Tasew: African Airlines Lack Leadership Capacity

Mesfin Tasew

The Chief Operating Officer at Ethiopia Airlines, Mesfin Tasew, in this interview, said for African airlines to succeed, they need to cooperate and build leadership capacity. Chinedu Eze brings the excerpts:

As the only international carrier that operates to the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu, the closure of the airport will affect your schedule and hundreds of passengers that depend on your operations, especially as we approach the Christmas season when you airlift many Nigerians from different parts of the world. What plans do you have to continue to operate to the zone during the period of the closure?

Since the airport is closed, we have planned to shift the Enugu flight to Port Harcourt and we will start operations on 3rd of September 2019. We will continue operating to this airport until Enugu becomes ready. When Enugu is ready, we will go back to Enugu.

Does Nigerian airlines patronise Ethiopian Airline maintenance facility for aircraft checks as much as you expect?
First of all, I will like to say that Ethiopian Airlines today has the largest Maintenance Repair Overhaul (MRO) facility in Africa. We repair all Boeing models of aircraft except B747. We also repair the Airbus A350 aircraft, which is the newest Airbus aircraft. We repair the Bombardier Q400 aircraft in Addis Ababa. We have six hangars and a very big engine shop. We have several component repair shops. We have been doing this for several decades now. Primarily, it was developed to support operations of Ethiopian Airlines but we are also supporting other African airlines from different parts of Africa. Today we support several airlines including Asky in Togo and many of the Nigerian airlines including Arik Air. I came to Nigeria and before my departure I saw Arik Q400 aircraft going for C-check in Addis Ababa. Prior to that, we repair several aircraft from Nigeria including the former Air Nigeria, Chanchangi and Bellview aircraft. So, we supported all of them. We currently have our engineers here supporting Arik.

Aero Contractors now have maintenance facility and they employed four engineers from Ethiopian Airline. Are you looking at collaborating with them?
We have been looking for a dependable partner to join and establish an MRO facility in Nigeria. We have had some discussions earlier with some companies including Aero Contractors but unfortunately, so far we have not agreed with any one. However, we are still looking for a partner.

Aircraft repair and maintenance is capital intensive for Nigerian carriers. What are you doing to support them in this regard? Do you give them incentives as a way of supporting them compared to what they get from other maintenance facilities across the world?
We are ready and willing to support African airlines in respect to MRO services because it requires investment to establish MRO facility and small African airlines cannot afford this. It also requires human resources. Today, we don’t have so many schools training Africans such as aircraft technicians, engineers and pilots. It takes time and experience. Even if you have money, you have to train people and even if you have trained people, you need some experience to do that. Most of African airlines are small and they can’t afford to have their own MRO facility, so they need the support and Ethiopian Airlines is here to support them in different ways. One approach is while they operate, we give them total maintenance support. It means we can send our people here to maintain their aircraft.

We can also deploy spare parts at their location, so they can focus on transporting people and goods. As they grow, we encourage them to start developing their internal MRO capabilities little by little. For example, they can start by doing line maintenance service. This means they can have qualified and fortified engineers when the aircraft flies to do small checks such as rectifying some defectors. As they grow further, they can do major airframe maintenance. They can establish some shops like wheel shops and battery shops to repair their wheels and batteries amongst other. Finally, they need support for major repair of airframe, engines and spare part repairs. We can support them from Addis Ababa. This is how we think we can support them. Regarding engine maintenance, it requires very high investment and they can’t afford it. Ethiopian Airlines has invested a lot in Addis Ababa. On the other hand, because we are located in East Africa, to get closer to the airlines, we will like to establish MRO facilities in West Africa, Central Africa and Southern Africa. To do that, we need partners locally.

How many airlines do you maintain their aircraft in Africa and how much do you realise yearly from MRO?
Today, we support several African airlines. From West Africa, our major customer is Asky in Togo and Lome. We maintain aircraft for two carriers in Nigeria; from East Africa, RwandAir; from Kenya, Jambo Jet and Congo Airways; From South, Malawi Airlines and Mozambique, amongst many others. Annually, we generate around $80 million from MRO. We want to maximise this because we are developing more internal capabilities on engines and components. So, our revenue is expected to grow faster.

You said you need a dependable company to partner with in Nigeria to set up MRO. What are the things you will be looking at?
The first is interest and secondly, they should be committed in terms of investment, requirement and leadership. They should have the capacity to facilitate the local requirements like getting the land permissions, facilitating the local government requirements and having a reputable track record.

Last time, Ethiopia Airlines Group Managing Director spoke of setting up a new airline with reputable partners in Nigeria. How far as that plan gone?
We have established several airlines in partnership with local investors in different parts of Africa, including the neighbouring Togo. Now we have signed an MOU with another country in West Africa. We had several discussions in Nigeria till now but none of them has matured. It is still under discussion.

How will you describe open sky for Africa treaty, which should be working but does not seem to be working as expected because of some countries not abiding completely to the rule of engagement? What do you think are the hindrances and how can the region overcome the hindrances?
You might have heard from different sources that today around 80 percent of African air traffic is carried by non-African carries. Hence, Africa shares the remaining 20 percent. So, there is a big market for African airlines. We have to take our reasonable share from this market. We can only take this share when Africans partner. We are brothers as African citizens and that is what we are encouraging. Unfortunately, many new starter African airlines didn’t succeed. The problem is internal capacity, capacity in leadership and deployment of resources. We don’t have the right visions individually. We have to cooperate on financial front, on maintenance, technical know-how and developing human resources amongst others. One of the critical problems for African airlines is that we don’t have enough trained aviation professionals. So, we have to cooporate.

Unfortunately, we didn’t succeed for different reasons. One is lack of leadership, from African government and airline operators. Air transport business requires discipline in leadership and commitment. If you don’t control your costs, you cannot succeed. If you cannot develop long- term strategy, you cannot succeed. So, we have to help each other and government has to play an active role in facilitating development of airlines in Africa.

How has the airline managed to survive despite the collapse of other national carriers in Africa?

We are very confident that we know Africa better than anyone because we have been serving the continent for the last 70 years. There is the existence of uniquely dedicated and highly committed work force led by experienced and seasoned executive management and board of directors.

Highly skilled and dedicated employees – we have a dedicated and skilled workforce highly qualified for employment even by our competitors and we are self-sufficient in training of aviation personnel, who embody the values and spirit of Ethiopian Airlines, through our aviation academy.

We have a dedicated team, which can cope with the volatile, uncertain, complex issues. We also have efficient network of connectivity based on well-located hub, which enables us to connect Africa with the rest of the world better than anyone else. Ethiopian has created vast intra-Africa network better than any airline, making its customers available with the best connection with minimum layover in Addis. We also have multi-hub strategy and one of Ethiopian strategies is to have multiple hubs in Africa connecting it with our main hub, Addis Ababa, as well as hub-to-hub connections. Next to the main hub, Ethiopian has established its second and third hubs in: Lomé (Togo) in partnership with ASKY Airlines and the third at Lilongwe, Malawi with Malawian Airlines. Ethiopian is a customer-focused airline, which offers to business travellers to and from Africa the most convenient connectivity options, on-board the most modern and most comfortable aircraft.

Ethiopian is a Pan-African global carrier operating 95 youngest fleets in the continent with an average age of less than five years, which is under the industry average age and currently serving more than 100 international passenger and cargo destinations across five continents.

Ethiopian, being a Star Alliance member, offers its customers with multiple connections and the airline also offers passenger the opportunity to accrue miles for boarding on operating airline for code share flights among Star Alliance partner airlines even when the traveller has made reservation with another airlines flight number. And the passenger is a beneficiary in using star branded owned lounges upon Star Alliance lounge access policy.

African airlines enjoy just three per cent of the global market share while foreign airlines get the largest chunk. How can the continent address the imbalance?
African airlines should see this as a serious threat as it is impacting on all the airlines, not only one or two airlines in the continent. Therefore, they have to integrate their transport policies and strategies so that they can jointly work together through different code sharing strategies, as well as cooperation’s and alliances.

African countries improving their air transport share should be central at the continental agenda for Africans. By doing so, they can maximise their existence in the sky of Africa. Otherwise, the existence of Africans in their own sky will be a fable if things continue this way.

First, African governments should bring this serious agenda to their conferences, meetings, consultations and should device short and long term plans to tackle the challenges.

There should be experience sharing and benchmarking good aviation models come next. After that, adapting the best-calculated practice to their reality and implementing them can be a solution.