Royal Air Maroc Chairman of the Board and CEO, Driss Benhima, is setting a well thought out direction for the airline despite pressure on many fronts. Graham Newton reports
How is the Royal Air Maroc’s transformation program developing?
The global recession of 2010/11 affected Royal Air Maroc, much as it did other international carriers. In order to ride the recession and the climbing oil prices, as well as prosper past the recession, we need to make a major transformation.
In addition, as a national carrier, we met stiff competition from the low-cost airlines. Our open-skies agreement positioned us to better benefit from the European market but at the same time exposed us to fierce competition—pushing us further to focus on providing the best cost and quality to our customers.
So we engaged in cost-cutting as the main part of our strategy for a sustainable business model. At the same time, we focused on our core business and outsourced other activities such as catering or maintenance. Other savings came from closing of some sales offices and developing our internet presence and sales.
But we were keen to make these deep changes with the minimal human and social costs—and thus making sure that there was no social disruption.
What role to you see for partnerships or privatization in Royal Air Maroc’s future?
We are a state-owned airline. However, we are free to make strategic choices—including, for example, starting or closing routes. But we are also taking part in the government plan that aims to drive some companies through privatization.
Royal Air Maroc is a relatively small airline, with 53 aircraft. This is a good size for the African market but clearly not enough for sustainable growth. That’s why we need, among other things, to build strong commercial partnerships with the carriers.
How important is the Hajj to your operations?
Hajj operations are controlled by the government. The prices are fixed by the government and there is no profit on those sales for Royal Air Maroc.
But we are proud to be the national carrier and to help on Hajj services. This aspect is part of our brand identity.
Does the Moroccan government understand the value of aviation?
Yes, I think that the government understands the value of aviation. It does provide us with some assistance but that is done within the bounds of fair competition.
The government has signed multiple open-skies agreements; we look forward to more accords, which we hope will be fair and provide a level playing-field for all aviation operators.
Is the infrastructure in Morocco keeping up with your strategy?
In order for Royal Air Maroc to grow and prosper, it is imperative that the National Airport Authority provides a reliable hub with world-class infrastructure. We have seen positive changes recently, with the new leadership, that suggest that this authority is more aware of our needs and challenges going forward.
Nevertheless, we face some challenges and difficulties. The Casablanca airport capacity is 12 million passengers per year. But in the peak season and in just one single month, 3 million passengers arrive and depart from the airport. Casablanca is clearly limited for that level of traffic in that timeframe.
We need to develop Casablanca by adopting new technology and building an infrastructure that can handle peak traffic and cope with a greater number of travelers.
Are you looking to make any significant changes to your network?
Thanks to our geographical location, we are well placed to connect Africa with the United States and Europe.
In addition to a better airport, we will need strong partnerships to take advantage of our strategic geographical position. We are discussing possibilities with other airlines. These partnerships are going to allow us to strengthen our network and offer more destinations.
Partnership is the key to developing our network. There are three distinct markets we need to serve: the Moroccan domestic market, where we do well; the intra-African market, which isn’t sufficiently developed and where we must set up agreements to serve these markets; and the international market, which connects Africa with the rest of the world. It’s a competitive market with many players.
African safety has improved. But can more be done?
Safety is the top priority for any airline. We should all cooperate to raise the level of safety in African carriers. World class safety is possible in Africa. We see that in the performance of IOSA-registered carriers, for example. In my opinion, airlines with a bad track record in safety, or not performing to global standards such as IOSA, should not be flying. They are tarnishing the reputation of the many African carriers that are as safe as any other international carrier.
Would liberalization in Africa be a positive development?
Liberalization in Africa would be good for the passenger, but it must be thought of in multinational terms. I always thought that Air Afrique was a good idea. We have to dig deeper and look at the real reasons why it failed.
We have to think again about the value of a multinational airline operating in a free market. Air connectivity is under-developed in Africa, and that has a negative impact on economic growth in the continent.
What do you see as the industry’s major challenges?
There is overcapacity in the industry. The market is overcrowded because it is relatively simple to purchase a plane. While it is difficult to get loans in other industries, when it comes to aviation, it is much easier.
What value does IATA bring to Royal Air Maroc?
IATA is working very hard and has always been ready to help airlines such as Royal Air Maroc. When we closed our subsidiary in Senegal, for example, IATA provided us with assistance. It helped us at a difficult time.
I also want to praise IATA’s stance when the Ebola crisis erupted in West Africa. Royal Air Maroc was one of only two carriers that continued services into the affected countries. IATA, through its collaboration with the World Health Organization, supported our decision and provided clear guidelines and information. We transported nearly 150,000 passengers during that time, without incident.
It was the attitude of IATA that helped us to keep those flights and to serve customers in those countries.
IATA and WHO were very helpful in raising the confidence of the traveling public, which were encouraged to think that if IATA had asked Royal Air Maroc to keep flying, then it meant that it could be done safely.
2006: Chairman and CEO of Royal Air Maroc Group
2003-06: CEO of the North Morocco Development Agency
2001-03: Governor of greater Casablanca
1998: Member of the Advisory group of the Chairman of Agence Internationale de l’Energie Atomique (Vienna)
1997-98: Minister of Transport, Tourism and Maritime Affairs, and Minister of Mining and Energy
1995-99: Member of the think tank established by the late King Hassan II
1994-2001: CEO of The National Power Authority, ONE
1990-94: Executive Director of the Moroccan subsidiary of Air Liquid Group
1987-90: Manager of the Khouribga mining facility
1978-87: Mining engineer at the National Phosphate Company
Education: Graduated from Ecole Polytechnique de Paris and Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Paris
Mr Benhima is a knight commander of the throne of Morocco