The Group Chief Executive Officer of Ethiopian Airlines, Mr. Mesfin Tasew, spoke to some Nigerian journalists recently in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and expressed hope about Africa’s air transport industry growth should political leaders show greater commitment to Single Africa Air Transport Market. Chinedu Eze brings the excerpts:
How has Ethiopian Airlines contributed to the Nigerian aviation industry?
A very rational question, I must say. The first one is we have been providing an alternate air transport service to Nigerians, connecting Nigeria to the rest of the world. We started flying to Nigeria in 1960. 63 years of uninterrupted continuous service. Connecting Lagos with the rest of the world, using wide-body airplanes, like the Boeing 777 aircraft.
Nigerians use our service to go to Europe; even to Europe, while they can fly directly using other airlines. Several Nigerians prefer to fly to Ethiopia to come to Addis, and go to Europe. But the significant Nigerian traffic is between Nigeria and Dubai, Nigeria and China, Nigeria and India, the biggest traffic is there. Last year alone, we carried over 511,000 Nigerians more than half a million Nigerians.
In 1962, we started flying to Kano. That’s about 61 years ago. But the Kano operation didn’t continue. It was sometimes suspended and so on for different reasons. But few years ago, we went back. Now it is a continuous operation with six flights weekly. The Lagos flight is daily, the Kano flight is six flights per week. And then that was followed by Abuja. We fly to Abuja daily using the Airbus A350 or the Boeing 787 aircraft, which are modern airplanes. And we expanded our reach into Nigeria based on the request of the people.
The last addition was in Enugu, Ethiopian Airlines didn’t ask the Nigerian authorities to fly to Enugu. The question came from the Nigerian government to start flying to Enugu because there were no international airlines connecting Enugu. Enugu passengers used to come to Lagos or other cities to connect to the rest of the world. So, at the time, I remember some ministers in Nigeria came to Ethiopian Airlines and said, can you please start flying to Enugu? We thought about it; are we going to get enough traffic from Enugu? Will the operation be profitable? But the Nigerian authorities insisted, they urged us that you have to fly. So, then we started flying there with small size airplanes because there was no traffic. And we used to operate that route at loss. But over time, the Nigerians get used to that flight. And now we are operating with wide body aircraft. It has a good traffic.
We are providing a convenient air transport service to the people around Enugu. If we stop flying there, what will happen? These people will have to take another flight to go to another city to take international flight. Bad service to the Nigerian public. So, one of the major contributions the Ethiopian Airlines has to Nigeria is to provide a convenient air transport service to the Nigerian public. And the Nigerian people are very happy. You may have heard about our services. Sometimes Nigerians say, no, this is my airline. Ethiopian Airlines is my airline. So much so that when they come here and they see an aircraft is not new, they demand, no, we don’t fly with this old aircraft, bring a new one. I tell you, it’s true. And when we tell them, no, we cannot do it, no, it’s my airline, bring a new one. Because they are used to it, they believe that Ethiopian Airline is a pride for Africans. That is how they look at it. So, for passenger operation already we fly 24 flights per week.
How do you rate your cargo freighting to Nigeria?
Cargo, we carry a lot of cargo between Lagos and the rest of the world. We bring cargo from Asia to Nigeria. Sometimes nine flights per week, wide-body, the triple-seven freight aircraft (Boeing 777). During COVID-19, when all airlines grounded their aircraft, it was Ethiopian Airlines that carried masks, COVID test kits, vaccines from China to Africa, including Nigeria. We believe with that operation, we saved the lives of maybe millions of people in Africa, because it was not only Nigeria, but we were carrying all these medical supplies to the whole of Africa.
Looking at what we have done for Nigeria; when at one point Abuja airport was closed for repair, if you remember, and all airlines couldn’t fly to Abuja. The Nigerian government asked the (international) airlines, can you fly to Kaduna? The security was not so great in Kaduna. All airlines said, no, we don’t fly to Kaduna. They waited until the Abuja airport was repaired. The Ethiopian Airlines sent a team of few people, three people. They inspected the runway and found that the runway was safe. They also found out that the airport was fenced and so on. They said, we will fly. We continued flying to Kaduna in place of Abuja until the Abuja airport became operational. People used our flight to Kaduna and they took transport by road to go to Abuja.
Let me give you another example. Today, during the last one and a half years, airlines have difficulties in getting hard currency in repatriating money from Nigeria. Every airline is suffering from that. And some airlines stopped flying because they say, we have a lot of money, we couldn’t take it out, so why do we fly? They suspended their flights. Ethiopian Airlines say, no. We are African airline. We cannot deny Nigerians from this service. We believe that it’s a problem but it’s a temporary problem. One day this problem will be solved; we cannot stop flying. So, we continued and still we are flying, but we couldn’t take out our money. Anyway, in the future when the economy becomes strong, we believe we can get our money.
So, Ethiopian Airlines has been serving the Nigerian public both at good and bad times. This is from the feeling that Ethiopian Airlines is an African airline. It has responsibility to serve Africans even at the most difficult times. So, in summary, Ethiopian Airlines is today a leading airline. In recognition of our services, we have received several awards from different institutions that give awards. Today, we are a four-star airline. We are a member of Star Alliance. We are fully owned by the Ethiopian government, but even if we are owned by the Ethiopian government, we are still operating profitably. Our vision 2035 sees that Ethiopian Airlines will operate over 270 aircraft, nearly double what we have by 2035. We have a plan to expand our network to over 200 cities by 2035. So, we have a plan to grow every year, grow fast, but by establishing a strong foundation in terms of human resource, infrastructure, fleet modernization, and other activities.
You talked about your growth over the years and things you have been able to achieve but you didn’t really talk about the challenges that you faced during that period. So what are the challenges so far?
Throughout the last 77 years, Ethiopian Airlines passed through different challenges at different times. I can enumerate several of them. The first challenge, by the way, I forgot to mention that I started working for Ethiopian Airlines in 1984. It means I worked for the airline for 39 years. So, the first challenge came before I was employed in the airline. And that was, there was change of government in Ethiopia. Earlier, Ethiopia was ruled by the kings, but there was a communist military government who came, took over power. And under that military rule, prior to that, Ethiopian Airlines was relatively free to fly where it wanted, to buy the aircraft that it prefers. But when the military government came, they instructed the airline management to buy aircraft from Russia, a friendly country for the communist government. And they brought leadership who were politically motivated. And the airline couldn’t move as a commercial airline. So that was a time when its profitability went into loss. It became loss making for a few years. And it was at a very difficult time. But the government learned from its mistake changed the leadership with professionals and left the airline alone to make business decisions by its own. And the new leadership came and started ordering airplanes from Boeing, firing those politically motivated employees, cleansing the airline from politics and just business. Then quickly it started becoming profitable. So that was the earlier challenge I know for the airline.
The other one was when again the military communist government was replaced by the most recent one, a PRDF-led government (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front). You may remember the government led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. When that government came, they came from the forest fighting and beating the government. Addis Ababa was in war. So, we were in a very difficult situation because we were going to have our airplanes damaged.
We didn’t know what would happen. So, we moved our base from Addis Ababa to Nairobi. All airplanes went to Nairobi. Selected operational people moved to Nairobi. We set up a temporary hub in Nairobi. And we were carrying people from London to Nairobi and then to Johannesburg and so on. We managed continuity of the airline with this operation. It was a very difficult time, but the leadership did it. And when things stabilized, we again moved back to Addis Ababa.
This was the second big challenge we have. The third big challenge is obviously COVID-19. When COVID-19 came, all airlines parked their aircraft. Employees stayed at home. And all airlines lost money. But the Ethiopian Airlines didn’t want to do that. Ethiopian Airlines said, no, no. All employees were invited. We focused on cargo operation instead of passenger. We decided to transport these medical supplies and converted more of the passenger aircraft into cargo. And we became a cargo operator. With that operation, our revenue dropped, but we didn’t lose money. Still, we were profitable, paying salaries to all our employees. We never laid off any employee. All continued getting their salaries.
We kept some employees at home, not because we didn’t want them, but the COVID-19 protection protocol required spacing. So, the offices were not enough to accommodate all people. So, we gave annual leave, paid leave to employees to stay at home. And then we survived. So, with that operation, we continued to do business. And there were a number of things that we had to do. When our crew fly everywhere, some of them got infected with COVID-19 and there were no enough hospitals to handle them. We set up our own hospital, temporary hospital. We converted our aviation academy, which you saw today, into a COVID-19 center.
We hired several doctors, cabin crew, nurses. We set up temporary laboratory. We kept our employees there comfortably and none of our crew died because of COVID-19, even though all of them were flying. So, this was a very big challenge, but we survived it. Otherwise, there are problems here and there, like geopolitical conflict, like Israel. We don’t fly now to Israel. The Russian-Ukrainian war is affecting us a lot. China was closed for a long time. But the airline knows how to manage problems. It immediately creates a solution and it adapts to the changing environment. So, it remained resilient throughout its history.
What is your projection for passenger growth on the African continent over time?
It depends on the decision, commitment of African leaders. Africa is a rich continent in natural resources. It has a big human resource, young people who can be trained. It has a big potential, but government decisions, government policies have not released it to grow at a pace that it has to grow. The African Union under Agenda 2063 has set a number of brilliant initiatives but countries are not implementing. The implementation process is extremely slow.
Take SAATM, (Single African Air Transport Market). I can tell you honestly that it will drive the development of the aviation industry in Africa. If the point is to develop the aviation industry in the continent, SAATM is an important tool. But if the primary point is to protect your internal weak airline, then SAATM doesn’t work and aviation will not develop. That is where we are now. Many countries have not opened up their airspace for free movement of people and goods. Still there are several countries who are not allowing Ethiopian Airlines to fly in the first place. But some countries are demanding that you have to fly.
Those countries that opened their airspace are developing their aviation industry. Those that remained closed will remain closed. If we see the greater picture of enhancing their transport industry, the best way is to open up. Let other airlines fly to that city. If they fly to that city, what do they bring? They bring better service to the citizens. They provide a competitive service. If there are many airlines coming there, you will have options to choose. Airlines have to compete. They have to improve their customer service. They have to reduce their fares. At the end of the day, who benefits? The citizens, the public. What other benefits do they bring? They bring tourists. They bring investors. They bring conference participants. Of course, SAATM alone may not help. There should be some improvement also in the immigration policy. One of the initiatives of African Union is to open up African borders for Africans so that they can travel from one African country to another without this visa restriction. But only a few countries have implemented. Most of them haven’t done that. Africa will grow, no doubt. The economy will grow. Africans will develop their nations, but the speed depends on the commitment of the leaders.
Recently, Nigerian airlines visited the Minister of Aviation and one of the proposals to the Minister was to enact a policy that will stop multiple destinations to foreign airlines. If eventually the Minister enacts that policy, how is it going to affect Ethiopian Airline’s operations in Nigeria?
In my opinion, it will be against the interest of the Nigerian public. If the Nigerian government tells us don’t fly to, for example, Enugu, then what does it mean? The Nigerian government is telling the people you cannot fly directly from Enugu to Dubai. First you have to go to Abuja and then from Abuja to Dubai. The cost to the Nigerian public will increase, the time it takes will increase. So, it will be against the interest of the Nigerian public.
For us, Nigeria is a sovereign country, we respect whatever the government decides. But I don’t think it is a good idea. So, in all civilised countries, airlines fly to multiple destinations. Take the United States with 50 states. Today we fly to five cities. They didn’t say, no, you fly only to Washington and then the domestic airlines will bring the passengers. That is not good for the public in terms of cost, time, convenience. So, I don’t think it is a wise idea, but we leave the decision to the Nigerian government.