Managing Director of Asky Airlines, Henok Tefferra has described the West African air transport market as a competitive one in a restrictive environment. He spoke to journalists at the just concluded Accra Weizo. Chinedu Eze brings the excerpts:

The operating environment in West Africa is described as harsh but your airline has continued to operate successfully. How do you weather the challenges?

I think that there are three or four things that are key ingredients for the success of any airline including in this region. The first is the business strategy, you need to have an airline that is purely commercial driven and market focus but market driven, because in this region and in Africa you have airlines commonly referred to as flag carriers which is another model all together.

But you need to have a sound business strategy based on the marketing environment, the network and the fleet plans that allows you to maximise your revenues and realise you profit objectives so the business strategy is one and Asky had a very good development strategy from the onset and it also has the sixth freedom traffic connecting West Africa through Lome, it’s main hub.

That is one, the second issue is having a strong and reliable technical partner, strategic partner and I think Asky made the right choice in Ethiopian Airlines, which is known for its technical abilities, for the commercial abilities and is now the biggest airline in West Africa.

So a strong backing in technical, commercial by a strategic partner is critical for any airline from the onset, and that is the second critical factor, and the third factor I will say is having a strong human capital management strategy, recruiting right and developing people in their skills, because aviation is also a skills- driven industry, so that is very important as well, I will say this three are basically very important, the business strategy, market focus, right network, right fleet type and to maximise the market opportunities and to reduce cost, having a strong technical or strategic partner that provide you technical or commercial support and having the right employees and a little bit of luck is also very important.

You have connected destinations, which hitherto a passenger from one West African country would have to go to Europe and then board a flight to another West African country, how has your experience been?

Asky was created or launched because there was an air connectivity vacuum in West Africa after the demise of Air Afrique, Air Afrique was owned by many Francophone governments in this region and that experience failed and people had to virtually go through Europe, many to London or Paris to see their next door neighbours and there was really a need for air connectivity, and secondly, the drive, the pan African vision of integrating Africa and also the marketing potential of that noble enterprises, so Africans of like minds came together.

The institution is a pan Africa outlook as Ecobank, a pan African institution, ECOWAS Infrastructure Bank, a development bank for French speaking West African countries and together with Ethiopian Airlines came together to establish the airline. They are the strategic partners but as a shareholder and as commercial and technical support, they established the airline and launched it in 2010.

And that business plan envisaged Asky to have a bespoke hub operations, connecting the region, the West African and the West and the central region through its hub in Lome, so from Lagos through Lome to Darker, and from Lagos through Lome to Accra. So it was that strategy that was put in place using the right fleet type, a fleet type that is fit for the mission and the network and the airline now operates to about 23 destinations in West and Central Africa, almost daily flights, we operate a fleet of Boeing 737 and Q400 aircraft.

We have introduced a new aircraft in June of this year and we plan to introduce one aircraft per year, so gradually now the regional traffic is more or less being catered for and as we go forward next year we carter for long haul operations. You know that this July together with Ethiopian airlines, New York flight through Lome was started, Ethiopian airlines operating that flight in partnership with Asky, Asky filling passengers particularly from Lagos, Darker, Abidjan, from all these stations, direct service with minimal ground time in Lome, you come from Lagos you have less than an hour in Lome and nine hours in New York and really the fastest route and the same for the Brazilian route, Sao Paulo and soon Asky will start its own operations to Europe, to Paris and London.

With growing competition in the West African market, why should I prefer Asky to other airlines in the region?

Because Asky is a customer-focused airline as I said, so we want to meet your expectations, one is safety, the highest, the maximum international safety standard possible; Asky is an IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) certified airline. Secondly, we bring you on time, our flights are 80 percent on time, so we have a very on time performance, punctuality and the friendliness, the punctuality, the courteousness, the hospitality of our staff both on ground and in the air.

We now have a fantastic airport in Lome, a new airport terminal was inaugurated in May this year, I would say the airport I have seen in this region, it has fantastic services, free WiFi access, fantastic duty free shops, really very spacious, the most modern facilities and amenities you will imagine to get in Europe. With that airport and also with our latest aircraft that is very modern, all these factors make the customer experience as agreeable as possible, that is why flying with us more time and more is a wonderful experience.

Many passengers who travel through the West African destination complain of poor in-flight service among operating airlines. How do you rate yours?

We are a regional carrier, we do not have in flight entertainment, we will start that when we go long haul, but for regional route, we don’t have in-flight entertainment because flights last two hours more or less.

What are you doing about the connectivity problem in West Africa, say Lome to Gambia, Sierra Lone and other West African countries?

Yes, West African connectivity gaps still exist, and the reasons for it are twofold, one is that the aviation policy environment is not very conducive to be very frank, you still have traffic rights restrictions, I for example cannot fly as many times as I want to all the destinations that I want. There are still restrictions which I don’t understand because over 20 years ago that the Yamoussoukro Decision was adopted by the leaders of Africa, liberalising African skies for African airlines, especially fifth freedom, is slow in implementation, you still have an initiative by African Union to create a single African aviation market, which we support, we want to push, but fragmented and the traffic right restriction is very difficult to issue, the environment is not conducive.

And second, the cost environment in West and Central Africa is prohibitive, why is that cost of over- flying here is twice as expensive as in East Africa, why is it that ground handling here is 30 – 40 percent more expensive here, why is that the same aircraft fuel as I know that the aircraft consume everywhere is 20- 30 percent more expensive here. So the environment is prohibitive; it is not conducive for business growth and on top of that you have taxation. The taxation regime which considers aviation not as a strategic sector which enables trade, investment, tourism, and economic development and integration but merely as a luxury sector, as a cash cow.

With that mindset, aviation in this part of the world will have difficulty in providing initial air connectivity. It is not conducive, we can learn from what Singapore did, what Dubai did and what others did, so we have a growing economy in this region, young population, this is the region that has the highest demographics in terms of the population size and a fast emerging middle class, and these are the people that have the ability to travel with disposable income. So why are we hindering it and hindering aviation from playing its rightful role?

It can be a catalyst, aviation today is responsible for eight million jobs directly or indirectly in the continent, which could be much more, because it contributes significantly to the GDP of the continent, it could be much more, though it is much already. Imagine what it could be if all these restrictions and obstacles are removed.

If you opportunity to address the political leaders of West Africa and Africa on these issues, what are the key things you will say to them?

What I have said now, remove all barriers and restrictions for African airlines to operate freely to your airport? If am an African carrier, I should be able to operate freely anywhere I want in Africa, just like an European carrier operate freely on the European airspace or in Europe; two, treat aviation as a strategic assets, as an enabler of economic growth because it is only through aviation you can develop and encourage trade, investment, tourism and development in your country. You can have airport taxes and charges that are not prohibitive for the development for the growth of aviation.

Any plan to operate long haul destination?

Yes we are planning to start the major market for West African region, which are London and Paris, now that our regional network is strong with 23 destinations covered; I think we are talking about our second phase of our development where we are looking at starting long haul flights to Europe

Did you envisage the kind of growth and acceptance you are witnessing with the airlines when you started this operation?

It was something that was planned, but the growth exceeded our expectations, it is something that we worked hard for, but it is only the beginning, in the West African region, the airlines are very small even the so called big ones, Ethiopian Airlines, Kenyan Airways, South African Airways, everybody put together, we are merely 20 percent of the long haul market from Africa, merely we are in infancy of aviation, but there is a promise because Africa is growing as Africans are travelling more and more, but Africa should not be a consumer base for the global economy; Africa should be an economic player in the global economy. Africa should be an economic player, playing an active role in the global economy. African airline should have a fair share of the travel and tour from Africa and that is what we are aiming to tap into.

Which country gives you more passengers currently?

Obviously is Nigeria, because of the market size, Nigeria is by far the biggest economy, by far has the highest population. The volume of the population with disposable income is high and Nigerian are very industrious people, people who do a lot of business, a lot of trade and you also have a lot of companies and organisations based in Nigeria like ECOWAS, so naturally is Nigeria to all the networks, Dakar is a big market for Nigeria, Abidjan is a big market for Nigeria, all over the network are big market for Nigeria.

How fulfilled are you with the success of the airline?

As I said, this is the beginning, the success is a small one, Africa needs strong African airlines that can work together and tap into the African market, which is currently being dominated by non-African carriers, which should not be. As far as I am concerned, Asky is managed by Ethiopian Airlines. Ethiopian is the strategic partner of Asky, manages the airline and provides the technical and commercial support and it also has equity in the airline, I was seconded by Ethiopian Airlines to manage Asky and previously, before coming here, I was vice president at Ethiopian Airlines in charge of strategy, alliance and communications.

How do you feel about the award as Balofon Aviation personality in West Africa?

Like any successful endeavor, it is a collective endeavor; it is the work of everybody. Those in operation, those in the back office are all collective effort, both management and employees working together in synergy for unity of purpose and direction to make the airline successful. It is humbling and also a privilege for us to be recognised. It shows that we are getting something and also to use it as a stepping-stone to further develop the airline and achieve even greater heights.