RwandAir, the flag carrier of Rwanda, is on track to double its fleet to 25 planes over the next five years to better connect underserved markets in Africa and boost the continent’s reach to global destinations, including in the Middle East, its chief executive said.
The state-owned airline has started expanding its fleet of 13 aircraft, taking delivery this year of three additional leased Boeing 737 narrow-bodies, Yvonne Makolo told The National on the sidelines of the World Travel and Tourism Council's global summit.
The annual industry event was held this year for the first time in Africa, in the Rwandan capital Kigali, from November 1 to November 3.
“I don't think we need to move any farther than the African continent, this is the most underserved continent in aviation: We have 1.4 billion people and we only account for 3 per cent of global air traffic, which is ridiculous,” said Ms Makolo, who is the chair and first female leader of the board of the International Air Transport Association (Iata).
“The potential is within the continent and RwandAir is very focused on that, on seeing how we can open up and connect different African countries with fifth freedom rights, and how we can connect Rwanda to African countries, then connect the continent to the rest of the world.”
The airline currently serves 25 destinations, 20 of which are within the African continent to countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. It also flies to cities in Europe and the Middle East including Paris, London, Brussels, Dubai and Doha.
It plans to grow its route network to 39 destinations in five years, mainly within the African continent.
RwandAir's fleet currently consists of Airbus A330 wide-bodies, Boeing 737s, Bombardier CRJ-900s and two De Havilland Canada Dash 8-Q400s.
Affordable air travel is still a “big challenge” in the African continent because aviation is still seen as a luxury, Ms Makolo said.
“It's heavily taxed, which is unnecessary, so that's something that also needs to be addressed and we need to see more collaboration and partnerships within African airlines as well,” she added.
RwandAir aims to position Kigali as a regional hub as an alternative to other hubs in Africa, she said.
Asked about competition with Africa's biggest airline, Ethiopian Airlines, she said: “It's a big competitor but we also work closely together, we have codeshare agreements and we access quite a number of points through their network … they do our heavy maintenance checks [on aircraft].”
“There's enough market for both of us and all of us because Africa is vastly underserved.”
Middle East growth plans
Ms Makolo confirmed that Qatar Airways’ planned investment in RwandAir is almost complete. The Doha-based airline plans to buy a 49 per cent stake in the East African airline and a 60 per cent share in the new Bugesera International Airport in Rwanda.
The $1.3 billion airport, currently under construction, will have the capacity to handle seven million passengers annually and 150 million tonnes of cargo a year during the first phase of its operation, according to the Rwanda Development Board.
“We're finalising that, they will be taking on 49 per cent of RwandAir and 60 per cent of the airport,” Ms Makolo said.
The airport is expected to be ready within three to four years, according to the airline chief executive.
Asked about RwandAir's growth plans for the Middle East with the imminent deal, she said the airline will focus on adding more flight frequencies to existing cities like Doha and Dubai and exploring new routes in the region.
RwandAir's load factor – a measure of how well airlines fill available seats – for Dubai and Doha is at least 70 per cent.
“We will be focused on adding more frequencies, we'd like to see Dubai and Doha go to double daily,” she said.
Dubai is a “key” cargo destination for RwandAir, where it carries fresh produce, particularly avocados, to the emirate.
RwandAir's extended codeshare with Qatar Airways allows its passengers access to 65 destinations via Doha.
“We are looking at additional points in the Middle East,” she said, declining to elaborate.
Ms Makolo joined many industry experts at the WTTC gathering in urging faster progress on open skies in Africa, echoing Europe's single aviation market, which has been under discussion for years.
Launching a single aviation market in Africa would boost connectivity, reduce fares and stimulate economic growth on a continent widely considered expensive and inconvenient to fly around.
“We just need to get on with it,” Ms Makolo said. “Let's start with whoever is ready, let it be among the coalition of the willing and start, then hopefully when others see that it is working, they will join in.”
The RwandAir boss also joined the aviation industry's growing calls for governments to incentivise the production of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) at a larger scale.
SAF will be the major contributor to the industry’s goal of net-zero by 2050 and Iata estimates that SAF will account for about 62 per cent of the industry's decarbonisation requirements.
Besides being in short supply, the fuel is also two to three times more expensive than jet kerosene, according to Iata.
“A lot more incentives need to be put into place for manufacturers to start producing enough SAF and then we can deal with the issue of affordability,” Ms Makolo said.
“For us African airlines, already operating is very expensive and now we need expensive fuel so that doesn't make sense – we would go bankrupt.”