But when the virus is eventually brought under control, efforts can resume to strengthen West Africa’s fragmentary aviation market. Ever since the collapse of transnational carrier Air Afrique in 2002, the sub-region has lacked the kind of commercial air services that most parts of the world take for granted. Many short-haul West African routes still require costly and inefficient diversions over far-flung hubs. When time is of the essence, connections via Europe are not uncommon.
Recognising the need for change, ECOWAS and the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) committed to the establishment of a new transnational carrier in January 2004. Six years later, after bringing Ethiopian Airlines on board as a strategic partner, ASKY commenced operations.
“We are a 100% private airline. Ethiopian owns about 40%, and the remaining 60% is owned by regional banks and private investors,” Zewoldi says. “We also have a very good working relationship with ECOWAS. The initiative to launch ASKY came from members of ECOWAS countries, and there is a project by ECOWAS to alleviate some of the obstacles current operators are facing, like the full implementation of the Yamoussoukro Decision.”
That declaration was adopted back in 1999, when 44 African countries pledged to deregulate cross-border flying in pursuit of pan-African prosperity. Despite acknowledging the benefits of open skies, however, the signatories did not follow through with meaningful action. Individual governments continue to protect their flag carriers through bilateral restrictions that block competition on international routes.
Although not immune to this protectionism, ASKY mitigates its effects by maintaining close relations with regional groupings such as ECOWAS and UEMOA. These political ties have allowed the airline to gain bilateral designations from the vast majority of West African governments.
ASKY’s pre-Ebola network comprises 22 destinations spread across almost every country in the sub-region. Its extensive reach supports the second largest fleet in West Africa – eight jet and turboprop aircraft, trailing only domestically focused Arik Air – which in turn unlocks the economies of scale needed for commercial viability. Even in the midst of the Ebola crisis, Zewoldi is focused on filling the few remaining regional white-spots.
“We are still looking at different markets,” he confirms. “Unfortunately there are some bilateral issues in this part of Africa. Apart from Equatorial Guinea, Luanda in Angola is one market that we have our eyes on … Nouakchott [in Mauritania] is in the pipeline.”