Here’s a The African Perspective Magazine exclusive interview with Mr. Esayas Woldemariam, Ethiopian Airlines MD International.
Ethiopian Airlines has been connecting Africa together and beyond for the past close to 7 decades. Ethiopian commands the lion share of the pan-African passenger and cargo network operating the youngest and most modern fleet to 87 international destinations across five continents. Ethiopian fleet includes ultra-modern and environmentally friendly aircraft such as the Boeing 787, Boeing 777-300ER, Boeing 777-200LR, Boeing 777-200LR Freighter and Bombardier Q-400 with double cabin. In fact, Ethiopian is the first airline in Africa to own and operate these aircraft. A multi award winning (SKYTRAX and Passenger Choice Awards in 2013) Airline, Ethiopian has been registering an average growth of 25% per annum in the past seven years and is armed with an ambitious vision to reach heights never reached before where African Airlines are concerned.
Inside the PAN-African Airline
From an insider perspective, what does it mean to work for the pioneer Pan African carrier?
Esayas Woldemariam – It is really an honor for me to work for Ethiopian Airlines. I’ve been working here for the past 24 Years and it is a big honor for me. To give you a glimpse of the Ethiopian legacy; Ethiopian Airlines was founded on December 21, 1945. In its operations in the past close to seven decades, Ethiopian has been a pioneer of African aviation as an aircraft technology leader providing the first jet service in the continent in 1962, and availing the first African B767 in 1984, the first African B777-200LR in 2010 and the first African and second only to Japan B787 Dreamliner in 2012. Today, Ethiopian Airlines (Ethiopian) is the fastest growing and most profitable airline in Africa.
Briefly take us through your day-to-day work at Ethiopian!
Esayas Woldemariam – Being Managing Director Ethiopian International Services, I am in charge of overseeing the entire performance of Ethiopian international destinations. Currently, we fly to 87 international destinations across five continents. Dublin and Los Angeles having joined in June. Hence my office is in charge of monitoring the entire activities of these destinations.
What is Ethiopian Airline short-term plan/vision where Eastern African aviation industry is concerned?
Esayas Woldemariam – Ethiopian Airlines will continue to pursue its fast, profitable and sustainable growth strategy by fostering trade, investment growth and people to people ties in East Africa region. In the coming years, Africa is expected to register tourism growth rate of 5.5%, compared to a world average of 4.1% according to World Tourism Organization. A breakdown at regional level shows that the highest level of growth in Africa will be in East Africa, including Ethiopia and its neighboring countries, at an average growth rate exceeding 5% up to 2020. Despite the challenges the aviation industry is facing, we are working towards enhancing the region’s tourism by serving our valued customers with African flavored Ethiopian hospitality, creating convenience and seamless connectivity using our state-of-the art aircraft.
Ethiopian has been state owned since inception, most state owned airlines do not have the longevity of Ethiopian, what has been the secret? Who elects Ethiopian board of directors/management?
Esayas Woldemariam – The ownership and management of the airline are completely separate and this has been a successful set-up. The government is the 100% owner, but the management is aviation professionals and run the airline as an independent business. There is no undeserved interference and the management is responsible and accountable for day-to-day operations. This has been a successful set up. Since the earlier formation years, the airline opened and maintained an Aviation Trainings school and the airline was capable of attracting and retaining highly motivated and dedicated personnel. It is the Ethiopian Government that elects and appoints our board of Directors. The government has been very supportive in running our beloved Airline by setting indispensable directions.
Speak briefly on current state of the African aviation industry, presently, what are some of the opportunities present that did not exist before?
- As an indigenous African Airline, we still remain optimistic towards the full liberalization of African skies for African Airline, implementation of the Yamoussoukro Declaration (YD).
- Africa with an estimated population of about 1 billion people is one of the fastest growing economies in the world at
- the moment this provides a good opportunity for the industry.
On the other hand
- There is a high operating cost environment in Africa, with much high aviation taxes, fees and fuel price.
- The regulatory framework in Africa is eluded against African airlines. Non-African airlines often get more favorable air traffic rights than African carriers.
- Facing unfair competition from Gulf based airlines continued to be a concern.
- Many trained and highly skilled employees are being lured away by Gulf based carriers.
Safety is the most pressing challenge facing the aviation industry in Africa, how is Ethiopian addressing this issue?
Esayas Woldemariam – For us, safety is our number one priority and it has never been compromised. The Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA); and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) have all certified Ethiopian for full airframe and engine maintenance capability. Ethiopian is also certified as a bombardier authorized service facility for the Bombardier Q-400 aircraft. Moreover, we have consistently passed the rigorous annual audits of FAA, EASA, CAAs of customer Airlines and Star Alliance.
Can you brief us on the Ethiopian Airlines Vision 2025
Esayas Woldemariam – Ethiopian Airlines is in the fifth year of its Vision 2025 with great operational and financial successes. Since the beginning of our Vision 2025 goals in 2010, important investments in human resources, infrastructure, fleet and systems development has and continue to be made.
On human resource development, we have spent 80 million US $ to increase the yearly intake capacity of our academy from 250 to 1,300 students combined, for pilots, aircraft technicians, marketing and finance personnel.
On infrastructure, we are spending 100 million US$ to build two aircraft maintenance hangars; 107 million euros to build the first phase of a cargo terminal with 1.2 million tons capacity; 250 million US $ for airport terminal expansion which will increase the current capacity to 20 million passengers per year and will include amenities and services, which will make it competitive with global hubs and tens of millions of US $ to install state-of the art radar systems.
- On fleet, we are phasing in on average 12 aircraft, including wide bodies such as 787s and 777s per year.
- On systems, we are spending over 30 million US $ to fully automate the operational, commercial and back-office environment. Over the last 4 years, we have increased our international destination to 87 and doubled the number of passengers to 6 million. Addis Ababa has also become the preferred gateway to the continent for travelers between Africa and the rest of the world.
Aviation industry could be used as a driving force for regional integration on the continent! Are we putting too much focus just on rail/roads? What role should regional governments/private sector play in harnessing this opportunity?
Esayas Woldemariam – African governments should consider the role of the Aviation industry as a vital component of Economic growth and integration through driving strong regional integration. The African private/public sector can play a vital role in building modern infrastructure. I believe there is so much to be done in terms of developing and modernizing infrastructure in the transport sector. Rail and road development is also very critical for Africa’s growth and it requires much attention from African states and governments.Competition along different segments of the value chain, rail, road and air, where public and private actors seek to provide better value can be a driving force that fuels Africa’s growth.
African airlines currently control just a small share of the African airspace, what needs to be done to fix this?
Esayas Woldemariam – As I mentioned before, full liberalization of African skies for African Airlines through implementation of the Yamoussoukro Declaration (YD) is the solution.
What are world governments doing to protect their Airspace and what can the African Aviation takeaway?
Esayas Woldemariam – The European Union has been able to achieve its Union through a unified regional aviation policy that fully liberalized traffic rights within the European Union community. The EU Single Sky allows airlines in the Union to operate flights from any European airport, regardless of their nationality without restrictions on the number of flights, aircraft or routes and set prices in line with the market. The EU transformed from 27 national air transport markets to one single European aviation market putting in place common EU rules in all areas of aviation.
Since 1992 the United States has also adopted “open skies” bilateral with other countries; allowing the carriers of the two nations to operate any route between the two countries without restriction on capacity, frequency or price and to have the right to operate fifth and sixth freedom services. As per IATA statistics as of May 2014, the U.S. has signed 113 open skies agreements.
The world’s fastest growing aviation market, Asia – Pacific is also moving to a ‘Seamless Asian Sky’ framework which has become a priority of the region for a number of reasons; such as environmental, financial, and technical factors.
The Middle East is also moving forward with regional liberalization. However, due to the delay in the implementation of YD, economies and peoples of respective African countries have lost the opportunity to grow, connect with each other and benefit from the aviation industry.
African Airlines Association (AFRAA) has also stated that 23 African countries have signed open skies agreements with the U.S., while not a single African country has fully liberalized its skies in compliance with the YD. Ethiopia has signed bilateral air services agreement with over 110 countries and the agreement signed with the U.S. is with open skies framework. AFRAA is closely following up global developments in Aviation deregulation and re-regulations and is coming up with different initiatives to suit the time.
How does Ethiopian plan to compete with new airlines penetrating the Eastern Africa region, the likes of Emirates, Etihad, Qatar?
Esayas Woldemariam – First of all, we know the African market more than anybody else. We’ve been serving Africa both in good and bad times, and still flying more destinations than others. Secondly, Ethiopian always strives to offer its customers the best possible on board experience, with an African flavored Ethiopian hospitality that is peculiar to it. Third, Ethiopian focuses on establishing a “global standard of product for the best value” in its premium class (Cloud Nine) and economy products that will attract the “price rational” African traveler. Ethiopian is also heavily investing in state of the art aircraft such as B787, B777 and A350, which come with superior products. We also continue to expand our global reach through the Star Alliance network and also by opening new destinations to major travel centers all over the world. Price leadership, strong regional connections, an innate understanding of the African market are our other key weapons. Furthermore, Ethiopian has positioned vast Intra-Africa network matched by no other Airline, availing its customers the best connection with minimum layover in Addis.
Please speak on the role of the decorated Ethiopian Aviation Academy to your company’s competitiveness.
Esayas Woldemariam – Since its inception in 1956, the Ethiopian Academy has proved itself to be a center of excellence, developing skilled workforce for operational divisions not only for Ethiopian Airlines, but also for the wider African aviation industry. Driven by the Airline’s commitment for self-sufficiency, and meeting the growing demands for its training from customers around the world, the Academy has continuously expanded in both capacity and staffing over the years.
Would Ethiopian be interested in seeking equity partnership with other regional African airlines?
Esayas Woldemariam – Yes, Ethiopian has established its second hub in Lomé (Togo) in partnership with ASKY Airlines and its third at Lilongwe, Malawi with Malawian Airlines. Thus, Ethiopian aims to have multiple hubs in Africa connected with our main hub, Addis Ababa, as well as hub-to-hub connections. We believe in the virtue of African Airlines looking inwards and maximizing the level of cooperation, we are continuously pushing for close commercial partnerships among Africa airlines.
How do you plan to address some of the challenges in the logistics hub development that you mentioned such as intra-trade, unfair treatment for African indigenous carriers etc.?
Esayas Woldemariam – Working closely with fellow African countries in development of logistics hubs expounding the importance of expanding logistics capacity, including the cargo transit and transshipment capacity. Currently, encouraging moves are going on between African countries in integrating regional resources thereby enhancing infrastructure development for growing trade and investment relations.
Ethiopian already has the largest Cargo network in Africa, what’s next for Ethiopian Cargo?
Esayas Woldemariam– Ethiopian Cargo currently uplifts 200,000 tons of cargo annually and flies to 24 freighter destinations in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe using 8 dedicated freighters, including B777-200 LRF, the MD-11F aircraft and B757F. We aim to be the most competitive and leading African cargo airlines by (providing safe, market driven and customer focused cargo, courier and mail transport services) 2025. Ethiopian Cargo continues to make massive investment in construction of the two cargo terminals the first of its kind in Africa; these shows its unwavering commitment to support the Ethiopian fast growing agricultural products export industry and high value imports to the continent. These two are critically important for economic development of many African countries.
Finally, kindly expound on the idea of Ethiopia as Africa’s gateway
Ethiopian has been connecting Africa together and beyond for the past close to 7 decades.
- As an indigenous Pan-African airline we’ve been serving Africa both in good and bad times. Our contribution towards the realization of the African Union is also worth mentioning.
- We fly to 49 cities in Africa, Cape Town and Gaborone will be joining our ever-expanding network quite soon.
- Addis Ababa, has a strategic location to seize growing market opportunities on fastest growing trade lane both North-South and East-West. If you draw a line through China, Africa, India and Brazil we are located right in the middle and we take advantage of this growth because these emerging economies are growing very fast. Africa as a whole can also benefit from this.
- Ethiopia today enjoys greater air connectivity with Africa and the rest of the world than at any time in its history. In particular, the country has air connectivity to all the major investment, trade and tourism originating countries that are critical for its economic development.
- Through our strategically located hub in Addis Ababa, our passengers can connect to 49 cities in Africa with minimum layover in Addis. Hence it is plausible to call Ethiopian, Africa’s Gate Way.
Initial interview was published in TAP MAG ISSUE 4
Interview by Moses Mutabaruka