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The making of a national carrier in lean times

By Wole Oyebade   |   14 October 2016   |   2:55 am
Crew, dignitaries, and officials at the welcome of RwandAir’s Airbus in Lagos

Crew, dignitaries, and officials at the welcome of RwandAir’s Airbus in Lagos

With barely 14 years of flight history and a total of nine airplanes in its fleet, RwandAir is today a good example of how to nurture an airline to project national image abroad. WOLE OYEBADE writes.

Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, last Sunday witnessed an unusual gathering on the airside that is never open to the public except on rare occasions. And it was on that day. Officials and dignitaries funneled through security profile beginning from 4p.m. to converge at one of the ports of entry. Colourful balloons and buffet set on the corridor tells of an imminent celebration.

More dignitaries arrived and among them were Rwandan ambassador to Nigeria, Stanislas Kamanzi and representatives of Minister of State for Aviation and Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), led by Capt. Abdulahi Sidi.

At 5:45p.m. the waiting crowd erupted in loud cheers at the announcement of RwandAir Airbus A330-200 arrival from Kigali.

Indeed, it was the arrival of a brand new Airbus such as has not been seen lately around the airport – the busiest in the country. Like an apple among oranges, the $250million white and blue coloured aircraft came at a time foreign and domestic airlines are loading passengers up on fairly used and almost rickety planes.

To the cheering officials at RwandAir, it was a great boost in their quest to be “the new golden boy of aviation in Africa” by capturing even the West African region at the most difficult economic times.
Against the odds

It would be recalled that the aviation sector in Nigeria has been in financial turbulence since 2015. Some foreign airlines, unable to repatriate accumulated funds stuck in the system due to dollar scarcity, withdrew services.

Others airlines in keeping faith with the system either slash number of frequencies or switch to smaller planes that the shrinking market can fit.

African big names in aviation are not without their challenges too with some indeed running at a loss. For instance, Pilots at Kenyan Airways are set to shut down operations next week to demand changes at the national carrier.

Their domestic counterparts in Nigeria are turning out for the worse, lately reducing services by almost 50 per cent, amidst high indebtedness and signs of financial distress.

So, welcoming a brand new plane in a turbulent year is, therefore, like the welcome of a new born, says RwandAir Country Manager, Ibiyemi Odusi.

Even as the traditional water salute did not greet the Airbus arrival (as airport officials at the last minute blamed “no water”), the grand entry was quite pleasing. About 100 passengers filed out of the aircraft smelling of roses and all smiles.
Government gives priority

Rwanda, which has 99 per cent ownership shares in the airline, has not had it rosy. Yet, they are decisive. Emerging from the 1994 genocide, Rwandan government hands off on the national carrier, Air Rwanda. In partnership with private investors, RwandAir Express was floated in 2002 and latter rebranded as RwandAir in 2009.

Rwandan High Commissioner to Nigeria, Amb. Stanislas Kamanzi, said the airline is a demonstration of what government’s support could do to the growth of an airline, especially a national carrier.

Kamanzi noted that tourism and the airline are the mainstay of Rwandan economy, hence, became the duty of all to see them succeed.

He said: “It is all about setting priorities. This is a priority for Rwanda. Rwanda needs an airline as many African countries do. Air travel in Africa remains small. We realise that Africa cannot talk about growth without mobility of economic operators. So, we made it a priority and made investment that is commensurate to that.”

In addition, accessibility to Rwanda is important, being a country that has tourism at the centre of its economy. “And you cannot start tourism or promote tourism if there is no bridge to connect people’s origin with destinations in Rwanda,” he said.
Smart moves

What ambassador didn’t mention are rather smart moves currently taken by the Kigali-based airline to amass capacity, ready-made market in the West African region and gradually becoming the aviation hub for the East African region.

In the last one month, RwandAir has picked at least eight well-experienced captains and first officers off Nigeria’s struggling domestic airlines. Some of them are pilots that have been flying since the days of Nigerian Airways and the airline would worry-less on humongous fees and long duration required for type-rated training programmes.

Facts have it the Rwanda, of less than 17million population, has just signed concession pact to build the second airport at Bugesera worth $841million, completing the first phase within 18 months. The concession is for 20 years. These are all in preparation to start flying as the major hub in the East African region with most of the market from West Africa, led by Nigeria.

In appreciation, Kamanzi said: “We have to thank Nigeria for accommodating RwandAir, and for allowing our airline develop Lagos as a hub over West Africa. From Lagos, we have expanded our operations into Ghana, Conakry and Abidjan.

“There is necessity for Africa to be inter-connected by air. A situation in which African countries still have problems of intra-country flight connectivity is unacceptable. Such difficulties in intra-African connectivity remain a huge challenge, wasting valuable time, resources that could be used to develop Africa. With this aircraft, people and business could move across borders.”

Country Manager, OdusI added that the arrival of the Airbus 330-200 is one of the steps taken to consolidate on their successes on Nigerian route.

Odusi recently disclosed that from Nigeria came the biggest market of the Airline in 2015 and yet unrelenting to attract even more with attractive packages that would make the carrier the preferred choice on international route.

She said the configuration of the Airbus with Flat Bed on the Business Class, luxurious space at the Premium Economy Cabin and other seats in the Economy Cabin makes the 244 passenger seat aircraft the best on the Lagos-Kigali and Dubai route.

She added that RwandAir would next month take delivery of another new aircraft, A330-300 series to service the Mumbai, India route.

Competition notwithstanding, travelling alone could be risky in high capital aviation business. Apparently not unaware of the risk, RwandAir has code share agreements with the likes of Brussels Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines and Air Uganda. While all the flights operated by Brussels Airlines between Brussels and Kigali carry both a SN and a WB flight number, the commercial deal between Brussels Airlines and RwandAir enables the Rwandan airline to sell 10 seats in economy class as a marketing carrier.
Lessons lerant

If nothing at all, RwandAir has shown that when oportunities meet intent, the chances of success is often high. Riding on the back of properly thought out aviation sector, an economy can flourish even beyond acquiring a new plane.

The corollary, however, is that no airline or aviation sector will last without the right motive, clear business strategy and political support.

And in the contemporary business world order, where indigenous business owners fail to close ranks to emerge stronger, even their fates will be in the hands of foreigners – whatever their colour.

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