Firiehiwot Mekonnen is the General Manager of Ethiopian Airlines in Nigeria. The airline made history recently when it launched its direct flight from Africa to Houston, Texas, United States. Mekonneh in this interview tells Funke Olaode about the airline’s vision and mission as it continues to break more boundaries
Congratulations on Ethiopian Airline’s recent achievement. What are the strategies deployed to keep this route alive as some airlines open a route and after some time shut it down?
As a company, the management is working tirelessly to continue to consolidate on its service of excellence that we are known for. This inaugural flight directly to Houston, which kicked off in Lome, West Africa on December 16, was to give its best connection to the West and Central Africa and to also give the shortest flight to Houston, Texas. The strategy being deployed is to give the best connections and in our best aircraft in Boeing 787, the Dreamliner, which will give comfort to our passengers. And in terms of tickets and price, I can boldly say that we have one of the best reasonable prices. We are going to sustain a reasonable price. All these will encourage our passengers to choose Ethiopian Airlines as their preferred Airlines to their destinations not only to Houston but to the 127 destinations that will fly to across the world.
Has this newly-launched flight generated more employment?
Well, we have always been on the ground before this new route. For now, we are still making use of the new hands on the ground.
The aviation and tourism are intertwined and you have been operating in Nigeria for some time. To what extent has it impacted the tourism industry in Nigeria?
I can’t give you a statistic now but I can say that since we have been flying to Nigeria over the last 58 or 59 years, and other African countries the impact are being felt. We believe that we have contributed a lot both in Nigeria and other Africans across the world.
There was a time the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority grounded some Max 787 and I believe you have some in your fleet not only in Nigeria but globally. How has that affected your operations and what plans are you doing in terms of replenishing those places so that it doesn’t affect your operations?
Ethiopian Airlines have been flying for 73 years. That incident affected us in so many ways most importantly losing our esteemed passengers and crew members. That moment was a tragic moment for us as a company. But in terms of operation our routes are going smoothly we didn’t stop as we also received new aircraft. We are trying to compensate on that. Like I said, losing our esteemed customers and crew members was tragic.
It was an unfortunate incident but Ethiopian Airlines has a track record of excellence so despite the tragedy it was a profitable year. We had a crash and one would expect that the business would go down but in 2018/2019 the business went up and we made profits as the crash didn’t affect our operations and reputation.
As the year 2019 is winding up what are your plans for 2020 in line with your vision and this new route. In addition to that, can you give an insight into what your future expansion plans are in Nigeria?
There are routes that we have a frequency. We have a plan to sustain our routes in Nigeria. For now, Enugu Airport is closed for renovation and we have chosen Port Harcourt as an alternative. But we have a plan to sustain our flight to Port Harcourt even though Enugu is closed. And we will have an alternative, for instance, the day we don’t have a flight to Enugu we will fly to Port Harcourt. It is one of our plans. And in terms of investment, we have a lot going on which I can’t disclose now. But talks are ongoing with government and private sectors as well.
How soon do we expect direct flight from Lagos to Houston because your CEO mentioned that it was supposed to be from Nigeria but due to some reasons they could get landing rights?
This flight was supposed to take off from Nigeria but it didn’t happen but as soon as we get the landing rights we will switch to Lagos because we believe Nigeria has a larger community in Houston.
How would you describe your experience breaking another jinx in the aviation industry with this inaugural flight from Lome to Houston?
Well, it was a dream come true for us as a company. The experience was good because we have connections from Accra in Ghana, Central Africa and having Lome as a West Africa hub is the icing on the cake.
Your CEO mentioned something like mixing hospitality with aviation. Can you throw more light on that?
Ethiopian Airlines has already inaugurated Ethiopian Skylight Hotel this year in January, the biggest five-star hotel in Ethiopia. We have 373 rooms and we are building another 627 rooms to make it a 1000 rooms. It is just across the airport and we are allowing our business class passengers to stay there. We are trying to contribute our own quota to hospitality within Ethiopia.
What is your relationship with Askye Airlines?
The relationship is that we are partners as Ethiopian Airlines has a 49 percent stake. We do all the management and key positions are covered by our Airlines.
Has the partnership delivered the expected result?
Yes. It has.
There was a time your airline made a move to acquire Arik?
I am sorry I have no comment.
You said you have been in Nigeria for four years. You have spent two years in Abuja and two years in Lagos. What has been your experience living in both cities?
I love Abuja in the sense that you can actually do many activities in a day. When it comes to Lagos everywhere is lively and the vibe is always there. If I leave Nigeria today, my take away from here is that I like Nigerians because they make friends easily and there is this sense of commonality.