Yvonne Manzi Makolo, CEO RwandAir, says the air transport industry must continue to improve diversity. Interview by Graham Newton.
What were the worst aspects of the crisis for you as an airline CEO?
It has been very difficult every day and it is still difficult. It has been a long 18 months.
The biggest challenge has been the uncertainty. Our plans stopped and started so many times because of the travel restrictions. And those decisions about travel restrictions were often arbitrary and not rooted in science. It made it impossible to plan with any confidence. Whether it was our network or our staff or the health protocols, we had to adapt as best as we could at short notice. For the airline, the need for flexibility has been an important lesson.
But it was an anxious time for our staff who were worried about their jobs, and for our passengers too. You have to remember that travel was already stressful for many people. Now, they were also worried about getting stuck in another country or being refused entry or not knowing the correct health protocols at an airport or inflight.
It was hard to give them peace of mind and the confidence to travel because we didn’t know exactly what was happening either.
Can the health protocols being established in other regions—such as proof of vaccination—work in Africa?
Globally, there is no doubt that the vaccination program has been instrumental in helping travel to restart, especially internationally. It is a great tool for the industry.
But we must be clear that this won’t work for Africa.
In Africa, the overall vaccination rate is less than 5% and we will struggle to get anywhere close to the rates being seen elsewhere, even in a year or two’s time. Simply, making vaccination a mandatory condition for travel would shut out most of the African market and African travelers.
Fortunately, we do have an alternative in testing. A negative test close to departure should be sufficient. But it must be affordable. Across Africa, the cost of testing varies widely. Making it cheaper is not just about allowing more people to travel. It is about health safety.
There is a lot of fraud because of the high cost of testing. Fraudulent paperwork about a negative test is cheaper to acquire than a valid test so if governments ensure testing is affordable it would not only enable more people to travel but also improve health safety for every traveler.
What will it take for aviation to recover in Africa?
There has to be more support for aviation from governments. But this doesn’t necessarily mean financial support.
Now, more than ever we need a single African aviation market. We have talked about it endlessly but the time for talking is over and we must get on with the implementation.
Africa must open up. African airlines must have open skies and be able to fly where they want to meet travel demand.
This would help with the biggest challenge we face in Africa outside of the pandemic, which is cost. Whether it is the cost of visas, airport charges or taxes on aviation fuel, travel within Africa can be extremely expensive. If the market opens up, competition will increase, and this would drive down prices and improve standards.
The African market is vastly under-tapped and opening up would be a significant boost for aviation.
What are your plans for RwandAir going forward?
We have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and we did have to shrink our services. But doing so has allowed us to begin growing again.
We suspended thinner routes, but we have opened new routes as well, including Lubumbashi and Goma in Democratic Republic of Congo. Our growth will be organic, but we expect to double our fleet over the next five years.
Diversifying our revenue streams will also be important. Cargo will be a big part of that as we have had the African Continental Free Trade Area operating since the start of 2021. It is estimated that this will grow intra-African trade more than 50% in the first year alone. It removes tariffs on 90% of goods. We must be ready to build on this opportunity.
Why is the codeshare with Qatar Airways important?
The codeshare with Qatar Airways is a major achievement for RwandAir. It gives our passengers access to a world-class airline and a worldwide network. To make it truly seamless, we will launch non-stop flights between Kigali and Doha in December 2021.
The agreement will prove beneficial for both airlines. It gives us access to 265 global destinations and they greatly improve their pan-African offering. We will also share our loyalty programs and RwandAir is the first sub-Saharan carrier to do that.
In due course, Qatar Airways will also acquire part of RwandAir. And we will also look at other synergies in terms of training, service delivery, and so forth.
Is diversity in aviation moving fast enough?
It is good that the industry recognises diversity and IATA’s 25by2025 initiative is definitely a step forward. Several airlines have also been very progressive.
Even so, we are not moving fast enough. There is so much more that can be done, especially in getting women into senior positions. I am always surprised when I attend industry events to see how male-dominated aviation is. It’s very different at RwandAir and in Rwanda too. Our Parliament is 61% women, and our cabinet is more than 50% women. It is a shock to me to see anything skewed heavily in the other direction.
In particular, what are the challenges you see for women aspiring to be senior management? What advice would you give them?
In Rwanda it was a deliberate decision to give women more opportunities and to give them support when they took those opportunities. We must do something similar in aviation. We have to give women a chance but then be proactive in providing the right framework for them to succeed.
At the moment, too many women feel they have to do more than male counterparts to be offered the same opportunities or the same pay.
There is no good reason for aviation to stand out as a male-dominated industry. Business is business. Women have a lot to offer.
Is the industry doing enough to mitigate its environmental impact? And how is the issue viewed among African carriers?
I was happy with the net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 resolution at the IATA AGM. The industry needed to take a bold step and the resolution was certainly that. It pushes the industry in the right direction.
The environment has become a big issue in Africa. Climate change will have a severe effect on the continent unless we reduce carbon emissions quickly.
But it is important that we understand that this is not just about the airlines. Everybody in the industry must play their part from airports to airframe manufacturers. Airlines are singled out as the polluters, but every flight is the combination of a vast number of stakeholders and each of those stakeholders has a role to play in helping to reduce emissions.
Aside from recovering from the impact of the pandemic, what do you think will be the main issues affecting African aviation?
The main thing about African aviation is its potential for growth. There is an absolutely massive market waiting to be connected.
The African Continental Free Trade Area is an important development. It will drive trade and in turn that will drive demand for business travel. We have to be ready to leverage that opportunity. Of course, creating a single African aviation market would provide an even bigger stimulus.
African airlines also have to be better at collaborating with each other on non-competitive issues, such as safety and taxes and charges. There is more we can achieve together and that would provide an example to governments on the benefits of partnership to economies and the end user.
Anything we can do to get the cost base down would make African airlines more competitive and allow more Africans to travel.
If you could change one thing about your airline or the industry in general what would it be and why?
Apart from more women in senior positions? Because that would certainly make for a stronger industry!
As we come out of the pandemic, I think it will be more important than ever to listen to our customers. Passengers will have new requirements and greater expectations about carbon emissions, contactless travel, and so much more. Airlines have to understand what our customers want from the new travel experience.
Despite the pandemic, this is an exciting time. That is especially true for RwandAir following the agreement with Qatar Airways and the potential in Africa. But it could be true for any airline that is willing to listen, adapt, and provide seamless, sustainable services.