RwandAir so wide awake to a great future
RwandAir recently took delivery of its first wide-body aircraft and, as African Aerospace was going to press, more were on the way. Kaleyesus Bekele looks at the rise and rise of the airline.
Rwanda is rapidly pulling away from the darkest moment in its history – the 1994 genocide when more than one million people perished
The small country, with a population of just 10 million, today boasts an annual growth of 8% – one of the fastest growing economies in Africa.
President Paul Kagame’s administration is transforming the economy with the tourism, aviation and ICT sectors developing quickly.
Since the country is land-locked, the government has given due attention to air connectivity. It is also nurturing the meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions (MICE) industry by building modern convention centres and first class hotels in Kigali, a small but green and clean city.
Rwanda has simplified its visa requirements and, by doing so, has managed to boost the tourism industry and host major international conferences. The government has an ambitious plan of making Kigali an aviation and conference tourism hub.
To realise its multi-faceted economic development plans, the government established RwandAir in 2009. In a continent where new start-up airlines often collapse after few years of operation, the carrier has managed to expand its fleet and destinations.
The airline today operates two Bombardier Q400s, two Bombardier CRJ 900s, two B737-700s, and 2 B737-800s. With its young fleet, it serves 20 domestic and international destinations in Africa and the Middle East.
On September 28 last year, RwandAir took delivery of its first wide-body aircraft – an Airbus A330-200.
The airline was slated to receive the second wide-body, an A330-300, in November 2016 and, the same month, was scheduled to take delivery of a Boeing B737-800. Another Boeing B737-800 is set to arrive in May 2017.
CEO John Mirenge was excited when he arrived at the Airbus delivery centre in Toulouse to receive the first A330-200. It has been named ‘Ubumwe’, which means unity in the local language in Rwanda. “We chose the name Ubumwe to show the unity that Rwandese people formed after the civil war,” explained Mirenge.
Powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 700 engines, the A330-200 wide-body has 244 seats – 20 in business-class, 21 premium-economy and 203 in economy.
RwandAir has become the first airline in the east African region to acquire the A330-200 jetliner and is also the first in Africa to introduce premium-economy class.
Airbus has received 41 orders for the A330 from Africa.
Mirenge said that, with the acquisition of the new wide-body, RwandAir could compete globally. He added that after acquiring the second A330-300, the carrier would open new long-haul routes to Mumbai (India), Guangzhou (China), London and Paris in Europe. The airline is holding talks with the respective civil aviation and airport authorities.
“With our partner, together we can make this to happen,” he said. “We are very excited as an airline and also extremely happy with the professionalism and capability Airbus has shown. The process started a year ago and they have built and handed over to us a beautiful aircraft.”
The CEO pointed out that RwandAir has been growing at a rate of 20% year-on-year in the past six years. He said the airline had been spreading its wings but had limitations with fleet capabilities. “We’ve been a narrow-body and regional operator. We have been spreading our wings to a certain level but there were limitations. Our footprint was limited,” he added.
“With the delivery of this first Airbus, and many others are to come, that limitation will be taken away. We will stand and compete with the best in the world because we can reach where they can reach. So it is very exciting.
“We will go to Europe and Asia. We will give different products to all our African region. It is a momentous occasion for RwandAir as we step up to the club of the big boys.”
Speaking of the partnership with Airbus, Mirenge said a journey of a 1,000 miles starts with one step. “We are already talking to our partners for more exciting deals. Sooner or later it will be announced. The relationship is already strong.”
Mirenge said the RwandAir management was already looking at the Airbus A350-900, Airbus’ newest jetliner. “We have a plan to launch flight service to New York with the A350,” he revealed.
RwandAir is a member of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and had recently successfully passed that organisation’s operational safety audit for the second time.
Hadi Akoum, Airbus’ vice president in charge of sales for Africa, commended Rwanda’s effort to develop its aviation industry by acquiring new fleet and investing in airport infrastructure. “The acquisition of the new aircraft reaffirms the confidence between Airbus and RwandAir. We will stand side by side with the airline to ensure it realises its full potential,” Akoum said.
He added that Airbus would continue assisting the airline in the training of its pilots and engineers.
To increase its operator base in Africa, Airbus has started working with African airlines and governments. “We are trying to explain to African airlines about the aviation market. Many airlines in Africa operate very old aircraft. If you ask them the reason, they would tell you that new aircraft are costly. But they do not realise the cost of running ageing aircraft – the fuel cost and maintenance costs etc. If they buy new Airbus aircraft they will have cheap operating costs. Operating old aircraft is more costly,” Akoum said.
According to Akoum, in the past five years Airbus has been able to attract 23 new operators in Africa. He said the African aviation market would continue to grow. “There are plenty of opportunities. RwandAir can be a good example. Rwanda is a small country. It is not a rich country. Maybe it is one of the poorest countries in terms of natural resources but it is succeeding. They are confident in their capability to succeed.”
Asked why RwandAir selected the A330, Mirenge said that his airline wanted a tested and matured airliner. “The A330 has been in the market for 20 years and it has proven its capability. Many of its components and technologies have been improved over the years,” he said.
RwandAir’s chief pilot, Captain Marcel Gabou Tirefort, commanded the A330ferry flight from Toulouse, Blagnac International Airport to Kigali. The aircraft cruised at an altitude of 41,000 feet with an average speed of 850kmh.
Aboard the flight, Tirefort said the A330 was a perfect machine. “The aircraft is technologically advanced. It is smooth to fly. The organisation and the set-up in the cockpit is very advanced and convenient for pilots. I appreciate the comfort in the cabin. I am really impressed with this aircraft.”
The chief pilot said four sets of RwandAir crew had been trained by Airbus in Toulouse. “The training is still going on,” he added. “RwandAir has made a milestone. It gives us the opportunity to serve long-haul routes and enables us to give better service to our customers.”
The new A330-200 touched down at Kigali International Airport on September 28 after it flew from Toulouse with a stop over in Entebbe, where the airline has significant passenger traffic.
After visiting the aircraft, Rwanda’s Minister of Infrastructure, James Musoni, revealed the government’s plan to build a new modern international airport in Kigali. It will be 50km out of the city with an estimated investment cost of $600 million.
The airport will initially have one runway and one terminal, with the capacity to handle four million passengers per year. The existing airport accommodates one million passengers.
“By the time we start long-haul flight services, the existing airport will be congested. So we need a new airport that can accommodate our growth,” Mirenge explained.
The Government of Rwanda recently built the first drone airport in Africa in the northern part of the country, which enables it to supply medicine and other items to remote areas.
The new aircraft was deployed on Kigali-Dubai route as of October 2016. The airline used to serve the route with B737 narrow-body aircraft.
As a start-up airline, RwandAir is not yet profitable. Mirenge said the Government of Rwanda is investing in the airline with a long-term vision. “We are building for the future,” he said.
RwandAir secured the financing for the two A330s from the eastern and southern Africa PTA Bank. “PTA Bank is our strong partner. This is not the first time that we have done business with it. Back in 2011 it financed our B737 purchase,” Mirenge said.
Currently, the airline is in the process of forging a strategic partnership with Ethiopian Airlines.