By Amos Fofung
When the coronavirus outbreak first hit international news outlets, no one could fathom the level of chaos it will create on a global level. Giant economies have been shattered, companies bankrupt, and thousands of lives destroyed. There was no escaping from the novel virus which seemingly throw scientists off their game and challenged world leaders, most of who strived to keep their countries afloat.
Responding to the outbreak and preventing a far devastating consequence was the only viable option. It will be fair to state that European nations and some countries in North America had an easy ride responding to the pandemic due to their economic and developmental standings. But in a continent like Africa, unique in every way, a Pan African hero was needed – especially after the first coronavirus case was reported in February.
On March 15, 2020, Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that he had secured a continent-wide coronavirus support from Chinese business magnet, Jack Ma.
The Ali Baba founder confirmed the news 24-hours later following which the materials were flown to Ethiopia on March 22. With coronavirus increasing its spread across Africa, the continent received a much-needed care package but then the issue was how to get the package across the difficult terrain in Africa to the affected population – most of them in secluded areas.
Flying the African flag even in times of crisis
Ethiopia agreed to use its national career, Ethiopian airlines, to undertake deployment to all member states across the continent.
On March 23, the airline which is Africa’s most profitable was flying across the continent delivering the supplies and before March 27, Ethiopian airlines had delivered the consignments to 41 countries. This is after the national carrier had announced major cancelation of international flights to curve the spread of the virus and keep its employees safe.
Destined to each of the 54 African countries was 20,000 test kits, 100,000 masks and 1,000 medical use protective suits and face shields all distributed by Ethiopian Airlines.
A star Alliance member, Ethiopian airlines is branded the pride of Africa and recognized and the best airline of the continent wining three times in a row the prestigious Skytrax World Airlines Award.
Suffering a loss of over $190 million, the carrier has suspended flights to 30 destinations as demand collapses and some countries impose travel bans to try and contain the deadly pandemic. Aviation is one of the hardest hit industries by the virus, facing billions of dollars of lost revenue.
Despite the difficult times marred with uncertainty, Tewolde Gebremariam, CEO of Ethiopian Airlines remains optimistic saying the African skies could experience increased activity earlier than other continents.
In an interview with Bloomberg TV he said “here in Africa we expect to be slightly faster in recovery,” this is against the backdrop that global flights are forecast to take up to two years to return to 2019 levels.
Air travel was one of the most impacted economic centers as most countries across the world closed their airspaces to passenger flights save in some instances for medical and emergency landings.
The European Union, United States and several western governments had also arranged flights to evacuate their citizens across the continent with Ethiopian at the forefront of some of these operations.
Conversely, African governments – most recently Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, and Uganda have all moved to evacuate stranded citizens from different parts of the world. Again, Ethiopian, one of few airlines that continued operations stepped in to bring them home.
About bailouts, he stressed that Ethiopian – a continental leader – was not at the stage of seeking any such interventions but that they had other operational areas they seek government support.
“African governments will not be in a position to bail out airlines as much as in Europe and America,” said Tewolde. “Airlines are not flying or generating revenue and governments do not have the resources to bail them out. It is going to be very, very tough for most African airlines.”
Lessons to other African carriers
Indeed, the biggest airlines in Africa are reeling from the devastating economic effects of coronavirus. Kenya Airways, the sixth largest airline on the continent, has occasionally asked the country’s government for an urgent bailout to avoid going into bankruptcy, and protect the jobs of 3,900 employees. In July 2019, the Kenyan parliament voted to re-nationalize the airline, 23 years after it was privatized.
Small carriers like Air Zimbabwe, a single-plane carrier that’s $300 million in debt, The Associated Press reported. But major airlines are also hurting, including Kenya Airways, Royal Air Maroc and Lome-based regional carrier ASKY Airlines, whose fleet of nine aircraft is still grounded.
In April, the International Air Transport Association warned African airlines could lose $6 billion in revenue this year, along with about 3 million aviation and related jobs continentwide. The African Airlines Association offered an even darker assessment of $8 billion in losses.
Even industry star Ethiopian Airlines is hurting, reporting revenue losses in millions of dollars.
Aviation experts say the 75-year-old Ethiopian Airlines has both the fleet and managerial capacity to help ease the burden of Africa’s struggling airlines.
In the 2017-2018 financial year, Ethiopian owned 111 planes, more than any other airline on the continent, and flew to 106 destinations around the world. It is also one of the few airlines that consistently turn up a profit in Africa.
Ethiopian has invested heavily in modernizing its fleet, which is now the youngest in Africa at 5.4 years as of March 2019. This compares well above the average of 13.5 years, 15 years, and 10.7 years for British Airways, United Airlines and American Airlines, respectively.
A long way here
Ethiopian has come a long way since commencing operations in 1945 with a weekly service between Addis Ababa and Cairo. Early on the airline recognized that a successful future depended on first developing a far-reaching pan-African route network. With this aim now largely fulfilled, the airline’s focus is shifting. New destinations and increased numbers of flights to Europe, the United States of America, Canada, Asia and the Middle East have been launched, as the airline goes about bringing the world closer to Africa.
Internationally, Ethiopian flies to a number of major cities in Europe including Frankfurt, London, Paris, Rome, Brussels and Stockholm; to Bangkok, Beijing, New Delhi, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Mumbai across Asia; to numerous destinations in the Middle East; to Washington D.C ,Newark and Toronto in North America.
From its hub at Addis Ababa, Ethiopian serves 116 international and 23 domestic destinations.