RwandAir CEO Yvonne Manzi Makolo, like many airline executives before her, sees a continent of opportunities for her airline across Africa. But RwandAir has a leg up: A multi-million dollar investment from Qatar Airways that could help transform the Kigali-based carrier into a regional powerhouse.
“The time is now to act,” Makolo said of Africa’s growth potential at the IATA Annual General Assembly in Boston on October 3. That opportunity existed both before the Covid-19 pandemic and in the recovery that has hit some of the continent’s legacy carriers hard — South African Airways only resumed flights in September after an 18-month suspension, and even now is only flying 3 percent of its October 2019 capacity.
RwandAir’s new strategic partnership with Qatar Airways will help it act. Qatar Airways will take a 49 percent stake in RwandAir under a deal that has been finalized but not yet closed, said Makolo. Once that is done, the carriers will cooperate in a number of “commercial initiatives.”
A new codeshare agreement is a big step forward on those initiatives. The airlines will implement a broad partnership covering more than 65 destinations in Africa and around the world. RwandAir travelers will gain new connectivity to destinations in Europe and the U.S., and Qatar Airways increased access to Africa. As part of the deal, RwandAir will begin flights to Doha in December. The route will complement its existing Dubai service.
“The new partnership will help position Qatar Airways in the region and complement our African expansion strategy,” said Qatar Airways Group CEO Akbar Al-Baker who cited increased connectivity under the tie up.
That connectivity he mentioned, and cited by Makolo, will grow when a new international airport opens in Kigali in 2023 or 2024. Qatar Airways is a major investor in the facility.
Of course all of the visions of African growth and opportunity face the very real challenges of operating on the continent. The market has time and time again proved a difficult one to conquer. Both Kenya Airways and SAA previously have expressed such regional ambitions but stepped back amid their individual challenges. In September, the two loss-making carriers signed a memorandum of understanding to create a pan-African carrier citing a need for cooperation on the continent. Ethiopian Airlines has been the most successful building a continent-wide network but is more an alternative to the Gulf carriers than a central African hub given the location of its Addis Abba hub.
RwandAir benefits from the central location of its Kigali hub on the continent and, now, a deep-pocketed partner in Qatar Airways. This, as Makolo put it, allows the airline to offer Africans a convenient connection alternative to the traditional routings through Europe or the Gulf. Makolo said the airline does not plan any additional bases at this time.
In October, RwandAir had resumed service to 19 of 26 of the destinations it served two years ago, and added three new cities — Bangui in Central African Republic, and Goma and Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo — to its map, according to Cirium schedule data. Capacity is at roughly half the level it was in October 2019.
African demand has recovered faster than long-haul demand, said Makolo. “We’re getting there,” she said. The airline has only resumed two — Brussels and Dubai — of its five pre-pandemic destinations outside Africa, Cirium shows.
RwandAir aims to double the size of its fleet to roughly 24 aircraft by mid-decade, said Makolo. Asked what aircraft types the airline is considering, she said plans were being “finalized” as part of the Qatar Airways investment. The majority of the growth will be with narrowbodies keeping with the airline’s African growth ambitions, she added.
Given the desire to collaborate, one possibility is Qatar Airways could either assign some of the aircraft in its orderbook to RwandAir or use its heft with airframers to the benefit its equity partner. In terms of narrowbodies, Qatar had firm orders for 50 Airbus A321neos at the end of August, according to Airbus data.
RwandAir cancelled commitments for four aircraft — two Airbus A330neos and two Boeing 737 Maxes — in 2020 in order to work with its future partner on a fleet plan. The airline operates a mixed fleet of two A330s, six 737s, two CRJ900s and two de Havilland Dash 8-400s.