The Country Manager, RwandAir, Muhamud Karamage, speaks to GODFREY GEORGE about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the aviation industry and his company’s coping strategy

HOW would you say the aviation industry has fared in the last one year, especially with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic?

When the COVID-19 crisis hit globally, it affected all sectors of the economies of the world, including air transport and therefore, the whole aviation industry was affected. Obviously, this resulted in a change in the behaviour of passengers. Following the crisis, travel restrictions and the ensuing economic crisis have resulted in a dramatic drop in demand for airline services. RwandAir is no exception. We have had to adopt frugal ways of doing things.

I believe the aviation sector had no control over the limitations and restrictions that affected the travel industry as a whole, as all the airlines had to observe the protocols and SOPs as mandated by the World Health Organisation and the Centres for Disease Control of the various countries where the airline flies.

There have been cases of shortage of staff as a lot of staff reportedly lost their jobs at the peak of the pandemic. What has the situation been at RwandAir?

Like most organisations, RwandAir has been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The airline, therefore, had to implement several temporary measures to allow us continue to function.

The International Air Transport Association has also said the pandemic would cumulatively cost African carriers a $1.9bn loss in 2021 and $1.5bn in 2022. What can you make out of this?

The magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis for airlines is really huge. To survive, airlines have dramatically cut costs and adapted their business to opportunities available. As more countries open up and restrictions are streamlined, the trend is looking upward and we may well be past the lowest point of the crisis. While serious challenges remain, the path to recovery is coming into view and we see a light at the end of the tunnel.

In July, you announced the commencement of your flights at a time when other airlines were contemplating stoppage of activities. What informed that decision?

Operations had to be scaled and resumed gradually based on the destinations that were opened in compliance with the WHO recommended protocols.

In addition, processes to meet the COVID-19 International Standard Protocols for passengers were quickly put in place at the hub in Kigali. These included a five-step process: Before You Fly; Arrival at the Airport; Inside the Terminal – Health screening, self-check-in kiosks, etc; Onboard our Aircraft; Arrival at Passenger Destination Airport.

As Country Manager of RwandAir, your airline operates 12 aircraft with an average age of just under six years. How have you been able to do this despite the struggling economy?

Purchase of aircraft was a long-term strategy that was adopted more than a decade ago. This strategy also saves money in many ways; older aircraft are less energy efficient, the newer models are more energy efficient. As you know, one the biggest cost centres of operating an airline is fuel. Therefore, the newer aircraft have a number of new innovations that provide improved fuel burn and other enhancements. Thus, saving a huge chunk of the airline’s operational cost.

The Nigerian Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, recently cautioned aviation unions against issuing threats of strikes over conditions of service. Do you think it is well in his rights to give this order?

I believe it was not an order but a wise cautionary advice. He said, “We are in a period of recovery, so this is not the time for threats and spate of industrial actions which will only further inhibit the growth the industry so badly needs.”

He also said that the serious challenge posed by COVID-19 demanded that all stakeholders must work together to fashion out a viable pathway to a strong and healthy aviation industry that will offer everybody, including the workers, the desired dividends. I am sure that we all agree with him especially at this time of rebuilding the industry.

There have been some cases of air crashes in recent years caused by technical faults. How best do you think an airline can avoid this?

By being a member of the International Air Transport Association, an airline must fulfil the IATA Operational Safety Audit, which is the highest international safety standard for airlines. This means that the airline has to be very stringent in making sure the IOSA periodic audits are always up-to-date to maintain the certification. It includes having qualified and licensed technical personnel, continuous improvement programmes and training, maintenance programmes for all aircraft – MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul) that encompasses all maintenance activities done to ensure the safety and airworthiness of all the aircraft.

Some states in Nigeria are building airports. Some have said it is a waste of resources to build airports in all states when there are other more pressing needs. Do you share this view?

Nigeria is a very large country in terms of size and in order for the country to have a vibrant economy I believe it is important to have infrastructure that enables fast movement of people and goods to facilitate trade and the supply chains as well as enable tourism, etc. Flying between the different states therefore is a necessary mode of transport to meet and achieve the economic needs.

Some of the airports in Nigeria when compared to their African counterparts are not the same in terms of class and conformation with international standards. What do you think the country can do differently?

I am aware that the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, has confirmed the roadmap for upgrading of the airports in the country to make them viable in order to generate revenue to the government coffers through the optimal usage of all of the facilities and in particular, the four major airports in Nigeria located in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano, which were not designed as international hubs but operate separate international and domestic terminals. This will enable increased traffic flows in the different regions of the country and enable operators into these areas directly. This will have an additional positive impact on the national GDP.

How well can the aviation industry grow beyond what it is now despite the struggling economy?

The status of the economy will obviously impact the aviation industry. The projected forex scarcity and high logistics costs will result in slow transportation sector growth including aviation in line with the increased operating expenses.

What are some of the major challenges RwandAir has faced as an aviation sector player?

The major challenge for the aviation industry is mostly the rising cost of fuel which constitutes a large chunk of the operating costs. Cost of fuel for airlines account for between 10 per cent and 12 per cent of operating expenses. Fuel costs can swing wildly based on the price of oil. Many companies have programmes to hedge fuel costs which means they lock in prices at a negotiated rate so that they can be able to control their fuel budgets.

The cost of fuel is determined by market forces most of the time. However, there have been other challenges that were dictated by the circumstances of the pandemic and the resulting protocols mandated by WHO and the NCDC. One of these has been the capping of passengers per flight into Nigeria. The government, through the Minister of Aviation, has been very supportive of the resumption of the airline operations and made sure there is continuous monitoring and evaluation of the response to the measures put in place for the safety of passengers in and out of the country. I am happy to inform you that this restriction has been lifted through a letter by the Director of Operations, Nigerian Airspace Management Agency.

Sustainable aviation fuel is the future of aircraft fuelling. What is your company doing in this regard?

Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) represent an essential near-term ‘bridge’ to technologies like hybrid-electric and all-electric aircraft. They offer significant life-cycle carbon reduction gains (at least 70 per cent) and are cleaner burning, with up to 90 per cent reduction in particulates.

RwandAir has a continuous improvement programme that champions the advancement and incorporation of new and efficient technologies in the day-to-day operations of the airline. I believe the SAF project will form part of this programme in the very near future.

How best do you think the country can generate enough GDP from the aviation industry?

Air transport is an important enabler to achieving economic growth and development for any nation. Air transport facilitates integration into the global economy and provides very important connectivity on a national, regional, and international scale. It helps generate trade, promote tourism, and create employment opportunities (direct, indirect and induced) and contributes an average of 2.5 per cent of the national GDP which is supported by inputs to the air transport sector and foreign tourist and businessmen/investors arrivals by air. A national airline will, in most cases, increase the flow of tourists into the country, thereby increasing the contribution to the national GDP.

The International Air Transport Association recently bemoaned the slow pace of vaccination and travel restrictions in Nigeria and other African countries, describing it as a setback for expected recovery. What does this portend for the aviation industry?

Albeit the current situation, the trend outlook for demand for passenger travel is optimistic. As the post-pandemic travel restrictions are lifted and/or relaxed by destination/country we see the traffic flows improving by the day.

Varying travel protocols that were put in place by some countries have thrown international travellers into confusion. What are the appropriate COVID-19 protocols as regards the aviation industry?

The aviation industry follows the COVID-19 protocols and guidelines that are mandated by the World Health Organisation and the national CDCs.

A new survey has revealed that 59 per cent of women working in leadership positions in the aviation sector have considered leaving the industry. Why do you think this is so?

This may be a generalisation as at RwandAir this is different where we have a highly competent female CEO and as a matter of fact women make up 62 per cent of Rwanda’s national legislature, far more, proportionally, than any other country. Our partners in Nigeria, Sky Alliance and Integrated Logistics Limited employ 60 per cent female staff.

Some security experts have said the government should be committed to enhancing aviation security as this is essential to national security. Do you think more should be done in this regard?

This is a very technical area that I believe and agree with the experts that there is a need for continuous assessment of risk and threats areas. It is however necessary to recognise and commend the Nigerian government for doing everything necessary to maintain high standards of security for the aviation industry operations.

Copyright PUNCH.

All rights reserved. This material, and other digital content on this website, may not be reproduced, published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or in part without prior express written permission from PUNCH.

Contact: [email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *