The Ethiopian aviation handlers are in love with Cloud Nine expression. It’s the right phrase to describe Ethiopian Airlines’ Business Class lounge. But it did not take long, during my trip to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, last week to see why that expression also aptly captures the remarkable feats being recorded in the aviation sector of this home country of the African Union.
Good, direct flights and comfortable airports are a factor when choosing holiday or business meeting destinations. Ethiopia ranks as one such jewel that should be captured within the African destinations radar. The sense of history it oozes, especially in its flowery capital city, reminds of how much of the continent Africans still need to discover. Gone are the scary images of under-fed kids on dusty streets of Ethiopia that once typified the underdevelopment of the continent.
Addis Ababa of today is a cosmopolitan haven comparable to the most charming cities in the continent. The huge construction projects all over the city affirm its giant strides in infrastructural development. The road networks leading to and around the airports, even when a good number of their taxis are of the old stock, at least show how image is important to that country. Its reputation as the Number One coffee destination in Africa would draw visitors into its cozy hospitality ambience; and here there is more to discover than the Emperor Haile Selassie memorabilia. This is the land of Queen of Sheba, and she seems to have bequeathed to this land the type of legacy that got the Biblical King Solomon starry-eyed.
But by far the most impressive of the Ethiopian legacies is its thriving aviation business, particularly its national carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, which is not only one of the pioneers in Africa, since it began in December 1945, but is also the continent’s largest and most profitable airline. For its efficiency and operational success, EA provides a basis not just to deconstruct the dangerous and unprofitable narrative that has bogged down the Nigerian airline business, but to also encourage the incoming administration of General Muhammadu Buhari about why a functional aviation sector should rank high in the list of areas where change is expected.
When visitors are encouraged to indulge in what is called the Ethiopian Holidays, with sightseeing, sumptuous cuisine and exotic adventures in this leisure travel offing, it is because there is a functional national carrier that is worth its name. To think of Ethiopian Airlines is to recall the ultimate luxury flight experience called the Dreamliner. Since March this year, EA is the first in Africa to own and operate the B-787 Dreamliner full flight simulator, said to be the game-changer and most fuel efficient in the airline business.
There must be something about the EA model that has made it the biggest domestic operator in Africa and one of the few profitable ones. Tenacity and accountability, according to Tewolde GebreMariam, the helmsman at the airlines, rank high as the main pillars upon which the airline’s operations rest. For more than seven decades, it has kept at it. Now it operates 82 passenger destinations out of which 19 are domestic routes. The freighter ones are 23. EA began flying to Nigeria in 1962, four years after Nigerian Airways became operational. However, while Nigeria’s national carrier has since gone defunct, Ethiopian Airlines is still waxing strong, serving four destinations in Nigeria: Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Enugu.
In 2014, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) ranked Ethiopian Airlines as the largest in Africa, in revenue and profit. Arik Air, the only Nigerian carrier that made it to the eighth position on the list of largest airlines in Africa, is perhaps the most indebted on a list that includes Egypt Air, South African Airlines, Royal Air Maroc, Air Algeria, TunisAir and Kenyan Airways. At a time that Arik Air has just suspended its foray into Dubai and the Federal Government is downgrading the Asaba airport as being unworthy of passenger transportation services, due to safety concerns, the Ethiopian Aviation Group is diversifying into seven other profit centres through its Vision 2025 Project, with $10bn in revenue.
To make sense of the business of flying, EA may not necessarily be teaching a new module, but it is showing good business sense by separating international from domestic flights and cargo services and then giving target for its MRO and Catering services; Aviation Academy as well as Ground Services. In other words, the business and profit are not just in flying passengers by reducing aviation services to mere transportation. The business is multi-faceted. It may be a long haul to the top, but still very profitable.
This is why Buhari’s wind of change must touch the aviation sector in the shortest possible time. His four key areas of Security provision, Oil and Gas and Power sector reforms; Corruption eradication and Job Creation/Infrastructural development are indeed germane at a time of rebirth like this. However, a functional aviation sector, for the good image it confers and the ease of moving goods and passengers, cannot be ignored.
The Buhari touch should be felt in good time, so as to bequeath a true national carrier that will be devoid of the sort of short-lived drama that characterised Virgin Nigeria and Air Nigeria and provides airports that are of global standards.
Part of the reality that will, of course, confront Buhari is the preferred expertise that private investors bring on board. For example, he may hurt because of the gross underperformance of public airports in Nigeria according to a survey by the Ministry of Aviation last December. But he will also be consoled by the fact that the second terminal of the Murtala Muhammed Airport (MMA2), Lagos, operated by Bi-Courtney Aviation Services Ltd is adjudged as not just the cleanest public facility in Lagos State but is also the only Nigerian airport in Nigeria that has met global operational standards.
Incidentally, the MMA2 will today inaugurate its Common User Passenger Processing System (CUPPS) at a ceremony in which the Aviation Minister, Osita Chidoka, is Special Guest. CUPPS today will further elevate MMA2 as the only Nigerian airport with such full automated services, thereby highlighting the edge that private sector investors bring to sensitive sectors of the economy.
It is landmark achievements like Bi-Courtney’s that assure that ‘Cloud Nine’ effect is possible in Nigeria’s aviation sector without the money-guzzling, low quality fairy tales such as Stella Oduah’s Aeropolis Project.