Henok Tefferra is the managing director of ASKY Airlines with hub in Lome, Togo, and noted for its rapid growth, he spoke to ANDREW IRO OKUNGBOWA in Accra, Ghana, of the success of the airline and the state of Africa’s aviation industry.
How inspiring is the Balafon Award for Aviation personality of the year for West Africa bestowed on you?
Like any successful endeavour, it is a collective endeavour, it is the work of everybody, those in operation, those in the back office, 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 is shows that we are getting somewhere and also to use it as a stepping stone to further develop the airline and achieve even greater heights.
What informed the birth of the airline?
ASKY was created because there was really air connectivity vacuum in West Africa after the demise of Air Afrique. Air Afrique was owned by many Francophone governments in this region (west) and when that experience failed people had to literarily go through Europe or in many instances whether is London or Paris to see their next door neighbours. So, there was really a need for tactical air connectivity. Secondly, the drive, the pan African vision of integrating Africa and also the marketing potential of that noble enterprise, as some like-minded Pan Africanists came together. The institution was a pan African outlook, which is Ecobank, a bank but pan African institution. The ECOWAS Infrastructure Bank (EBID) and the development bank for French-speaking West African countries and together with Ethiopian Airlines, they are the strategic partners but as a shareholder with commercial and technical support, they established the airline and launched it in 2010. The business plan basically envisaged ASKY to have a hub and spoke operation, connecting the regions; West and Central Africa regions through its hub in Lome.
How many destinations do the airline covers?
The airline operates to about 23 destinations in West and Central Africa, almost daily flights. We currently 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 at least one aircraft per year, so gradually now the regional traffic is more or less being catered for and as we go forward next year, it is for us to now start long haul operations. As you know that in July together with Ethiopian Airlines, New York flight through Lome was started, Ethiopian Airlines operating that flight in partnership with ASKY. ASKY feeding it the passengers, particularly from Lagos, Dakar, 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 in nine hours you in New York. It is really the fastest route and the same for the Brazilian route, Sao Paulo and soon ASKY will start its own operations to Europe, namely Paris and London.
What are the factors that accounted for the uniqueness of ASKY?
One is safety, the maximum international safety standard possible; ASKY is an IOSA certified airline. Secondly, our flights are 80 per cent of the time on time. We have a very high on time performance, punctuality and three of course, is the friendliness, the courteousness and the hospitality of our staff both on the ground and on the air. We now have a fantastic airport in Lome, a new airport terminal that was inaugurated in May this year. I would say that it is the best terminal 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 that you can imagine that you will get in Europe. With that airport and also with our latest aircraft, we have a very modern and new crafts, so with all these factors, I think these make the customer experience as agreeable as possible and that is why they are flying with us more and more.
ASKY has within six years of its existence stamped its presence in the aviation industry, what is responsible for this instant success of the airline?
I think there are three or four thin that are key ingredients for the success of any airline. The first is the business strategy, you need to have an airline that is purely commercial driven, customer focused and market driven. And based on that a network and a fleet plan that allows you to maximise your revenues and realise your profit objectives. So, the business strategy is one and ASKY had a very good business strategy at the onset with a hub and spoke operation, with sixth freedom traffic connecting West Africa through Lome, its main hub. That is one and the second important issue is having a strong and reliable technical partner, strategic partner. ASKY made the right choice in Ethiopian Airlines, which is known for its technical abilities, for its commercial abilities and is now the biggest airline in Africa. Therefore, a strong backing in technical and commercial areas by a strategic partner is critical for any airline at its onset. That is the second critical factor and the third critical factor that I will say is having a strong human capital management strategy, recruiting right and developing people because aviation is also a skill driven industry.
Did you envisage the kind of growth and acceptance you are witnessing now when the airline started operations in 2010?
It was something that was planned, but the growth exceeded our expectations obviously but it is something that we worked hard for, and it is only the beginning. In Africa region, airlines are still very, very small, if you take African carriers, even the so-called big ones, Ethiopian Airlines, Kenyan Airways, South African Airlines, everybody put together, we are merely may be 20 per cent of the long haul market from Africa. Really we are at infancy of aviation. But there is a promise because Africa is growing as Africans are travelling more and more. But Africa should not just be a consumer base for the global economy. Africa should be an economic player in the global economy, playing an active role in the global economy. African airlines have to have a fair share of the travel from Africa and that is what we are aiming to tap into.
What are the factors hindering connectivity within West Africa?
West African connectivity gaps still exist and the reasons for it I will say are two-folds, one is that the aviation policy environment, to be frank is not conducive. 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 Yamasukuro decision was adopted by the leaders of Africa, liberalising Africa’s skies for African airlines, especially the fifth freedom and it is still slow in implementation. Secondly, the cost environment in West and Central Africa is prohibitive. It is not conducive for business growth and on top of that you have also taxation, the taxation regime, which considers aviation not as a strategic sector, which enables trade, investment, tourism, and in the end 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 can be a catalyst, aviation today is responsible for eight million jobs directly or indirectly on the continent, which could be much more to, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the continent. It is a lot already but imagine what it could be if all these restrictions and obstacles are removed.
In solving this problem, what should be the key factors to address?
Remove all barriers and restrictions for African airlines to operate freely to your airports, if I am an African carrier, I should be able to operate freely anywhere I want in Africa, just like a European carrier operates freely on the European airspace or in Europe. Two, treat aviation as a strategic asset, as an enabler of economic growth because is only through aviation that you can develop and encourage trade, investment, tourism and development in your country. You should have airport taxes and charges that are not prohibitive for the development and growth of aviation.