From the CEO
An interview with Ethiopian Group CEO Tewolde GebreMariam, focusing on the airline’s past and future successes.
Tell us what this anniversary means to you, as the CEO of Ethiopian Airlines?
Ethiopian Airlines has come a long way in its 70 years, starting from a humble beginning but quickly becoming a leading African aviation group. Of course, Ethiopian continues to age beautifully. Throughout the past seven decades, the airline has established itself as adept in all facets of aviation services: technology leadership, network expansion and aviation mentoring.
The turn of this century saw the global prominence of Africa and its renaissance. Ethiopian as a Pan-African airline has continued to catalyze this development through its extensive and convenient air connectivity options to 92 international destinations in five continents across the globe. As a result, African cities are now much closer to each other and to the rest of the world than any time in history. Hence it is worthy to mark and celebrate this milestone — a once-in-a-lifetime achievement that deserves recognition.
Moreover, in the corporate world, age symbolizes strength, endurance and security despite an unpredictable marketplace. A successful anniversary program should be as much about heralding past accomplishments as it is about looking forward. This is a time to connect with both our employees and our customers — those who have helped Ethiopian to survive the competition and establish the strong foundation upon which we will continue to serve them for many years to come.
So to begin with, I am proud to be part of this commendable success story, and to have had the chance to exert all of my productive years in Ethiopian Airlines. It is now 30 years since I joined Ethiopian, and I am incredibly proud of both where we began and where we now stand.
To highlight briefly the great history of Ethiopian Airlines, in the early 1940s Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I envisioned the creation of a national airline to shake off the country’s poverty-stricken image. Though Ethiopia didn’t have the financial or human resources to set up an airline, the high vision of the country’s leadership nonetheless gave birth to the airline in 1946 with the assistance of TWA (Trans World Airlines — an American airline that existed from 1925 until it merged with American Airlines in 2001).
In 1971, the airline shook off its foreign management, and the first Ethiopian Colonel Semret Medhane took over as CEO. Its “Ethiopianization” was made complete in 1974, and Ethiopian has shown steady and fast growth ever since.
And yet the airline’s sustainable growth and profitability is a surprise to most business experts. It is especially miraculous to see it growing at such a fast rate at a time when the industry experiences heavy turbulence, and when some major known airline brands have been forced to die a natural death. I believe our success can be uniquely attributed to the full support of our government, the full commitment of our employees, and the management team that devotes itself entirely to our beloved airline.
It is an honor to be at the helm to celebrate this 70th anniversary milestone, and to lead Ethiopian into the next phase of growth. Indeed, it is not a choice to ensure the shining airline’s continuity; rather, it is a national duty and responsibility to keep Ethiopian as an icon of pride.
What aspects of the Ethiopian Airlines legacy are you most proud of?
Ethiopian was formed with a Pan-African vision and unwavering commitment to bring Africa together and closer to the world. Seventy years later, we’ve realized that vision — and more —by providing the best route network in Africa, and connecting Africa with the rest of the world.
Additionally, Ethiopian Airlines is always at the forefront to introduce cutting-edge aviation technology and state-of-the-art aircraft — from Africa’s first jet aircraft in 1962 on through to the first B787 Dreamliners outside of Japan in 2012. As a result, we are consistently recognized as an aviation leader. In 2015 alone, we were honored with a host of awards — including “Airline of the Year” by AFRAA, “Best in Africa” by the Passenger Choice Awards, “International Airline of the Year” by Business Executive Excellence, and many, many more. I’m quite proud of the work we put in every day and night to build Africa’s reputation, and of the recognition we continue to receive for our efforts.
What have been some of the biggest challenges that the airline has overcome during its history?
The airline business is one of the most volatile industries in the world. The industry is constantly in flux, not only due to the ever-changing technological advances and regulatory requirements, but also due to outside forces like economic recession, political crises, oil prices epidemic diseases, wars, weather condition and more. Thus, a lot of challenges need to be managed to be successful and remain profitable.
Of course, pioneering an African airline was not without its challenges: We had to build a base of skilled Ethiopians to work in a variety of aviation-related areas from scratch; garner trust in countries liberated from colonialism; develop niche markets with thin routes; and operate throughout Ethiopia’s military regime of the mid 1970s-1980s — which saw the lowest travel & tourism rates to the country in recent history.
Currently, the main challenges we face include: a very weak global economy, caused by the decline of commodity prices and the strength of the U.S. dollar, which threatens airline revenues and growth; the capital-intensive nature of the airline industry, which requires consistent profitability to be sustainable; the regulatory framework in Africa, which tends to favor non-African airlines for air-traffic rights; unfair competition with government-subsidized Gulf-based carriers; and the jet fuel prices in Africa that are more than 50 percent higher than the global average.
And yet in its seven-decade-long journey, Ethiopian Airlines has survived and thrived amid all turbulence, I believe, because of the strong culture of its workforce. We are committed to supporting the airline’s vision and strategic goals; we adhere under all circumstances to a customer-first mentality; we have a strong sense of teamwork and belonging to the Ethiopian family; and we defend the Ethiopian Airlines brand both on and off the clock. That will continue to ensure that we soar well into the decades to come.
How has Ethiopian Airlines contributed to the development of Ethiopia’s economy, and how will it continue to do so in the future?
As the national flag carrier of Ethiopia, we have a national obligation to contribute to the socio-economic development of Ethiopia and Africa. Mobility and connectivity are critical economic engines for sustained growth and development in an expanding society, and even moreso for Ethiopia, as it is the seat of the African Union and other internatioanl organizations. And so by availing a large route network dispersed across five continents, Ethiopian Airlines provides an essential public service in transporting people and their goods all over the world.
We champion Ethiopia’s tourism sector by offering services to all of the country’s major tourist destinations, and we promote Ethiopia as a preferred destination to the billion-plus global tourists who travel with us. We also create market opportunities for hotels and other businesses across the country by bringing both business and leisure travelers to Ethiopia. Additionally, we support Ethiopia’s export economy by transporting horticulture and many other agricultural products aboard our six state-of-the-art B777 and two B757 freighters. In fact, we are currently building one of the world’s largest cargo terminals, with a capacity to accommodate 1.2 million tons of cargo per year.
Lastly, we are proud to provide high quality jobs to more than 11,000 Ethiopians — putting our efforts behind a national and continental mission to change the lives of millions of citizens.
What are your hopes for the future of the African aviation sector?
Africa today is on the rise. It’s one of the fastest-growing regions in the world; its population of young people amounts to roughly one sixth of the world’s total population; it’s endowed with vast resources of precious minerals and large reserves of oil; and it has more than 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land.
The African continent is experiencing a renaissance of immense economic growth and transformation — and Ethiopia is in the lead of the transformation. By smoothly transporting the continent’s many business and leisure travelers, as well as cargo, our strong airline has stood paramount to the continent’s success.
Ethiopian Airlines has also been fulfilling its Pan-African role by helping to further realize an economically liberal Africa. Currently, we are lobbying for the creation of a single African air space and for aviation to be treated as a strategic sector. Over the last decade, the delays of such an agreement have been at Africa’s peril, with loss of market share by African airlines — from 60 percent in the early 90s to fewer than 20 percent at present. My hopes for the future of African aviation — and indeed, the continent in general — are for African governments to remove barriers to cooperation between carriers and put in place policy and regulatory framework to facilitate beneficial cooperation. From there, I believe, Africa’s rise can truly take off to the best interest of its citizens.