Anbessie Yitbarek: Biggest hindrance in Africa airspace is inter-connectivity

Sunday June 09 2024

Anbessie Yitbarek, Boeing’s vice-president of Commercial Sales and Marketing for Africa. PHOTO | POOL


Boeing’s Vice-President of Commercial Sales and Marketing for Africa Anbessie Yitbarek discusses Africa’s aviation market with Michael Wakabi.


What is your assessment of the East African air transport market?

Africa is a growing market. With urbanisation, an expanding middle class and trade and communications becoming critical in the world, African Air traffic is growing faster than anywhere else in the world. So, we consider Africa a growth market and that applies to all the sub-regions including East Africa.

Boeing has a long-standing relationship with the region and there is not just airplanes but also enough infrastructure in East Africa to operate and support and maintain airplanes.

Ethiopian placed a large order last year and Kenya Airways is also looking to expand its fleet. We have Tanzania looking at expanding its fleet and we are talking to Uganda. So, East Africa is a growing market as we see it right now.


The region is positioning itself to capture all the opportunities of a growing market, so we see a lot of activity and growth in east Africa.

East Africa is also good in terms of being self-sufficient in supporting aeroplanes. Training centres are all over; you can teach technicians, engineers and pilots. There are maintenance organisations that can take care of the maintenance of these aeroplanes. We are also bringing a lot of management training into Africa to improve management skills. And there is goodwill from governments which consider aviation as a catalyst for the macro economy.

One of the challenges I see Africa facing is a deficit in access to capital and finance and as an industry we need to address those challenges. We are working with different actors, private lenders and like the American Exim Bank and AfDB, address that challenge.

There is also brain drain, a lot of people are leaving, so we are working on some strategies for retention or building a pipeline of talent. Some of them are unavoidable because of globalisation but we have to mitigate it by having the right plan.

As the bigger airlines such as Ethiopian and Kenya Airways consolidate and simplify fleets around a few aircraft types, the smaller airlines are going into complexity with small numbers of different aircraft. Is this unavoidable for them?

Africa is a huge market of 54 countries with a lot of different market segments. If you want to cater for that market, you cannot avoid a small degree of complexity. Simplification is important because the cost implications are huge when you have a complex fleet. Aircraft and human resource utilisation will be impacted tremendously in a complex fleet.

But, at the same time, at the end of the day it is the market that drives the need. There are short, small sectors and domestic routes where you need much smaller airplanes and regional and long-haul routes that require larger airplanes.

The big airlines simplifying around Boeing aircraft are buying different sized aircraft within two basic models – the 737 Max and 787 families. A lot of airlines in Africa have to open up new routes so you need a small airplane with the range because you don’t have the traffic immediately. Then on some trunk routes where you have frequency limitations, you need more density, so you go for a bugger airplane. So, a lot of airlines l operate within a narrow band in terms of fleet simplicity but it is actually wide in terms of scope.

What is your view of competition with Airbus for the African market?

Competition is always a good thing because it makes everybody better. It is good for customers, for the travelling public and for ourselves because we can only be better when we have competition. What I see so far is that competition is healthy and professional on both sides. And the market is too big, it needs both of us at least. So, I don’t see it in a negative connotation but at the same time our focus will be on the customer demand, what the public and airlines need and how we can design and produce the product that can fit into that.

The biggest problem in Africa to day is inter-connectivity. Flying from East to West Africa is not easy. Nobody wants to fly through intermediate points if they can avoid it. Since our philosophy is to help Africa connect, we design our aircraft to do just that. The Max today can fly eight hours non-stop. That gives airlines new opportunities to connect especially in Africa.

Boeing has recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Is this coming up in your engagement with African customers, and how are you reassuring them about what they are reading about the Max in the news?

The two Max accidents bought a lot of heartache for us and the travelling public. That is a tragedy that will not happen again. Having said that, it has created a situation where the Max has become the most scrutinised aircraft in the history of aircraft manufacturing. That means we were able to bring a lot of improvements to this aircraft. Today, because of that accident, however unfortunate, the Max has the highest level of safety of any aircraft, providing unmatched dispatch reliability.

But we don’t want to stop at that, the best way to build confidence is to demonstrate it in action. We not only bring our experts here, but we have hired third party experts, just in case there is anything we missed. We bring customers who have a lot of experience in operating Boeing aircraft for many years and industry experts specialised in these things to support our customers.

We also get a lot of feedback from our employees on the manufacturing lines and using that, we came up with a plan which we shared with the FAA just a couple of days ago and we are going to implement it. We have got an implementation matrix along 6 key areas against which we measure regularly whether we are making progress or not.

That will hold everybody within the company us accountable and give us the right focus. If we do that I think the public will recognise that we are doing the right thing. Right now our focus to rebuild confidence is take action, show the result.

Aviation safety in Africa has improved considerably over the years but there are still gaps. What can be done to bring the region at par with the Global North?

When this incident happened, we implemented a very extensive safety management system within Boeing company. We are taking it to our customers so that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We have thousands of experts around the world supporting our customers, implementing new safety measures in terms of their training, operations, management and so on.

For Africa we have a dedicated team here in Dubai, working with every airline and regulator as well to bring this safety culture and the safety management system, educating the teams and sharing experience at airline level. Our safety teams are working with a dozen airlines to bring core competences in training, where people are trained based on their competence level, identifying the gaps and addressing them.

The aircraft today tell us a lot. It has so many data points where we can see the trends, where we should focus in terms of operations. We are using that technology to measure and identify safety hazards before they turn into disasters.

Which collaborative airline safety initiatives is Boeing involved in?

When it comes to safety, there is no competition. Boeing is working with all regulators internationally and all other original equipment manufacturers to improve safety.

We partner with airframers, component manufacturers, Icao, Afraa, Afcac in developing a common standard so that there is no confusion. We do a lot of research on how we can use new technologies and learning from other industries to improve airline safety. So, we bring all of that together and we bring it to our customers.