The deadly Ebola virus has not only visited tragedy on thousands of West Africans, it has caused havoc to commerce and travel. The travel restrictions and bans have severely disrupted air travel in the region. But Martin Rivers is optimistic that once the virus has been brought under control, airlines like ASKY will emerge stronger than ever before.
On 20th July, as the full scale of West Africa’s Ebola crisis was slowly becoming apparent, a 40-year-old Liberian man took a routine ASKY Airlines flight from Lomé, Togo, to Lagos, Nigeria.
The passenger, a government official named Patrick Sawyer, had started his journey in Liberia’s capital Monrovia. He was en route to attend a meeting organised by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Calabar, southern Nigeria, but never reached his final destination. By the time his plane landed in Lagos, Sawyer was violently ill and required urgent medical attention.
Nigeria’s Health Minister, Onyebuchi Chukwu, later confirmed that this unfortunate individual had become the country’s first Ebola fatality – just one of the more than 2,000 confirmed deaths across the sub-region.
While health officials battle to contain what is already the worst Ebola outbreak the world has ever seen, ASKY and other West African airlines are faced with an uncomfortable dilemma.
On the one hand, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is urging local carriers to maintain flight operations in order to preserve transport links for aid workers and medical cargo. On the other, governments and domestic aviation authorities in countries not yet affected by the outbreak are understandably eager to close their borders.
“We were expecting to have the virus contained sometime in May, but it is resurfacing now and seriously affecting our business,” Yissehak Zewoldi, ASKY’s chief executive, told African Business. “As a result, we had to suspend all our weekly flights to Monrovia and [the Sierra Leonean capital] Freetown with the interest of our passengers in mind.”