Tunisia-EU 'open skies' agreement in limbo

The country's national air carrier, Tunisair, fears it would be unable to keep pace with the new competition.
Wednesday 18/07/2018
The entrance to the Tunisair headquarters, the Tunisian airline company is pictured in Tunis ,Tunisia, March 2, 2018. (Reuters)
The entrance to the Tunisair headquarters, the Tunisian airline company is pictured in Tunis ,Tunisia, March 2, 2018. (Reuters)

TUNIS - A Tunisia-EU “open skies” agreement signed in December is expected to open Tunisia’s airspace to low-cost flights from European airlines, boosting tourism numbers for the North African country. However, it remains unclear when the accord will take effect as it has not been ratified by either side.

“The ratification and signature procedures are now ongoing on both sides,” EU sources told The Arab Weekly, “but since the procedure is fairly long on the EU side, it was agreed to provisionally apply the agreement once the ratification by Tunisia is completed.”

A representative for Tunisia’s Ministry of Transportation said they were unable to provide a time frame for the agreement’s ratification.

Once implemented, “open skies” would lift restrictions on direct flights between EU and Tunisian airports, with the exception of Tunis-Carthage, where restrictions would be lifted at the end of a 5-year transition period.

The model is expected to pump millions of dollars into Tunisia’s economy by making the country a more affordable destination for predominantly European tourists. However, it has fuelled concern from the country’s national air carrier, Tunisair, which fears it would be unable to keep pace with the new competition.

“The agreement is a catastrophe. Tunisair is not ready yet for competition,” Elyes Ben Miled, general secretary of the Tunisair union, told Reuters in March. “We are ready for everything and we may go on national strike at all Tunisian airports.”

Tunisair, which employs 8,000 people and controls more than 40% of the country’s air market, has been dogged by criticism over poor service, long delays and lost luggage. While the airline increased revenue 29% last year, its punctuality rate continued to drop.

Tunisair CEO Ilyes Mnakbi acknowledged in an interview with L'Economiste Maghrebin in April that the national airline needed support to compete with budget European airlines that are cheaper and more reliable.

“My belief is that Tunisair cannot accept to integrate into a competitive world with tools far inferior to those of powerful competing companies that have huge opportunities,” said Mnakbi, adding that support from the European Union would be required for the company to modernise its aircraft and capabilities.

"We do not fear the ‘open skies’ too much if the European Union agrees to upgrade us, as it did in 1995, for the Tunisian manufacturing industries at the conclusion of the Free Trade Agreement for manufactured products,” Mnakbi said.

Many of Tunisair’s major concerns, he added, could be addressed by upgrading the company’s equipment and aircraft, which require frequent inspections. He noted the airline planned to introduce new routes in Africa and possibly New York ahead of the “open skies” accord.

However, detractors say Tunisair, which has lost some $240 million since 2011, requires a more radical overhaul to be competitive.

Tourism officials, encouraged by the success of a similar agreement signed by Morocco and the European Union in 2006, say the Tunisia-EU accord could expand Tunisia’s GDP by 2.7% and raise passenger levels 800,000 in five years.

“Open skies are important for tour operators because they will have their own aircraft and it will be cheaper for them [to fly to Tunisia],” Tunisian Tourism Minister Salma Elloumi Rekik told TTG media last November. “It will also make Tunisia more attractive to low-cost carriers.”

“This far-reaching aviation agreement will improve market access and contribute to the highest safety, security and environmental standards,” said EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc in December, when the agreement was signed. “This is great news for tourism, passengers and businesses.”