By Luke Mulunda
Ethiopian Airlines has set sights on having a dominant presence in the African aviation sector. From its hub in Addis Ababa, the airline is expanding its footprint on the continent through acquisitions and strategic partnerships with other carriers.
In December, it is expected to launch Air Congo after acquiring a 49% stake in the state-owned airline. Ethiopian Airlines will provide Air Congo at least seven aircrafts.
Ethiopian Airlines will operate both the medium and long-haul fleet in DRC, the airline’s CEO Tewolde GebreMariam said. “We just signed an agreement with the government of DRC, which owns 51% of the airline and 49% is with us,” said GebreMariam.
The Ethiopian flag carrier’s strategy seems to be working. The airline’s JV network so far includes Togolese airline ASKY in West Africa, Lilongwe-based Malawian Airlines in southern Africa and Tchadia Airlines in north-central Africa.
With the DRC deal already concluded, Ethiopian Airlines is currently working on another joint venture startup, Zambia Airways in southern Africa. It also has a management contract with Ceiba Intercontinental in Equatorial Guinea.
As African countries struggle to revive their ailing national carriers, Ethiopia Airlines has activated its predatory engines to fully take advantage of their cashflow problems by deploying its capital as well as management expertise generously.
The move has not gone unnoticed by competitors - Kenya Airways and South African Airways. The two airlines are seeking to pool their resources together to form a single pan-African airline. Ethiopia, whose proposal was rejected by SAA, ended up signing an interline agreement with Johannesburg-based Airlink in a deal that allows passengers seamless travel on a single ticket on any of the two carrier’s networks.
Kenya Airways is also exploring a strategic cooperation with Congo Airways in a similar fashion as Ethiopian Airlines, which is already in talks for a deal in Nigeria, in what is turning out to be a two-horse race scramble for Africa. Kenya Airways in April signed a collaborative Memorandum of Understanding with Congo Airways to strengthen aviation ties between Kenya and the DRC which included an aircraft lease agreement.
This central African country has lately recorded an increase in the number of carriers launching flights on the route. Kenya’s budget carrier Jambojet recently introduced flights to Goma to capitalise on high demand for air travel between Kenya and DRC. Last month, RwandAir also introduced flights to Congo.
DRC is currently served by the national carrier Congo Airways, flying eight domestic destinations, including Goma, Kinshasa and Lubumbashi. Other global airlines flying to Congo include Air France, Turkish Airlines and Brussels Airline, with the country mainly served through connecting flights by African carriers.
Asian Airlines are yet to make a strong mark in this market, but with DR Congo emerging as a new frontier market, it could be a matter of time before carriers such as Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines start knocking doors in Kinshasa. Singapore Airlines flies to few African destinations including South Africa, Kenya Egypt, Tanzania and South Africa, Mozambique and Congo-Brazzaville.