The tiny republic of Djibouti hasn’t had a national air carrier since Air Djibouti went bust at the end of the 1990s. But plans are afoot to get the airline’s emblem of a red-coloured gazelle’s head back on aircraft tail fins – with a little help from Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson.
Djibouti is trying to position itself on the coast of the Horn of Africa as a regional and international trade centre, capitalising on its locus at the junction of Africa, the Middle East and the Indian Ocean. Those at Air Djibouti believe the airline has a significant role to play and that the time is ripe for a comeback.
“African aviation is still in its infancy,” says Dawit Gebre-ab, senior director of strategic planning at Air Djibouti. “It is still extremely underrepresented as a ratio of the world’s population – only 3% of airlines are African. So there is big room for growth.”
Aviation in Africa is growing faster than the global averages, and it is estimated that by 2034 there will be 270m airline passengers flying to and from the continent. Currently, the likes of Emirates, Turkish Airlines and Qatar Airways have seized much of the aviation market in Africa. But those at Air Djibouti want to get some of that market back.
“Africans are spending more as consumers, with about 2m of them travelling to Dubai each year,” says Dawit Gebre-ab. “We know what is on their shopping lists, and they could be coming here instead.”
Amongst others, Air Djibouti’s mission to get back in the air has captured the attention of Dickinson, founder of Cardiff Aviation, a UK-based company facilitating the leasing of aircraft and providing flight training and operations support.
Dickinson is most famous for being the front man of the legendary heavy metal band Iron Maiden, but in those raucous tour days he also pursued a concurrent career as a part-time commercial airline pilot. He first learned about Djibouti by piloting flights in and out of it.
His love of aviation culminated in him founding startup Cardiff Aviation less than two years ago, after which he met Gebre-ab, who came to visit Cardiff Aviation’s facilities in September 2014. Dickinson recalls one particular conversation they had: “I want to start an airline,” Gebre-ab said, to which Dickinson replied, “We can do that for you.”
On 20th April 2015, Dickinson signed a memorandum of understanding between Cardiff Aviation and Air Djibouti.
A few months later, the airline is in the process of organising a Boeing 737 to route-test carrying freight to destinations in East Africa. It plans to add another aircraft later in 2015 providing passenger services to London, Paris, Dubai and New Delhi. Two smaller aircraft are slated to fly passengers regionally to the likes of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Khartoum in Sudan and Nairobi in Kenya.
Those at Air Djibouti are confident the demand is there for their service.
“Turkish Airlines is already flying here every day from Istanbul,” Gebre-ab says of Djibouti City, the capital. “That should be our market; they are our passengers.”
Rise and fall
Air Djibouti was originally founded by Air France in 1963 and initially established a good reputation, its bright-red gazelle’s head a well-recognised emblem in the aviation world. But after becoming state-owned in the 1980s, the airline became overstaffed, mismanaged and went downhill.
Returning to the African aviation game at this stage decades later means Air Djibouti will be up against some big names, but those at the airline are not intimidated.
“We want to be as big as other African airlines such as Ethiopian and Kenya. There’s no reason why we can’t be,” says Gebre-ab, noting how Qatar Airways grew into a global player from relatively modest beginnings based on $10m of seed money.
Air Djibouti could also compete with the “financial muscle” of larger airlines, according to Gebre-ab, by providing cheaper direct flights to the likes of London and Paris. Furthermore, he says, it could slash the prices of bigger airlines’ tickets from Djibouti to other African cities, which can cost up to $800.
“Flights to other African cities are very expensive; you can’t expect things to grow when faced with such costs,” Gebre-ab says. “We could do those flights for about $400.”
Amid Djibouti City’s busy maritime commerce and construction billboards depicting skyscrapers, there is talk of the capital becoming a new African Dubai.
Recently acquired Chinese investment totalling $12bn will fund the building of six new ports and what is being touted as the biggest and most dynamic free trade zone in Africa.
Two new airports are also on the construction list, which is good news for those backing Air Djibouti, as international flights currently use a cramped airport shared with the US military.
“The aviation sector is crucial – it is like imagining Dubai without Emirates,” says Dickinson. “So if they want Djibouti to become an international trade hub, it needs a national airline. Djibouti could be the gold nugget in Africa.”
But not everyone is happy with Djibouti’s trajectory, the economic direction in which it is heading, and what this might mean for the country’s citizenry.
“The government only cares about how to collect the country’s wealth,” says a Djiboutian journalist previously arrested for reporting domestic issues and who wished to remain anonymous. “They do not care about freedom of expression, human rights, justice and equal opportunities of people.”
Others criticise the Djibouti Ports & Free Zones Authority (DPFZA) – the controlling body of Djibouti’s mushrooming ports system, which also owns Air Djibouti – for wielding too much influence and power.
But amid a volatile region that includes instability in Yemen, Eritrea and Somalia, Djibouti continues to serve as an oasis of stability, a fact it’s keen to promote.
“As soon as you get a sticker on an aircraft tail, that is big news,” says Dickinson.