RwandAir: Pandemic offers new chance to gain market share

How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your expansion plans and medium to long-term strategy?

We had a lot of momentum leading up to the pandemic. We were expanding and had 29 running routes and more planned, both inside and outside of Africa, but when Rwanda went into lockdown we had to put most of those plans on hold.

Rwanda closed its airspace to commercial flights between March and August 2020, so we had to ground our fleet and reassess our business model. The government of Rwanda has taken the pandemic very seriously but has been very supportive of affected businesses, including aviation. Our employees were considered frontline workers, so we were able to get everyone vaccinated quickly.

We have been able to operate purely cargo flights to support the export sector and import medical supplies such as PPE. We have converted our cabins to enable us to ship high value export commodities such as avocados, chillies, green beans and flowers to lucrative markets in Europe and the Gulf.

We have also operated several repatriation flights, mainly to and from Europe, North America and China, not only for Rwandans but also for citizens of other Central African countries.

A RwandAir Airbus A330-243 on approach for landing. (Image: Pedro Aragão / www.jetphotos.net)

When we resumed commercial flights in August 2020, we had scaled back our network to remove less profitable routes, including to Senegal, Juba and Tel Aviv, which have still not resumed.

Unfortunately, we also had to lay off some employees, although we have now started to hire them back. We had to limit inflight service to focus more on safety procedures, which was obviously our priority.

We were on the mend when the Omicron variant was recognized in December 2021, which is the peak travel season. This set us back again as we had to close all our South African routes as well as large long haul flights to London and Dubai for example.

Now that the Omicron outbreak is being managed, things are picking up again and we are seeing increasing passenger numbers. We hope for consistent improvements by the summer season of 2022.

Covid has created challenges but also opportunities with the privatization of SAA and the restructuring of its network by Kenya Airways. How does RwandAir plan to fill new market gaps?

We have had to withdraw from some of our own routes that other airlines are now eyeing as we try to switch to new routes that have become available and fit our location and model.

Africa was already underserved and less connected than it should be, so there are currently many opportunities for airlines to gain market share. Also during the pandemic we have opened some new routes.

These included Bangui (CAR) and Goma and Lubumbashi (DRC), which have performed very well since opening in 2021. So we’re still working towards our goal of connecting Africans to each other and to the world.

In 2020, it was announced that Qatar Airways would acquire a 49% stake in RwandAir. What is the status of the negotiations and how will they help RwandAir establish itself as a global airline?

Commercial initiatives such as codeshares between RwandAir and Qatar Airways were agreed in September 2021 and have been operational since December 2021. These have connected Kigali’s air hub to Doha’s, allowing us to significantly expand our network.

We can now reach most of Eurasia while Qatar can reach most of Africa. Travelers can earn and exchange airline miles between loyalty programs while we have access to Qatar Airways’ pilot and cabin crew training facilities.

Qatar Airways has also acquired a 60 percent stake in Bugesera International Airport in Rwanda. How does this arrangement benefit both Qatar and Rwanda?

The joint venture is still being worked out, but is likely to be several months away from completion. This will give Rwanda a large, modern airport that is central to our plans to make Rwanda a transport hub and Qatar’s plans to serve the African continent. This allows RwandAir to expand and the economy to benefit from domino effects such as tourism and job creation.

It’s a huge project some 25 km outside of Kigali that is set to develop into an “airport city” of apartments, hotels and entertainment centers that will offer a world of opportunities for local businesses. The first phase is scheduled to be completed in 2024-25, giving the airport a capacity of 7 million passengers.

The second phase will build on this, but details have yet to be finalized. The whole project is a good example of the government’s preferred model of public-private partnership (PPP) and there will be opportunities for further PPPs in everything from construction to service delivery as the project progresses.

How does RwandAir use innovation to attract customers and establish itself on the international market?

We’re always looking for ways to make travel easier, add value and differentiate ourselves from the competition. We have invested in the digitization and automation of many things, such as B. online sales and online check-ins, which has actually helped through the pandemic and the emphasis that has been placed on getting things done remotely.

Qatar Airways has always been at the forefront of innovation, and Rwanda is a very IT-oriented country, so the agreement between the two allows us to perfectly complement each other’s spirit of innovation.

How important is the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) to RwandAir and what is your role in promoting African trade?

The finalization of The AfCFTA will be a game changer as it will force changes across the continent’s economy, including aviation. It becomes impractical to operate a free trade zone without comprehensive open skies agreements, comprehensive visa policies, and other regulations that make it easier for people to use our services.

Currently, many obstacles remain across Africa, including complicated visa procedures, inconsistent infrastructure, lack of ground-handling facilities, prohibitively high airport fees, and unmaintained or unlit runways, all of which must be addressed before Africa can develop a sustainable and affordable aviation industry .

To reap the full benefits of the AfCFTA, governments need to take a holistic view of the continent and address some of these bottlenecks so that aviation is not a limiting factor.

As Rwanda becomes a regional center for sports, tourism and the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) segment while promoting travel-friendly policies at home and abroad, AfCFTA offers Rwandans, RwandAir and our partnership with Qatar an opportunity to do so play a crucial role in Africa’s future.

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