AS the sun sets on the year 2016, Rwanda aviation industry, particularly RwandAir, is basking in glee following a year well spent, at least in terms of capacity building for the national carrier.
Besides the new policies announced by cabinet to streamline the aviation sector activities, like cargo handling and logistics, this year the airline has laid a firm foundation and made its intention clear that it’s ready for business and competition. Africa’s fastest-growing airline acquired three top of the range equipment in the past three months to boost its capacity, bringing its fleet to 12 aircraft.
With Rwanda looking to become a conference hub through the Meetings Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) initiative, the government invested a lot of money in aviation infrastructure, equipment, and processes to make the sector more efficient. In fact, the government is positioning aviation as an enabler of economic development.
In terms of air traffic through the Kigali international Airport (KIA), over 1.5 million passengers passed through the airport, about 650,000 of which were ferried by RwandAir. The increase was attributed to the MICE initiative, launched three years ago, according to the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority (RCAA). Officials say the scheme is largely responsible for the 15 per cent annual traffic increase at KIA.
The country hosted two major events, including the World Economic Forum for Africa and the African Union summit during the year, which brought in hundreds of delegates. To further strengthen efficiency and enhance safety at the airport, a new apron was built, adding another three taxiways to ease traffic flow and control.
RwandAir in ‘driving seat’
Last year, RwandAir set an ambitious expansion plan that left many wondering whether it was achievable with the aviation sector doing badly globally. Well, the airline has proved naysayers wrong, acquiring three top of the range planes from aircraft-makers, Boeing and Airbus. This grew its fleet from eight to 11 planes.
The national flag carrier received a brand new Airbus 330-200, nicknamed Ubumwe in September, which was followed by Africa’s first Boeing 737-800 Next Generation, christened Kalisimbi in November and, finally, the Airbus A330-300 Umurage, the airline’s biggest plane so far, arrived a few weeks ago. The three new aircraft, the first of their kind in East Africa, will significantly boost RwandAir’s capacity, making it more competitive in the regional and global aviation industry. It is waiting delivery of another Boeing 737-800 NextGen due in May, 2017.
The new equipment will help the national flag carrier to double capacity and become more competitive globally, as it sets eyes on the US, Europe, and Asia markets next year, according to the airline’s boss John Mirenge. Mirenge said the airline targets to ferry at least 750,000 passengers this financial year (July, 2016-June 30, 2017), as well as add three more routes to make 22 destinations.
The airline has launched four new routes – Cotonou, Benin, and Abidjan in Ivory Coast – this calendar year, bringing its destinations to 19, including Nairobi, Entebbe, Mombasa, Bujumbura, Lusaka, Juba, Douala, Dar es Salaam, Kilimanjaro, Johannesburg, Dubai, and Lagos. The airline plans to open routes to Europe, particularly, London; the US, and Mumbai in India, among others, next year.
RwandAir obtained IATA safety audit for ground operations certification (ISAGO) this year, guaranteeing customers safety and reliability. In addition, RCAA installed new technology, a bird’s avoidance collusion system at KIA, to deter accidents during plane landing or take off.
Push for open skies
The country is pushing to ensure fifth freedoms, allowing RwandAir and local airlines unrestricted access across the continent. Already, the government signed an air service agreement with Ethiopia in March, where the two countries agreed to open their airspaces, allowing their national carriers to operate without restrictions. In addition, Rwanda secured an air service agreement with Kingdom of Morocco, giving airlines from either country rights to fly across the territory of the other or and make stopovers in the territory of the other country for non-traffic purposes.
Raphael Kuuchi, the IATA vice-president for Africa, believes airspace liberalisation will enable African airlines, like RwandAir, to cut costs and operate profitably. According to Dr Elijah Chingosho, the African Airlines Association (AFRAA) secretary general, opening African skies will make the industry safer and profitable.
Bugesera International Airport works kick off
The long wait is over; construction of the mega Bugesera International Airport in Bugesera District is underway. The project, which had been on the books for years, kicked off after government signed a deal with a Portuguese firm to develop the facility.
The project, according to James Musoni, the Minister for Infrastructure, is expected to be completed by 2018. The first phase of the project will cost $418 million for the state-of-the-art facility that will have capacity to handle about 1.7 million passengers annually.
Challenge of high air travel remains
All was not rosy for airline business in Rwanda and on the continent, generally, as high operational costs continued to push away would-be air travelers.
Experts attribute the high airfare to high taxes, lack of liberalised airspace, poor infrastructure and inadequate foreign exchange reserves on the continent, making it hard for airlines to make profits. The situation remains uncertain as players put final touches on 2017 plans and schedules. Industry stakeholders can only hope that governments intervene, liberalise airspace and cut taxes in the New Year.
Rwanda’s aviation industry has come of age, with the country positioning itself toward becoming a regional aviation hub.
Government has already invested over $17 million in upgrade Kigali International Airport and rehabilitation of Kamembe Airport. These efforts have already paid off with the Kigali International Airport ranked one of the best airports in the region.
The government is also undertaking other key projects in the sector, including the impending expansion of Rubavu Airport in Western Province. It has pledged continued supports to RwandAir to make it more competitive on the continent.
Regionally, the aviation industry in East Africa is tipped to grow at about 11.2 per cent. Experts recently projected strong growth of the East African aviation sector compared to other regions. The industry outlook is positive, with experts projecting it to expand by 5.6 per cent next year, a situation that means airlines could make more profits than earlier predicted.