In a recent conversation with selected journalists from Nigeria in Addis Ababa, Mr. Mesfin Tasew, the Group Chief Executive Officer of Ethiopian Airlines, unveiled a visionary goal for the airline—contributing to the development of robust African carriers capable of seamless operations within the continent and competing on a global scale with non-African airlines.
Tasew emphasized that Ethiopian Airlines sees itself as a facilitator rather than a competitor with other African carriers. The airline aims to provide a platform that nurtures the growth of the aviation sector in Africa, fostering an environment where strong carriers can emerge and flourish.
The Group CEO expressed a commitment to support and uplift fellow African airlines, creating a landscape where they can compete favorably with international counterparts. Ethiopian Airlines envisions a future where African carriers are not only successful within the continent but also capable of holding their own on the global aviation stage.
While outlining this ambitious vision, Tasew also addressed a concern that has hindered progress in the industry—the delay in implementing the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) by African governments. He lamented the sluggish pace of implementation, highlighting the potential benefits of a unified air transport market for the continent.
What are the things that have been a hindrance to you or what have been your 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 have worked for the airline for 39 years. So, the first challenge came before I was employed in the airline.
There was a change of government in Ethiopia. Earlier, Ethiopia was ruled by a king, 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 a loss-making airline 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. You may remember the government led by Prime Minister Melazenawi. 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 to the airline. 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. When COVID came, all airlines parked their aircraft. Employees stayed at home. And all airlines lost money.
But Ethiopian Airlines didn’t want to do that. Ethiopian Airlines said, no. 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 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 crews fly everywhere, some of them got infected with COVID and there were not enough hospitals to handle them. We set up our own temporary hospital. We converted our aviation academy into a COVID 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, 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 created a solution and it adapted to the changing environment. So, it remained resilient throughout its history.
What is your projection for passenger growth in 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 it. 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 which are not allowing Ethiopian Airlines to fly into their country. 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 they 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 number one, they provide a competitive service for the citizens. 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 visa restriction. But only a few countries have implemented it. 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.
Can you shed more light on the role Ethiopian Airlines played on the Nigeria Air controversy?
On the Nigeria Air, we are going to tell you the facts frankly, so that you have a full understanding, because there is a lot of rumours, going on within Nigeria. Ethiopian Airlines didn’t have any intention or plan to setup an airline in Nigeria.
In May, of 2022, when I took my current responsibility, a request came from the Nigerian government asking ET to participate in a bid and help the Nigerian government to setup a Nigerian flag carrier.
It came in writing. Initially we didn’t want to go into that. We said we have other initiatives in other countries and we were busy. But the Nigerian government insisted that Ethiopian airlines is an African airline, that it has to help the Nigerian government in setting up the national carrier.
So, we had to respect their desire, when we serve the Nigerian public and government by flying to four cities in Nigeria, we couldn’t say no, we cannot come and help you. So, we had to submit a proposal. And we thought that the Nigerian government had choices, ET being one but they had also requested other airlines in the middle east, Europe to participate in the bid.
I don’t know whether they participated or not. We submitted our proposal and we received a letter from the ministry of aviation saying that Ethiopian Airlines has been selected to be a partner to setup the airline. We said okay. Then the Nigerian government wanted the structure of investor to be Nigerian investing institutions and the Nigerian government wanted only 5 percent shares to insure that they have presence in the airline and to facilitate the establishment of the airline. We had a lot of discussions, we agreed but we had some differences in some points. And while we were preparing the shareholder agreement, then we heard that some companies in Nigeria including airlines started defaming and objecting to the establishment of the airline and defaming the name of the government and Ethiopian Airlines.
At that time, we thought that if the Nigerian Government doesn’t want it, the Nigerian public doesn’t want it, we could as well withdrew. But the Nigerian government insisted that this is a strategic issue for Nigeria and we have to continue. When these group of people went to court, and brought a court order, we had to defend ourselves, we had to go to the court, together with the Nigerian government, including the ministry of transport. So, until now, it is not yet decided, as far as we know, it is under the court. But the Nigerian government insisted that we had to continue with the background work until the court case gets decision.
Nigeria Air was established before us, it is already established by the Nigerian government before we were invited. It has its own leadership, it was doing a lot of things, it had started requesting the air operators’ certificate, making preparations. So, when we came in, it was a matter of restructuring the ownership of that Nigeria Air. For your information, the logo was already defined by them, it was not by Ethiopian Airlines. And we thought that if Nigeria Air is established, the benefit will be for the Nigerian public, for the Nigerian government. Because when we talked to the Nigerian government, why do you want to setup a new airline?
They said they don’t have dependable airlines within Nigeria and they wanted an airline that can provide dependable service that departs and arrive on time, that doesn’t cancel flights on the domestic market and also on the international market. The Nigerian government believes that the Nigerian public is at a disadvantage. So, the intention of the Nigerian government was to setup a very, very strong, reliable, dependable national carrier that service both the domestic market and the international.
And we believe in it, that is why we wanted to move forward with it. And at one point, that leadership of Nigeria Air, which doesn’t include Ethiopian Airlines asked us to bring an aircraft painted with Nigerian logo to facilitate the progress of the Air operators’ certificate.
So, we agreed with that, we took out one of our aircraft, we painted it with Nigerian logo, we flew it, it was for demonstration by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority for their inspection. So, after two days, we brought back the aircraft, repainted it with Ethiopian logo and it is flying. So, while we were here, waiting for the decision of the court, there was a change of government that took place.
There were new ministers, high government officials. They came and told us, that there are concerns from people here and they wanted us to leave the project. So temporarily they wanted to suspend the project. We said fine. I had to travel to Abuja to talk to the authorities to listen to what their intention and plan is. And they told us that they are not cancelling the project but that they wanted to study it and address the concerns of the public. They promised to come back to us with a decision, we agreed.
In the first place, it was not our initiative, it was the initiative of the government. Now if the government want us to cancel the project, it is fine with us. We have no problem. If the government want us to continue with the project, the government has to solve the legal case in court. Otherwise, we are willing to support the Nigerian government in the establishment of the national carrier.
So, we leave the decision to the Nigerian government. We have no issue, we will not be disappointed if it is cancelled. We are just there to help. And if the parties ask us to help, change their mind, change its strategy, we are fine with that. This is what we told the minister, that we respect whatever decision of the Nigerian Government.
But in our opinion, what has been said in the media is completely wrong. If we go there, our goal is not to kill Nigerian airlines, absolutely not. We have no intention of killing Nigerian airlines. Definitely we would have to setup a reliable airline, we have to provide the service that fits the needs of the Nigerian public. In fact, they have to be strong. If these airlines cannot be strong, they cannot compete.
If they cannot compete, then some of them can go out of business. It is not peculiar to air transport business, in any business where there is competition, there is always competition. The stronger ones will grow, the weak ones, will get dwarfed. So, a strong airline, will force the other airlines to revisit their efficiency. To revisit their operation, to provide more dependable service from which at the end of the day the Nigerian pubic will benefit.
They say when Ethiopian Airlines come, it will kill us, no, we have no intention of killing them but to provide good service. And some say no, they will come with all their aircraft, no, that is wrong. We will come there with good young airplanes. It may not just be brand new but airplanes like the MAX. In fact, hoping that the Nigerian Air will materialize, we had signed lease agreement from Canada to lease three 737 MAX, one and half years old. They are brand new aircraft. Now, Nigeria said no, we don’t need it. Good. We are absorbing two of them and the third one is going to Asky. So, if the Nigerian government wants a strong airline, it is up to the government. If we come there, we will help in developing the Nigerian aviation industry. Not by only establishing an airline, but an MRO and training facility.
Definitely that is part of the plan. A few years down the line, we will have to establish an MRO, primarily for the airline, but also supporting other airlines who want the service. Eventually, we will be establishing an aviation academy to train the aviation professionals of Nigeria Air, but not only Nigeria Air, other airlines also. So, through this, we will support the growth of the aviation industry within Nigeria.
And some people say, they are coming here to get profit and make money. That is wrong. When we establish African Airlines in partnership with other countries, our primary goal is not profit, not at all. Of course, eventually when the airline gets profit, definitely we want to share in accordance with our share. But the primary goal is to get a strong partner airline who can work with us by feeding each other, by partnering together, so that we grow together.
Take Asky for example, we give six times more traffic to Asky than what Asky give us. Every year if they give us 10,000 passengers, we give them 60,000 passengers. Because we have a big network, we sell everywhere around the world, those people who go to, for example, Freetown, we don’t fly to Freetown. We bring the passengers up to Lome and give those passengers to them so that they take it from Lome to Freetown.
The data shows that the volume of business that we give to Asky is six times higher than what Asky give us. This is supported with the data. So now we are happy we have a strong partner in Lome. If we don’t establish that airline, then our big competitors from Europe or Middle East can come there and take the market. We will not get access to that market except flying to Togo.
So, our primary benefit if we establish Nigeria Air is to have a strong airline there. We bring passengers from all over the world, we feed that airline into Lagos or Abuja, then they can take it from there either domestically or to the region. And they will do the reverse as well. So, we cooperate, we help each other. The competition of Ethiopian Airlines is not with African Airlines. This is what we always say. Our competition is always with non-African Airlines. We need strong African partners to withstand the competition from outside Africa. So, this is what I would like to tell you about Nigeria Air.
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 ET’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. In all civilized 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 can fly only to Washington and then the domestic airlines will bring the passengers to you. 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.
Recently, there have been reports of maltreatment of Nigerians transiting through the Ethiopian hub by immigration officials. How true is this?
70% of our passengers’ transit through Addis Ababa. It’s only 30% that come in and go out. 70% come from cities where we fly and go to cities where we fly, transiting through Addis Ababa. And the transit time in Addis Ababa varies from 20 minutes. Some passengers connect in 20 minutes. They just disembark from one aircraft and board the next aircraft in 20 minutes. Sometimes it may go up to four hours. But most are within a range of one hour and two hours.
Like any other airport, as passengers transit through the airport, they undergo security screening. You have to pass through security. If I travel to Frankfurt and want to go to London, then I have to pass through security screening. It is international practice. In that process there are certain checks that have to be done, primarily security related things. When you reach the boarding gate, your passport is rechecked again, whether you have the visa, or you have a valid traveling document.
And that is done by the national security of the country. Sometimes they find people who are not in compliance with both the national regulation and international security practices. Let me give you an example, some passengers are found carrying drug. If they are found carrying drugs, definitely they are not allowed to continue their flight. The security people will take them under custody. If they are found carrying weapons without permission, they do the same thing until they investigate and see that it is an approved weapon. So, when some passengers are found to be non-compliant, they can go under the custody of police.
The second problem that we witness is that some people carry a lot of money, a lot of dollars, or valuables like gold in large size, in tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even over a million they carry in their bag. If they are transiting without coming to Addis, the security people don’t touch them. They can carry the money because it’s their money, they are not coming to the country. However, for some reason, if they want to pass a day or a night to get their connection and they have to come out to this hotel (Skylight Hotel), the national regulation says that all passengers carrying over 10, 000 dollars or equivalent or gold beyond the normal ornament, you have to declare it at the customs on arrival. You have to tell them, I am carrying $30,000.
They may ask you, where is it? You can take it out from your bag, show it to them. They see it and you are made to sign on a piece of paper which is handed over to you. And the next morning when you go out, as you pass through the X-ray, there are custom people there. If they see it, they ask you, do you have permit to carry this money? If you show that paper which was given to you, nothing will happen. You are free to carry out your money, even if it is a million dollar. All they are asking is declare it. If you do not declare it, they assume that there are some Ethiopians, and the passenger met with those Ethiopians who want to take out hard currency from the country. So, they assume that, if you didn’t declare it, when you come in, then it means it’s not your money.
Somebody in the city has given it to you. So, it is illegal to take out this money. The customs will confiscate the money. This is another problem that we have. So, to protect them from doing this, before arrival, the cabin crew usually announce this to all passengers. Our esteemed passengers, there is a customs regulation. Those of you who carry more than $10,000, you have to declare it at customs. They tell you that if you don’t declare it at the customs, you will have problems taking it out. The second point is, after you pass through the baggage claim area, as you pass, there are desk there, they ask you, are you carrying money? If you don’t do that, then that is a problem.
So, we announce on flight, we also check on the ground. But some people, for their own reason, we don’t know what their reason, they refuse to declare it, while they are carrying a lot of money. Once they are identified, they take the money from them, number two, they put the people under police custody. They say you have violated Ethiopian government rule. It has nothing to do with Ethiopian airlines. It is the Ethiopian Government issue. Then when we ask those passengers, why didn’t they declare the money? They say if I declare, I am afraid that some people will follow me and take my money from the hotel or on the road to the hotel. Some people are concerned that they don’t want to declare because somebody will follow them after. Then you know what we did? I discussed this issue with Minister Hadi Sirika, because he was concerned.
Then we provided a safe box where they can put their valuables, including money. They don’t trust that. Then we established a hotel within the terminal where they can sleep day or night, so that the passengers can stay in those hotels with their valuables, without declaring, without telling any person because they are not passing through customs. I intentionally showed ex-minister Hadi how the rooms look like.
He was impressed. He said, good job. We also tell the passengers that they have the option of staying in the rooms at the airport. Some people are doing it. Today we have 99 rooms and sometimes 60, 70, 80 people stay there. So, we have tried our best regarding these many confiscations. We don’t know what else we can do. We try to educate our passengers, we give them the options. But some people still don’t follow that and they are caught when they go out. So that is what we know.
And we hear that some people from Nigeria and other countries are still under police custody, but discussions are going on at governmental level, at diplomatic level. We hope we see some issues are being resolved. One day, we had to call about eight ambassadors from West Africa to my office. They were kindly willing to come, Nigeria, Togo, Senegal, Ghana. They all expressed their concerns, and I explained this to them. They said okay, and they went back. We don’t want any passenger to be inconvenienced as they pass through Addis Ababa airport, but it is something beyond our control. So that is the case.
Airport development in Nigeria?
We have to study it. We never thought about it because we were not invited. And we didn’t do any study on that and we didn’t do any due diligence. If there is interest, we can evaluate it. But so far, we were not approached in this respect. Before COVID there were discussions, but it stopped when the COVID came. So, it’s something we can look at, but the request has to come from the Nigerian government and then we shall see.