The General Manager of Ethiopia Airlines in Nigeria, Firiehiwot Mekonnen, in this interview, said the airline is willing to partner with Nigerian carriers to increase market share for African operators. According to Mekonnen, international airlines have taken over the region’s air travel market. Mekonnen spoke to Chinedu Eze in Los Angeles. Excerpts:
Let’s start with your operations in Lagos, what is your evaluation of the Nigerian market?
The operation in general is okay, things are getting better and the economy is getting better. The competition is also getting stiffer and stronger since more foreign airlines are coming in. But it is good that the market is growing and Ethiopia, as you know, the Ethiopian airport has taken over from Dubai as the biggest gateway for Africa, and the Lagos market contributes to that.
With your new aircraft and travellers realising that Ethiopia can give good service as any other, what impact do you think your new service and your new fleet have made in getting more passengers?
Yes, they have made great impact in a positive way because the new aircraft that we have is modern and more comfortable and more cost effective and also in terms of flight distance as well. So comfortable wise and every other thing it has impacted positively.
Do you think that there is something Ethiopia Airlines has done to make people realise since the last three years that it offers as much as good service as any other highbrow airline operating into Nigeria?
One thing that has made a difference for Ethiopia Airlines and has made people to realise that Ethiopia Airlines is as good as the big giant carriers is the fleet that we have, the destinations that we have and more importantly the connections, our hub, the connections that we have to most of the Middle East and Asia even to the US, the connections that we have is very short (time it takes to connect to the next flight). And then we are also building another terminal, which gives more comfort and more convenience for the passengers who are on transit. So the impact that we have has been our aircraft, the connectivity, the products that we have, we have more frequencies now to most of the destinations. So it has impacted a lot in being one of the biggest carriers.
Ethiopian is known as Africentric, it builds its market around Africa, do you at any time feel threatened that such market could be eroded by other carriers from other parts of the world?
As it is known today, foreign carriers already dominate the African air travel market. Right now African carriers have only 20 per cent of the market. So the challenge is, how can African airlines increase their market share of the region’s market? This can only be achieved if the regional carriers work together by supporting one other. As Ethiopia Airlines, we don’t feel threatened but it is not only Ethiopian Airlines that is involved. Ethiopia Airlines by itself cannot defend Africa and no other African country can defend Africa alone. The only way is when all African countries come together and defend the continent and then I believe that there will be no threat on the market any more.
What is your partnership structure with Los Angeles tourism authority in your operations to the city?
The thing is Los Angeles has been one of our US routes for more than three years. But we have done a route change. We used to operate to Los Angeles via Dublin, Ireland, but now we operate through Lome in Togo and this is the maiden flight on the new Lome-Los Angeles route on the December 17, 2018, so we changed the route to via Lome, Togo so that we can give more convenience, more comfort and more short connectivity to all our West Africa passengers. As you know we have a code share agreement with Asky Airlines, so all West Africa passengers can come to Lome with an hour or less and enjoy their flight. When it was via Dublin it used to be a very long distance, now that they are departing from Lome, which is from West Africa the flight is now shorter. So the operation has been there already the only thing is the route change which will make it more convenient, shorter and more comfortable for the customer.
For your first flight on the route change, where you impressed by the passenger traffic you had?
Yes, the passenger traffic, you know that it is Christmas season and New Year holiday so most passengers are coming into their country for holiday, so the traffic is heavier on the incoming flight from the US, which is to West Africa, Ghana, Nigeria. So outbound flight is not that much because of the holiday. It is not because there is no market but it is because of the holiday season that the outbound flights are a little but lighter. So the flight that we are going in is fully booked for both economy and business class. So it is a really promising sector in terms of traffic.
What are the things you will tell a passenger from Nigeria that will convince him or her not to take another airline to US but to choose Ethiopia Airline?
The first thing that will convince you to take Ethiopian Airline flight to Los Angeles is the short distance. You don’t have to go via Europe or via Middle East to come to US. You are just going to fly only half an hour flight from Nigeria to Lome and then direct to Los Angeles. There is even no technical stopover. The other thing is that the aircraft that we are using is a very new and modern aircraft and most importantly, we are giving an African flavoured service. We are also giving a five-star service but we are charging a fair price. Just because we have a fair price doesn’t mean that our service is not that rich, we are giving the best service but we are charging a fair price.
There is always this criticism that Ethiopia Airlines is taking over everywhere. The question now is, why is it that you build you West African hub in Lome when majority of your passengers are coming from Nigeria?
We would love to have a hub in Nigeria; we have already made a proposal to the federal government of Nigeria that we are willing to partner with them to build a national carrier. Nigeria is a giant of Africa be it in economy or in population, so we will be happy to partner with Nigeria and establish a strong national carrier, which can defend Africa as a continent. I believe that if Nigeria has a strong national carrier, the number that we see can be changed in a great way. So why we have a second hub in Lome is because the Togolese allowed us and they are willing to partner with us. So as long as Nigeria’s federal government or Nigeria is willing to partner with us we will be happy to have another hub in Nigeria.
There is also another criticism that you are operating to many airports in Nigeria and how profitable are your Nigerian operations?
Ethiopia Airlines should be commended because we are making air travel convenient to the passengers. For example, a passenger that wants to travel from Enugu to destinations overseas is forced to come to Lagos first to catch international flight. There are inconveniences and costs attached to that. He would spend money to travel t Lagos. He may have to spend money to lodge in a hotel and if the flight is delayed or cancelled he would have to spend longer time in Lagos. All these inconveniences have been eliminated by Ethiopia Airlines operating from Enugu despite the difficulties we encounter in doing so, which I know, another foreign airline may not agree to do.
I can guarantee that most of the Nigerian destinations are not that profitable because of the competition. The price that used to be charged two years ago is still the price that we are charging. So it is not because we are making profit but because we are creating convenience that has never been there before. So this should have come as a compliment instead of the criticism.
Will you be willing partner with any Nigerian flag carrier?
Of course, in fact we are looking at any other kind of partnership with a Nigerian carrier because that is how we can, as I mentioned earlier, that is how we can defend Africa, by being together. So the partnership can be in aircraft maintenance or in other kind of technical service. So we are looking to see a partnership coming up between a Nigerian carrier and Ethiopia Airlines. We are willing to support in anyway as long as it is going to help the Nigerian carrier grow and become stronger. So we are willing to partner with any Nigerian carrier.
Let’s look at competition among African airlines, when you built the Lome hub, South Africa went to Ghana to build a kind of hub and they are now partnering with Ghana’s AWA, to fly to the US. How does that affect your market in West Africa?
It is not affecting our market actually; as I mentioned earlier, Africa is big enough for everybody as long as we work together. But we have to work together so that we can regain our market share. Sometimes what you don’t know is that you can even create a market that was not there before. So the best thing is to create awareness. I believe that there is money in the continent, people can spend it, most of the time what people don’t know is how to spend their money by travelling. Africa is big enough for everybody and as you know, we are also in partnership with Ghana to establish a national carrier.
On Single Africa Air Travel Market (SAATM), I found out that some countries feel that Ethiopian would erode their market if they join SAATM, so is Ethiopian finding it difficult to convince these countries that this is better for Africa?
I think it is our responsibility for everybody to convince each other that this will help us, that it will help Africa to grow and strengthen the market and the economy. That is going to help everybody. When that is applicable everybody is going to benefit from it. Of course, it is a little difficult right now to convince them but once they get to know how beneficial it will be for Africa, and the country; I am sure they will understand it. That is the only way that we can get back our market share as African carriers from international carriers.
In the area of maintenance, you used to maintain many Nigerian aircraft; do you still maintain some of them?
Yes, we are still giving technical support to some Nigerian carriers right now. We are still giving support to Arik.