When Afriqiyah Airways Flight 209 touched down at Malta International Airport on 23rd December 2016, its arrival was anything but the illustrious new beginning management had envisioned.
For more than a year, the state-owned Libyan airline had been working on the Mediterranean island to lay the foundations for PanAfriqiyah – a new subsidiary intended to rise above Libya’s lawlessness and restore the company’s battered fortunes. Instead, Flight 209 was targeted by hijackers with fake weapons who promised to kill all aboard if the domestic service was not diverted.
In the European Union, of which Malta is a member state, the incident commanded round-the-clock media coverage and a frantic search for answers. Aircraft hijackings have become exceptionally rare since 11th September 2001, when new security measures were introduced in response to the deliberate crashing of four commercial planes on US soil by Al Qaeda.
The potential for aircraft to be turned into weapons in this way remains a source of intense anxiety across the Western world. But to a Libyan audience, Flight 209, though troubling, was far from shocking.
The country’s airlines have been in a dismal state since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, lunging from crisis to crisis amid an endless string of security breaches. The destruction of Tripoli International Airport by Islamist rebels in 2014 – an assault that wrote off 10 aircraft, including two operated by Afriqiyah – was just one of several recent incidents.
In 2013, gunmen stormed the gateway’s Air Traffic Control tower to obstruct the landing of a Qatar Airways flight. In 2014, shortly before the Islamist assault, a bomb was planted and detonated on its main runway.
Last year, Fathi Al-Shatti, the chairman of Libyan Airlines, another state-owned carrier, was held by kidnappers for 47 days. Reflecting the situation elsewhere in the country, it is local militias – not central government – that control the aviation sector.
No quick return to stability
For Abubaker Elfortia, Afriqiyah’s chairman, betting on a swift return to security and stability would be commercial suicide. He accepts that the country’s post-Arab Spring surge in air traffic – fuelled largely by optimism about oil production – is now a distant memory, replaced by stagnant demand and a total absence of international visitors.
Today, no foreign airlines fly to Libya from anywhere in the world, while the country’s own carriers have been banned from entering European airspace. Afriqiyah’s scheduled route network consists of just four domestic points and six regional ones (Alexandria in Egypt, Amman in Jordan, Istanbul in Turkey, Khartoum in Sudan, and Tunis and Sfax in Tunisia).
Before Gaddafi was booted from power, it served 18 destinations in Africa and six in Europe. “There are still difficulties. It’s no easier,” said Elfortia when asked if the formation of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in December 2015 had materially improved the operating environment.
Though heralded as a new beginning for Libya by the United Nations, the political accord has so far failed to quell fighting between the myriad factions providing security in the country.
“Why? Because the government is not completely formed – we don’t have ministers yet – and this is not helping at all,” he added. “And the other thing which is affecting Afriqiyah and the airlines is the cost of hard currency.”
Afriqiyah is powerless to spur Libya’s political leaders into action, but management can at least reduce their exposure to foreign exchange fluctuations. Last October, the company acquired 20% of the Aviation Training Centre of Tunisia (ATCT), a simulator training specialist based in the North African country.
The investment brings a sorely needed extra revenue stream to Afriqiyah, as well as cutting costs by removing the need to send pilots to Germany for training. Three aircraft have also been leased out to Lithuanian and Turkish partners, thereby bringing in more foreign cash.
Afriqiyah’s new model
The next step, Elfortia confirmed, is the launch of the brand new airline subsidiary in Malta. If all goes according to plan, PanAfriqiyah will restore the company’s former role as a hub operator connecting Africa to Europe. It is being set up as an autonomous unit with a European Air Operator Certificate (AOC), exempting it from the ban Brussels has slapped on Libyan carriers.
“Our model as Afriqiyah Airways is to bring passengers from Europe and have the hub and then distribute them to Africa. We see that our model is being disturbed due to the recent trouble, so really we are changing the hub from Tripoli to Malta,” said Elfortia. “We are focused on starting with two aircraft, and in three years we should have about six aircraft.”
Elfortia stressed that the purpose of the new subsidiary is not to get around the EU ban, but rather to allow Afriqiyah to resume intercontinental transfer flights while also providing a safe base to train staff. Nonetheless, the potential benefits of setting up a Europe-approved subsidiary just 350km north of Tripoli are clear.
At present, the majority of Libyan passengers bound for Europe self-connect via hubs in Tunisia or Turkey – switching airlines with no guarantee of making their onward flight (the codeshare agreements which should merge their journeys into through-tickets have been suspended). With its Maltese subsidiary, Afriqiyah will be able to bridge Libya and Europe via one hub, one brand and – crucially for passengers – one individual booking.
The fact that the hijackers of Flight 209 managed to smuggle fake weapons through Sebha Airport – located in the southwest of Libya – underscores the risk facing any European airline that opens routes to the country, including PanAfriqiyah. While that incident was orchestrated by apparent supporters of Gaddafi, so-called Islamic State would not hesitate to exploit such vulnerabilities for kamikaze attacks.
The presence of a weakened but still powerful Islamic State affiliate within Libya’s borders amplifies this threat. But after five years of civil war, state-owned enterprises are beginning to lose patience with their disparate political masters. An expedient partnership with European allies may be the best way forward for the creaking aviation sector. It would certainly make life easier for the country’s hardy business travellers.