Africa: Customer Service, Cost Containment and Continental Duty Drive Ethiopian Airlines – CEO Tewolde

Ethiopian CEO Tewolde Gebremariam receiving the ‘African Airline of the Year’ award from IATA CEO Tony Tyler.

Ethiopian Airlines began operations in 1946 as a joint operation managed by the American carrier TWA, using World War II aircraft acquired from the U.S. military to transport passengers and cargo to Cairo and other nearby destinations. During the 1960s and 1970s, the government-owned airline expanded service across Africa and to several European and Asian capitals. Regular service to the United States began in 1998. In 2011, the airline became the third African carrier to join the Star Alliance.

Africa is a major part of the airline’s aggressive growth plan for the next decade. Accepting the African Airline of the Year Award last month, Chief Executive Tewolde Gebremariam deplored the fact that non-African carriers account for 80 percent of the continent’s passenger traffic and called for deregulation of the continent’s skies. A career airline executive who has been CEO since the beginning of 2011,Tewolde outlined his roadmap for rapid expansion in an interview with AllAfrica’s Reed Kramer. Excerpts:

What distinguishes Ethiopia Airlines from your competition?

We fly to 76 international destinations on five continents. The only populated continent where we don’t is Australia [and] in the near future we will reach there also and be a completely global African airline.

With the addition of Niamey, Niger [this week] we now reach 47 destinations in Africa and 17 destinations here in Ethiopia. We have 61 airplanes in service – nine Boeing 777s, five new 787s, twelve 767s, four 757s, fourteen 737s and thirteen Bombardier Q 400s. We have on order eight more 787s, four 777 freighters, three 777-300 ERs and 14 Airbus A350s.

This puts us in a position to say we are the fastest-growing carrier in Africa and one of the most profitable. We are also the largest cargo carrier in Africa with six Boeing freighter airplanes, two 757s each with 35-ton capacity, two MD 11 freighters each with 85-ton capacity and two 777 freighters with 100-ton capacity.

We cover the continent and have a European hub in Liege, Belgium, a Middle East hub in Dubai, a hub for the Indian sub-continent in Madras and a Hong Kong hub for Asia. We are also flying [freighters] to Guangzhou and recently we added Shanghai – both passenger and cargo service. In the last seven years the airline grew seven-fold – meaning 700 percent in all parameters: size, fleet, revenue, number of destinations, number of passengers carried. We plan to continue this fast growth trajectory.

Vision 2025, the airline’s 15-year blueprint for expansion, was considered by some as overly ambitious when it was unveiled in 2010. Do you still believe those projections can be met?

Many were not confident that we would meet the targets. But in each of the last three years, we have exceeded all the targets we put forth. In this the fourth year, the fleet number was projected to be 58, but we are already at 61 – three aircraft more than projected. This puts us in a confident position to claim that Vision 2025 is really achievable, though it is very challenging. The airline is going to grow in terms of revenue to U.S. $10 billion from $2.1 billion annually.

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