After two devastating years, Ethiopian believes 2022 will finally be the year it returns to pre-COVID levels, at least in terms of capacity. Image Credit: AP

Dubai: Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s largest carrier, is flying fewer tourists these days due to restrictions imposed by countries after the spread of the Omicron variant.

“The tourist part of travel is not recovering as much as expected,” said Tewolde Gebremariam, Ethiopian Airlines’ CEO, during the Travel and Connectivity Business Forum at Expo 2020. “Unfortunately, many countries are still closing their borders and we have not been able to bring passengers to Dubai for almost a month now. “The Delta (variant) did its own damage last year and now Omicron is a big challenge – the (global) response has been scattered and uncoordinated.”

Last month, the UAE suspended entry from Addis Ababa – Ethiopia’s capital city and among Africa’s largest aviation hubs – and several other African destinations following reports of the latest variant. Ethiopian Airlines is running at 70 per cent of its pre-COVID capacity when most global airlines are struggling to reach the 50 per cent mark. “We are ahead of the industry, but still way behind pre-COVID levels in all industry parameters,” said Gebremariam. “The industry is still suffering, depending on the region.”

Full recovery?

After two devastating years, Ethiopian believes 2022 will finally be the year it returns to pre-COVID levels, at least in terms of capacity. “The industry as a whole may reach around 70-80 per cent of pre-COVID, while Ethiopian Airlines may go to even 100 per cent,” said the airline head. “We are already ahead of the curve.”

The African aviation giant has been an anomaly during the aviation sector’s worst crisis. While airlines around the world continue to lose billions of dollars every year and take drastic measures to keep flying, Ethiopian has been fairly resilient.

“We are the only carrier which has not taken any bailout money for the crisis - we have managed with our own internal finances,” said Gebremariam. “We are profitable and we have not laid off any employee. In fact, we have given salary increases and bonuses.”

With airlines bringing back flights and rebuilding their networks, industry experts have raised concerns about carriers potentially facing severe staff shortages. “The big shortage in the airline industry has always been pilot shortage and to a certain extent, technicians and engineers,” said Gebremariam. “Those talents are now adequately available because most airlines are still at around 50 per cent of pre-COVID capacity levels.”

Cargo demand

Ethiopian’s CEO said the airline will continue to see strong cargo demand going into 2022. “We have temporarily shifted passenger airplanes to cargo,” he added. “We have dedicated freighter aircraft, bellyhold capacity and converted airplanes,” said Gebremariam. “I would expect the cargo demand to continue to be as strong as 2021.”

In terms of airlines’ financial health, there is a “clear demarcation between airlines well diversified into cargo and carriers which didn’t have a strong presence in the business pre-COVID,” he added.