Ethiopia is a country that holds allure for so many people all over the world. It has an enchanting rich history. Strategically located in East Africa, Ethiopia is a country that has been able to harness its advantageous location and make itself almost indispensable to other African countries as a link to the rest of the world. For more than five decades, through its national carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, the country has woven a kind of spider web across Africa, linking up the continent in way that has made airline business profitable to it. Ethiopia Airlines has moved from being the Pride of Ethiopia to the Pride of Africa. Recently, the airline’s Managing Director, International Services, Mr. Esayas Woldemariam Hailu, was in Lagos to talk on the giant strides and consistency that have seen the airline survive in the tumultuous African aviation industry. In an industry that has seen many airlines go into oblivion as quickly as they are established, Ethiopian Airlines has been among the few in Africa that has broken the trend, and in the process, offered both Nigerians and Africans the opportunity for seamless connectivity.
The experience of the airline becomes even more noticeable in Nigeria where there is no national carrier, while the privates airlines in existence are struggling to continue to be business. Assessing the success the airline, Hailu believes it has nothing to with the ownership, more so since Ethiopian Airlines is 100 per cent owned by the Ethiopian government. He said: “Ownership is not a question. There are so many private airlines which came and faded away. There are also government-owned national carriers in other parts of the world that have survived and thrived. For example, when we take the case of Ethiopian Airlines, the 9/11, SARS, energy price hike and at least two, domestic revolutions, the toppling of the monarchy in Ethiopia and the toppling of the military junta, Ethiopia/Eritrean war, we have survived all these. The secret is not in the ownership. Be it private or government, if it is squandered or mismanaged, it will seize to exist. So, it is a matter of diligent management. When it comes of the management of Ethiopian Airlines, the government has given the management the autonomy to run the company with industry discipline and economic sense. The only thing they request is that at the end of the year, to show them the numbers and our performance. Any company within Africa, be it private or government, if you combine hard work of the workforce and diligent management and also customer service, then your business is going to succeed.”
Many have wondered why an airline, which has probably the youngest fleet in Africa, finds it easy to access funding, while other airlines are going burst. To this, the MD said: “Let me start from how we finance our flight expansion. First, the Ethiopian government, being the shareholders, guarantee our loans. Secondly, the aircraft manufacturing countries, for example, when we import aircraft from the United States, Boeing, the American Exim Bank, because they want to encourage export of their country’s national products, they know our performance and follow our track record, our credit worthiness, so, they participate in the financing. Because we are 100 per cent government-owned, we don’t sell shares. We are not listed, so we cannot raise cash. But we completely finance, year to year, and we make profit, we pay our principals and interests on loans. So, we are self-financing airlines. We finance our debts from our annual operational profits, from our revenue, from our own cash flow. So, that is how we are financed.
“Number two, we try to see different hubs in Africa and how we integrate them. Asky has 22 destinations in this sub-continent of Africa. They siphon all the traffic and feed us at different locations. The Francophone countries, like Lome, the Anglophone countries like Monrovia, Freetown, Banjul, Accra, and so on and so forth. So from other places like Mali-Bamako, we take them to the eastern part of Africa, to the Southern part of Africa or to Gulf Middle-East, Asia, Europe and America. The same is true of Malawiair. Based in Lilongwe in Blantyre, they operate to Johannesburg, Dar Isalam and Lusaka. Now, they are going to expand to Maputo, Bulawayo and other places. They collect the traffic and they feed us in Lilongwe, from where we take them to the rest of Africa and the rest of the world. By so doing, number one, we create an integrated market within Africa. We also connect Africa to the rest of the world because, as we see, Africa is not road or rail inter-related, because if we try to build roads, from Southern Africa to the north, from west to the east, it is going to be ten thousands of kilometers. But building of just an infrastructure of three kilometers, an aircraft can depart from that and go to the rest of the continent. People can travel as tourists to each other’s country, export cargo and they can sell or buy from each other, while business in Africa can get strengthened with a lower level of investment. That is what we have tried to do, although aviation in unfairly and highly taxed in Africa. Aviation is taxed higher than tobacco and alcohol in Africa.
It is highly regulated, highly taxed and highly restricted, but it is the most essential service that everybody wants to have. African governments have to liberalize the African sky in line with the Yamoussoukro decision. Right now, many African countries are giving more flying rights to the Gulf carriers to their own African brothers. That needs to be corrected for Africa to thrive. When started operating in many of the African countries, they were still launching wars, but we didn’t desert them, we continued to operate, even when the number of crew was more than the number of passengers. We kept operating and developing the route for Africa. Now, an airline comes with just 10 years of history, and they give all the traffic to them. That will be a misplaced priority, we should rethink our decision.” Hailu also talked about how the airline has been impacting on Nigeria for so many years: “The Ethiopian Airlines sales manager is a Nigerian. Many airlines bring them from outside. All our local employees in Lagos are Nigerians. When you fly our aircraft, you will see nationals from different parts of Africa. We have a co-pilot from Nigeria. When we employ, we upload advertisements and people from all parts of West Africa and South Africa. Many Africans have been employed and are flying our machines. So, it is open for Nigerians to come and participate. We have cabin crew for West Africa French speaking like Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal and other parts of Africa. Another thing is that we make our passengers feel at home. We want to know our passengers by name. That is why we speak pidgin and so on. We have that special African hospitality tailored towards Africans. We are Africans and we know what it takes to please an African man or woman, so they can expect many things from us.”