Yvonne Manzi Makolo, CEO of RwandAir, says that the company, now 49% owned by Qatar Airways, is looking beyond the pandemic to exploiting Africa’s huge aviation potential.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your expansion plans and your medium- to long-term strategy?
We had a lot of momentum in the lead-up to the pandemic. We were expanding and had 29 routes running and more planned, both within and beyond Africa, but when Rwanda went into lockdown we had to shelve most of these plans.
Rwanda closed off its airspace to commercial flights between March and August 2020, so we had to ground our fleet and re-evaluate our business model. The government of Rwanda has taken the pandemic very seriously, but has been very supportive of affected businesses, including those in aviation. Our staff were considered front-line workers, so we were able to get everyone vaccinated quickly.
We were able to operate cargo-only flights to support the export sector, as well as bringing in medical supplies like PPE. We converted our cabins to allow us to transport high-value exports like avocados, chillis, French beans, and flowers to lucrative markets in Europe and the Gulf.
We also carried out several repatriation flights, mainly to and from Europe, North America, and China, not just for Rwandans but also for citizens of other Central African countries.
By the time we resumed commercial flights in August 2020 we had shrunk our network to remove less profitable routes, including to Senegal, Juba, and Tel Aviv, which have still not been restarted.
Unfortunately we were also forced to lay off some staff, though we have started rehiring them now. We had to cut back on in-flight services to focus more on safety and security procedures, which was obviously our priority.
We were on the road to recovery when the Omicron variant was recognised in December 2021, which was peak travel season. That knocked us back again as we had to stop all our Southern African routes, as well as major long-haul flights, to London and Dubai for example.
Now that the Omicron outbreak is being managed things are once again picking up and we are seeing increased passenger numbers. We hope to see consistent improvements between now and the 2022 summer season.
Covid has created challenges, but also opportunities, with SAA’s privatisation and Kenya Airways restructuring its network. How is RwandAir planning to fill new gaps in the market? We had to […]