A young pilot and entrepreneur established National Airways, one of the fledgling private airlines in Ethiopia, in 2007. Nine years on, Kaleyesus Bekele talks to that man – captain Abera Lemi – about his company's progress.
While Abera Lemi was serving with Ethiopian Airlines, he started thinking of establishing a private airline.
“I studied at college in Kenya and Australia and that gave me the opportunity to see how private airlines operate in those countries,” he said. “I have seen how general aviation is developed in other countries. When I returned to Ethiopia I saw a big opportunity. It is a big country but there are few private airlines. So I started thinking of establishing my own airline.”
To realise his dream, in 2007 Lemi resigned from Ethiopian Airlines and registered his company under the name Air Ethiopia, which became operational in 2008 with one Beech1900C aircraft. However, the name Air Ethiopia raised controversy with Ethiopian Airlines and, after a long discussion with the management of Ethiopian Airlines, Lemi changed the name to Addis Airline. Even this didn’t satisfy the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority and Lemi was told to change the name again.
Finally he came up with a new name, National Airways, with a logo that says ‘The Spirit of a Rising Nation.’
“Ethiopia is a big country with a population of 90 million. It is registering a fast economic growth so I saw a big opportunity, which is why I selected this logo,” said Lemi.
At the beginning, National Airways used to provide charter flight and air ambulance services. However, back in 2010, Lemi suffered a sad experience. There was no air ambulance aircraft in Ethiopia so, when there was a need for medical evacuation, private airlines providing charter flight services used regular passenger aircraft with a stretcher to transport a patient in critical condition.
Lemi recalls that he once received a call from a tour company to transport a patient from the southern part of Ethiopia to the capital, Addis Ababa. “There was a married couple visiting Ethiopia and the man was suddenly taken ill. We flew with a Cessna Caravan to the remote town of Jinka to rescue him. The aircraft was not equipped to provide emergency medical care. While we were heading to Addis Ababa the patient passed away. We had a doctor but there was not the required level of medical equipment. The man’s wife cried bitterly. She took out his wedding ring and put it on her finger. It was a very sad incident and we were all emotional. That was when I decided to establish an air ambulance division in our airline.”
National Airways forged a partnership with the South African Red Cross Society Air Mercy Service (AMS) and started providing an air ambulance service. The company had two leased Pilatus PC-12s and a Eurocopter EC-130-B4 helicopter equipped with stretchers, oxygen and all other required medical equipment. “We sent doctors to South Africa and trained them on the medical evacuation service,” said Lemi.
At that time the biggest problem was low demand for an air ambulance service. “The challenge is that we incur cost. We have to pay the lease fees for the fixed-wing and rotor aircraft every month. We tried to promote the service but there was little demand. We saved many lives but, from financial point of view, we could not succeed. We could not keep the aircraft on the tarmac and wait for injured people. We were losing money fast so we returned the aircraft.
“We still do provide the service, but not with internationally-recognised standards. The Air ambulance service is something that I do with a passion. I want to revamp the service by acquiring modern suitable aircraft that meet international aviation regulation. However, for the time being we are focusing on passenger flights.”
Today, National Airways provides charter flight services for VIPs, international aid organisations, construction companies, and mining and oil exploration firms. Currently, the company operates two Beech1900D and one Fokker50 aircraft.
National Airways wants to add another aircraft to its fleet soon. “It could be a Dash 8 or Fokker 50. We have not yet decided,” said Lemi.
National Airways provides charter flight services in Ethiopia and to neighbouring countries including Djibouti, South Sudan, Sudan, Kenya, Somaliland and Somalia.
Currently, there is no private airline that provides scheduled domestic flight services. Ethiopian Airlines is the only carrier that operates domestic services.
In 2009 National Airways briefly operated scheduled flights to regional towns and Hargeisa, Somaliland, but could not continue the service as it was hampered by the seat limitations imposed by the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority. Last year another private airline, TNA, also tried to operate domestic flights but suspended the operation.
The Ethiopian domestic aviation market is not liberalised. Foreign airlines cannot operate domestic flight services. Foreign investors cannot invest on local private airlines. The sector is reserved only for Ethiopian nationals.
Local airlines could not operate an aircraft with more than 20 seats. “We could not be profitable with 20-seater aircraft. So we were compelled to interrupt the service,” explained Lemi.
After long arguments with private airlines in 2013, the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority and the Ministry of Transport pushed the seat limitation to 50 seats.
There are 16 registered private airlines in Ethiopia but only six of them are operational. The private airlines complain that the seat limitation is imposed by the government to protect the state-owned Ethiopian Airlines, which they say is unfair.
“There is no way that we can be a threat to Ethiopian Airlines,” said Lemi. “We are too small to compete with Ethiopian. We are unfairly treated,” he lamented.
National Airways does, however, plan to provide scheduled domestic and regional flight services. In October the airline finalised preparations to begin a scheduled flight service between Addis Ababa and Gerewe in Puntland with a 19-seater Beech1900D aircraft. It also has a plan to start scheduled flights to Somaliland and South Sudan.
“There is a huge potential in the Ethiopian domestic market as well as in the region. We want to serve both the domestic and regional market. There is an economic boom in Ethiopia,” said Lemi. “There are massive infrastructure development projects in every part of the country, mining and oil exploration projects are mushrooming. Addis Ababa is the political capital of Africa. As the Ethiopian economy is growing steadily, the demand for air travel is increasing. So the potential is immense.”
However, Lemi describes the situation of the general aviation in Ethiopia as over-regulated with little support. “The problem is that general aviation is considered a luxury. But it is not a luxury it is a necessity. It could have a great contribution to the development of tourism and investment.”
Director general of the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority, colonel Wossenyeleh Hunegnaw, said the authority has drafted a national air transport policy and added that the Ministry of Transport had reviewed the draft policy. “We will deliberate with stakeholders on the draft policy and it will be endorsed. The air transport policy will address all the concerns of the private airlines, including the seat limitation,” he said.
Lemi said that if the policy is endorsed, National Airways has a big expansion plan. “We will commence scheduled domestic and regional flight services once the air transport policy is implemented. I want to make National Airways a second national carrier. We will grow big once the air transport policy is put in place.”
The fact that the domestic aviation market is closed for foreign companies does not seem to worry Lemi. “A government may protect local airlines. I have no problem with that. But the local airlines established by local professionals and business people should be supported and encouraged. The seat limitation should be removed. Our relationship with the national carrier is not healthy – that also should be averted. The Ethiopian Airports Enterprise should treat us equally and fairly.”
In 2012 National Airways established the National Aviation College, which trains professionals in various disciplines including cabin crew, airline customer service, airport operation, airline ticketing and reservation.
In addition to the existing courses, the college has finalised its preparation to start aeronautical and aerospace engineering and piloting courses combined with a BSc.