When the pandemic hit the globe, the transportation industry, more so the aviation or airline industry was rocked to its core. Financial constraints led to staff losing their jobs as revenues of the airlines hit a record low owing to global lockdowns. A year and a few months on, the aviation industry is bouncing back as lockdowns are being eased.
Recently, IATA’s Regional Vice President for Africa and Middle East, Kamil Alawadhi, paid a visit to Ethiopia to discuss better ways of unlocking air travel. Capital sat down with Kamil for an inside look of his visit and opinions of the aviation industry. Excerpts;
Capital: What was the purpose of your visit to Ethiopia, and how has your stay been thus far?
Kamil Alawadhi: When I started with IATA on February, I was presented with the chance to lead the Middle East and Africa region. This includes 68 countries in Africa and the Middle East including Iran. To this regard, I have to oversee the vast number off stakeholders within these countries, which are four hundred and sixty plus stakeholders.
Six weeks ago I took the conscious decision to visit Africa and atop my list was of course Ethiopia which in my view has a promising aviation industry with the potential to grow and to become Africa’s Hub or aviation center. This was evident as from when I landed I witnessed the smooth transition throughout all aspects of facilitation the airport and it took no time to get out of the airport since there was no complications.
One of the purposes of my visit is to extend my congratulations to Ethiopian Airlines for having stood strong during the pandemic where European countries, America, Asia the Middle East all suffered the shutdown and went through financial and transportation crisis. It is impressive how the airlines primarily shifted to cargo. Moreover, they did not terminate their staff unlike the world’s biggest airlines which is remarkable. This is huge of course from the standpoint of the stakeholders as well.
Converting 14 passenger’s planes to cargo plane were a quick reaction and it kept the aviation industry alive. This is brilliant in that there are millions of jobs reliant on the aviation industry, and this contributed over 219. 4.2 billion dollars to Ethiopia’s GDP.
During my stay which has been great thus far, I have met with the ministry of finance and transport with regards to the handling of the crisis and how Ethiopia Airlines has navigated this and continue to operate. Moreover, as part of my visit, I came to see the aviation industry, including the academy and also pertinent stakeholders. When I visited the academy, it felt as though I was in Europe due to the high standards which are a positive testament to the equality in Ethiopia.
They are set up such kinds of certified training center within a very short period and within the next two years it will be the most prominent training organization, Aviation training organization in Africa, in the Middle East.
They are setting up certified training centers which I believe in the next two years or so will become a prominent training organization with regards to aviation not only inn Africa but the Middle East as well.
Capital: What kind of challenges have you observed?
Kamil Alawadhi: A lot of air lines have gone out the business because of COVID-19, and a lot of have to go into debt. By taking loans, whether it’s from the government, or from Banks or selling their assets and renting it back again which in turns adds about 10 years of debt in to their books because of the pandemic.
It is essential for airlines working to work with cash because the biggest of biggest of airlines are strapped for cash right now. Unfortunately, the way the financial institute in Ethiopia is structured right now has led to funds blocked amounting to almost 60 million dollars placing Ethiopian Airlines in a very difficult position.
If we look at the geographical location of Ethiopia, it is land locked so transportation in, and out for essential goods, medical equipment can only be transported by air. And that means that Ethiopia relies on air travel cargo and aircraft. Of course we are in talks with government entities trying to unburden the weight of the situation and we are encouraging the entities responsible to act with urgency so that the aviation industry to thrive.
Capital: Ethiopian airlines is working to build a grand mega projects of airports, what kind of support is IATA providing to ET?
Kamil Alawadhi: Yes, so this was discussed at high level with a number of stakeholders, and we do intend to play an active role. It is too early to say exactly what that role is but we have excellent track record in assisting governments or even private entities, that is, when it comes to the design and implementation of airports.
Capital: What is your recommendation for African airlines striving to stay in the global competition?
Kamil Alawadhi: It is very clear at this time that an airline can’t stop operating for a day. You can calculate exactly what one day can cost and there’s no airline with that much cash that it can just keep funding itself. Airlines ought to have alternatives and I was impressed with Ethiopian airlines, because it found an alternative by converting into cargo which is a very smart move which kept itself life.
What I have spotted in African airlines is disconnect between government and the aviation industry. It’s almost like they did not recognize that they need and have an aviation industry.
The governments have to decide at some point “Do we need our own Airline private or government in our country? Are we going to give-up on aviation?”
When COVID-19 first broke, almost all African countries gave up on their aviation or received very, very little support from the government thus there was that dilemma, while Europe and US , supported the industry because they know that Airlines play a vital role in the economy. I’m still urging the African Union to support the airline industry and as well as the banks to support the airline in Africa. The support can be shown through governments waiving all the charges, from the airlines. You can also support the Airlines by fly over charges; similarly, central banks should give them government loans with low interest.
Capital: How do you describe the impact of COVID-19 on the aviation industry?
Kamil Alawadhi: Aviation existed 100 years ago before World War I, and World War II. Airlines are incredible at adapting to situation. It hurts the industry but if you don’t adapt quickly you don’t survive no matter what happens.
The Corona crisis is a man-made government, decision crisis is not an airline, but the airlines suffered nonetheless based on what governments decided to do.
What happens to your equipment, your staff, your airlines, resources, the revenue and the CEOs of today are completely in the dark. Airline often plan for 5 years or 10, but now they can’t even plan for a week due to the ups and downs of the pandemic.
It’s man-made. Yes. There’s a Corona virus but Ethiopia is a very fantastic example of how well it did with it Coronavirus. Aviation didn’t stop for two and half seconds and was managed well. It’s had a very intelligent government and a very smart Airline and they worked together but other countries did not have this fortune.
Capital: Can you compare the airlines in the Middle East and the Africa region?
Kamil Alawadhi: Several, several Middle East airlines are relatively new, but they are doing better because they have realized the benefits of the aviation industry thus have invested heavily on the industry by pouring in billions of dollars.
However, the African continent is far slower. You can attribute this because they are already in debt and may not find the financial resources to inject it to the industry. But there are some countries in Africa that are trying to invest in the industry and are successfully doing so.
So in order for you to have a successful aviation industry country, which will positively contribute to the GDP and garner higher jobs, you actually have to focus on a bigger picture of the infrastructure.
Capital: There were some accusations on Ethiopian airlines, in recent times what is IATAs outlook on this?
Kamil Alawadhi: I have heard it through media, is it factual I don’t know. Is it IATA ‘s job to look at this? Not at all.
When a state or UN member country’s Brands Airline operating outside the law, we look at it. But just, because media said we don’t react to the social media to this level. This is because it can cause very foolish response, and accusation sometimes could be politically motivated. It could be true. It could be purely, you know, garbage being produced for a specific intentions. Some say, they are carrying weapons that came from the East bloc whilst others say poached animals and the stories don’t even add up or align. So we prefer to reserve our comments on such.