Uganda: Ethiopian Airlines Switches From Passenger to Cargo to Stay Alive

Coronavirus had a knock-on effect on travel demand. With no passengers to transport, Ethiopian Airlines country manager Aziza Mohammed says the continental airline has had to switch business from passenger to cargo to stay afloat.

The airline industry was almost grounded during Covid-19 related restrictions across the world. How is it recovering?

Airlines worldwide will have a long way to go for recovery. On the assumption that the Covid-19 vaccine distribution and massive testing would help countries to reopen their borders by mid-2021, International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects the overall revenues to grow to $459 billion in 2021.

How hard was the Ugandan ET route hit by the pandemic?

We used to operate six flights a day before Covid-19 in Uganda but we are currently operating one flight. We are hoping that business improves as restrictions are further eased in the different countries.

Ethiopian Airways had, before Covid-19, been one of the airlines on the African continent that had been doing relatively well. How deep was the Impact of Covid-19 on particularly Ethiopian Airways?

The aviation industry is one of the hardest hit industries due to the unprecedented Covid-19 crisis. Ethiopian Airlines has been one of the worst-hit airlines in Africa. We have lost what we were supposed to get due to travel restrictions and lockdown caused by the pandemic. Ethiopian has avoided seeking a bailout as well as laying off any full-time employees or requesting deferrals on debt payments. We have a diversified business model. When the passenger business was affected due to Covid-19, we started focusing on cargo. We are grateful for the agile leadership that enabled us take smart decisions immediately after the crisis. Due to this, our cargo and aircraft maintenance services, have been performing better.

Have you fully returned all fleet operations?

We have never stopped flying. We have converted 25 of our passenger aircraft and deployed the fleet to different parts of the world to transport critical medical supplies. Ethiopian has been operating all its aircraft.

What lessons have you learnt from this pandemic?

We have learnt that leadership matters a lot. Our overall management brought a brilliant and vibrant idea. As soon as the passenger traffic changed, they immediately changed to cargo. 25 of our passenger planes have been turned to cargo to support our business and we have transported Covid-19 Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) to African countries and all over the world.

As an airline manager, what is your experience operating business during such a time?

I need to be flexible. It helped me to think outside the box to be able to size up to the challenges. I have trained my people to work in cargo and I have given them training about cargo systems. So we have diversified our knowledge and we have also created good working relationships with all government offices and embassies to work on repatriation flights. It was challenging but gave me an opportunity to deal with different options.

What is your most profitable regional and continental destination?

Khartoum is the most profitable around East Africa, and Lagos at the continental level.

There seems to be a lot competition. Isn’t this putting pressure on your operations?

The industry is hyper-competitive and volatile. We always want to deliver unparalleled customer experience and quality products to stand out.

What does the entry of Uganda Airlines mean for the Ethiopian Airlines?

It is an opportunity for us. We need to cooperate and collaborate. We need to help them to grow together as an African Airline.

What made Uganda turn out as profitable?

Trade and tourism. Many business people keep on travelling and tourists who come in especially Europeans.

Ethiopian Airlines boasts of over 70 years in services. What lessons can you share with Uganda Airlines as it finds or retraces its feet in the airline business?

We had started discussions with Ugandan Airlines management before Covid-19 broke out. We wanted to share experiences so that they may learn from the Ethiopian Airlines as an African Airline. They can learn about leadership and the business model. The airline industry is very competitive. They need to know the environment. They need to have a good strategy for the airline business. We can give them training because we have training schools.

What constitutes ET’s commercial conduits?

It is a group of seven business units, namely cargo, international craft, passenger service, catering academy, maintenance, hotel business, all integrated. When we have a challenge in one of the business units, another one may be an opportunity, for example in absence of sufficient passengers, the cargo unit is transporting Personal Protective Equipment.