The Group Chief Executive Officer of Ethiopian Airlines, Mesfin Tasew, says African airlines and governments must work together to grow aviation and the continent’s economy. He also stresses the importance of the Single Africa Air Transport Market initiative in an interview with OYETUNJI ABIOYE
What is your projection for passenger growth in the African continent?
It depends on the decision and 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 and policies have not allowed 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 them. The implementation process is extremely slow. Take SAATM, the Single African Air Transport Market for instance. 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 won’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 who are not allowing Ethiopian Airlines to fly in the first place. But some countries are demanding that you have to fly. Those countries that opened their airspace are developing their aviation industry. Those that remain closed will remain closed. If we see the greater picture of enhancing the transport industry, the best way is to open up. Let other airlines fly to that city. If there are many airlines coming there, you will have options to choose from. 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? It is 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 improvements 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 restrictions. 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.
There is a big elephant in the room, Nigerian Air. Is the project still ongoing?
On the Nigerian Air project, we will tell you the facts frankly, so that you have a full understanding, because there is a lot of rumours and news going on within Nigeria. Ethiopian Airlines didn’t have any intention or plan to set up an airline in Nigeria. In May, 2022, when I took over my current responsibility, a request came from the Nigerian government asking ET to participate in a bid and help the Nigerian government to set up 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, as an African airline, has to help the Nigerian government to set up a national carrier. So, we had to respect this. We serve the Nigerian public and the government by flying to four cities in Nigeria, so we couldn’t say no. So, we had to submit proposal; we had to respect the Nigerian government. 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 later received a letter from the Ministry of Aviation saying that Ethiopian Airlines had been selected to be a partner in setting up the airline. We said okay. Then, the Nigerian government wanted only five per cent shares to ensure that it has a presence in the airline and to facilitate the establishment of the airline. We had a lot of discussions and we agreed even though we had some differences at some points. While we were preparing the shareholder agreement, we heard that some companies in Nigeria, including airlines were objecting to the establishment of the airline; they were defaming the name of the government and Ethiopian Airlines. At that time, we thought that if the Nigerian government and the public didn’t want it, we could as well withdraw. But the Nigerian government insisted it was a strategic project for Nigeria and that we had to continue. When these groups 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. We had to defend ourselves. So, until now, it is not yet decided. As far as we know, it is still in the court. But the Nigerian government insisted that we had to continue the background work until the court case gets a decision.
Nigeria Air was established before us. It was already established by the Nigerian government before we were invited. It had its own leadership. It was doing a lot of things; it had started the process of getting the Air Operators’ Certificate, making all necessary preparations. So, when we came in, it was a matter of restructuring the ownership of the Nigeria Air. For your information, the logo was already designed by the government; it was not done by Ethiopian Airlines. And we thought that if Nigeria Air was established, the benefit would be for the Nigerian public and the government. When we asked the Nigerian government why it wanted to set up a new airline, it said the country does not have dependable airlines. So, they wanted an airline that could provide dependable service- an airline that will depart and arrive on time, that doesn’t cancels flights on the domestic market as well as on the international market. The Nigerian government believes the fares of the other airlines were so high that the Nigerian public was at a disadvantage. So, the intention of the Nigerian government was to set up a very strong, reliable and dependable national carrier that will service both the domestic and international market. And we believe in it. That is why we wanted to move forward with it.
There have been concerns in Nigeria on why an aircraft painted in Nigeria Air colour was flown into Nigeria and flown back after a few days by Ethiopian Airlines. Why did you fly the plane out of Nigeria again?
At one point, the 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, painted it with Nigerian logo, and flew it for demonstration by the Nigerian Civil aviation Authority. It was for their inspection. So, after two days, we brought back the aircraft, repainted it with Ethiopian Airline logo and it is now flying.
Have you related with the new government on the Nigerian Air project?
The new minister and high government officials told us there were concerns from the Nigerian people and, as such, they want to review the project. So, temporarily, they said 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 were. They told us that they were 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 have no problem. If the government wants 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 issues. We will not be disappointed if it is cancelled. We are just there to help. And if the parties seeking to help change their mind, change is a 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. 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 presented to the minister was to enact a policy that would stop multiple designations to foreign airlines. If this happens, won’t ET’s operations in Nigeria be badly affected?
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. Firstly, you have to go to Abuja and then from Abuja to Dubai. This means that the cost to the Nigerian public will increase; the time it takes will also 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 civilised countries, airlines fly to multiple destinations. Take the United States, for example, with 50 states. Today, we fly to five cities there. The US government didn’t say we should fly to only Washington DC so that the domestic airlines can bring the passengers. That is not good for the public in terms of cost, time and convenience. So, I don’t think it is a wise idea, but we will leave the decision to the Nigerian government.
Any plan to invest in airport development in Nigeria?
We have to study it. We never thought about it because we were not invited (to submit bid for the airport concession). And we didn’t do any study. 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 was this discussion, but it stopped when the COVID came. The issue is let the request come from the Nigerian government and then we shall see.