Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines are set to intensify their battle for the lucrative East and West African skies, opening new destinations and increasing frequencies in a fresh attempt to wrestle passengers from dominant European and Middle East carriers — and from each other.
KQ plans to open new routes to traditional Ethiopian destinations of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso and Luanda in Angola in addition to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and Juba in Southern Sudan.
Both carriers have a similar strategy of ferrying passengers from West and Central Africa into their respective hubs — Nairobi for KQ and Addis Ababa for Ethiopian Airlines — from where they connect mostly to Southern Africa, the Middle East, India and the Far East.
On October 25 last year, Ethiopian Airlines hacked into the KQ network, simultaneously mounting new flights to the two lucrative KQ destinations of Mombasa and Monrovia (Liberia).
Ethiopian Airlines is now flying daily to Mombasa and three times a week to Monrovia; the Monrovia flight also covers Conakry in Guinea.
Until then, KQ was the only scheduled operator to Mombasa, flying upto 58 domestic flights a week from Nairobi to Moi Airport.
Mombasa is mainly served by tourist charter flights from Europe although relief, military and cargo flights also use the coastal town’s Moi International Airport on an ad hoc basis.
Ethiopian is also flying twice daily to Nairobi following the addition of four night flights from Addis Ababa in December 2009.
On its part, KQ flies once daily to Addis Ababa, says public relations manager, Chris Karanja.
Still, the development signifies a relaxation by the regulator as both Kenya and Ethiopia have in the past been protective of their skies, experts say.
Dar es Salaam, another popular KQ city, is receiving an additional four Ethiopian flights weekly, while two weekly flights have been added to Accra, Bamako, Dakar, Juba and Lubumbashi.
Ethiopian is now flying 68 times a week to East African destinations.
KQ chief executive Titus Naikuni, and Ethiopian Airline’s Nairobi regional manager Tedla Konjit both declined to comment on the business rivalry between the two carriers.
“All I can say is that we got the flying rights through the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority, like everyone else. The authorities in Mombasa are very positive to us. This route will enhance tourism at the Coast while also offering an addition travel destination to our European and African passengers,” Mrs Konjit said on the airline’s new Mombasa flights.
However, early last year Ethiopian Airlines CEO Girma Wake, decried the high level of competition between East African carriers.
Speaking during the signing of a contract with Asky, a new airline based in Togo, Mr Wake said Ethiopian Airlines had been looking for partners across the West African region to make its business a success, noting that the competition among the airlines in East Africa was particularly unhealthy for growth.
“Africans cannot grow by killing one another. Africa can only grow if we support one another. The signing of this agreement will obviously be seen as a threat to other smaller airlines, but we mean no danger to any airline in Africa,” Mr Wake said.
Undeterred, KQ has thrust further into the Democratic Republic of Congo; flights to Kisangani commenced on November 5, making it the third destination after Kinshasa and Lubumbashi.
Bangui, the capital of the Central Africa Republic, Libreville (Gabon) and Brazzaville in the Congo are now in the KQ network, while flights to Malabo (Equatorial Guinea) commenced on October 18 last year.
The two airlines compete for passengers in West Africa’s major aviation markets — Accra, Abidjan, Dakar, Douala, Kinshasa and Lagos.
Both carriers now claim to have surpassed the three-million passengers carried a year milestone, operating profitably and ranking among the fastest growing carriers on the continent.