increase in air travel and gives a boost to all the businesses that depend on mobility. In African countries that have liberalised a bit, this has indeed happened: after a bilateral open-skies deal, fares between South Africa and Zambia fell by almost 40% and passenger numbers rose nearly as much. After Morocco opened its market to European airlines in 2005, the number of passengers jumped by 160% and the number of routes more than tripled, from 83 to 309 in eight years.

A study commissioned by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a club of big airlines, estimates that if just 12 of Africa’s bigger economies opened their skies to one another, fares would fall by more than a third and traffic between them would soar by 81%, to roughly 11m passengers. More than 155,000 new jobs would be created, and $1.3 billion would be added to GDP. This may well be an underestimate, given Africa’s vast size and sparse, shoddy road network, which is about a fifth as dense as the world average and mostly unpaved. Where air travel expands, so do unexpected new industries, such as growing roses in Kenya for export to Europe.

Fly freedom

In 1988 most African governments signed up to the Yamoussoukro Declaration, pledging to open their skies. To date not one has done so fully (although some, such as South Africa, have opened up a lot). Rather than encouraging competition, most African leaders seem more concerned with mollycoddling their bust national carriers. This provides jobs for pals and jets that can be commandeered for presidential shopping trips to Paris. But it is terrible for Africa. The continent will struggle to take off economically while its people are stuck on the runway. Time to let Africans fly.