Rwanda’s ambition to become a regional aviation hub has gained momentum with the national carrier RwandAir now able to access 17 African countries under the recently launched Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) pilot programme that seeks to create a single unified air transport market in Africa.
RwandAir currently operates 12 aircraft across 28 destinations in 22 countries across Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
However, its capacity is expected to double next year when it concludes negotiations with Qatar, which is set to acquire a 49 percent stake.
Qatar Airways’ planned investment is valued at least $28 million, according to financial statements submitted to the US Department of Transportation last year.
Negotiations to be concluded
Yvonne Makolo, RwandAir chief executive, confirmed to The East African this week that negotiations will soon be concluded, although the two airlines have already expanded their partnership.
“We hope by early next year, we will have concluded everything,” Makolo said.
On October 5, 2021, RwandAir and Qatar Airways announced they had signed a comprehensive codeshare agreement that gives the Rwandan carrier access to Qatar’s more than 65 destinations across Africa and the rest of the world.
As part of the deal, RwandAir launched non-stop flights between its Kigali hub and Doha in December.
The codeshare also enabled RwandAir to access the US market and is expected to extend to key European cities such as London, Zurich and Madrid, and points across Asia such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.
US direct flights
Recently, Rwandan civil aviation authorities attained the much-coveted permission for aircraft to fly directly to the US, raising new competition for carriers from Kenya, the only other East African Community member state whose airliners have this privilege.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) this week gave Rwanda the coveted Category 1 status after it qualified for an International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA).
Kenya qualified for one in 2018, allowing Kenya Airways to begin flying directly to US cities. Ethiopian Airlines also flies directly to the US.
The Category 1 rating recognises Rwanda’s civil aviation authority as compliant with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) standards and allows qualifying carriers to operate direct services to the US.
The move sets the stage for tight competition between Kenya Airways (KQ) and RwandAir as previously, passengers from the EAC countries have been using the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) as a transit point to board KQ to the US in order to avoid long layovers in the Middle East and Europe.
“Under a Category 1 rating, properly authorised Rwandan air carriers are permitted to serve the United States and enter into codeshare agreements with US carriers without limitation,” the FAA said.
The IASA programme normally focuses on a country’s ability to adhere to international aviation safety standards and recommended practices as set by ICAO, a UN technical agency for aviation.
Long overdue reforms
KQ Chairman Michael Joseph says the new plan is likely to impact directly on the national carrier if Kenya does not take steps on long overdue reforms.
“This is a wakeup call for us especially if we do not move with speed in doing what is right,” Joseph said in an earlier interview with the Business Daily.
Joseph noted that when KQ was pushing to manage JKIA, they wanted to make it an East African commercial hub and attract traffic from other regions. However, the move was opposed.
On November 6, RwandAir launched direct flights between Heathrow in London and Kigali after operating flights to London via Brussels for the past five years.
But it is Rwanda’s new airport, Bugesera International Airport, that is expected to be a game-changer. It is currently under construction. In December 2019, Qatar Airways agreed to take a 60 percent stake in the project, which is valued at around $1.3 billion.
Airport being redesigned
The new airport is being redesigned to accommodate seven million passengers per annum, with a second phase for 14 million passengers a year expected to start by 2032.
African airlines are expected to narrow their loss to $638 million in 2022 from $1.1 billion in 2021 as the global airlines industry tiptoes towards a return to profitability next year, IATA says in its latest forecast for the industry.
Africa will maintain a positive trajectory with passenger demand growing 27.4 percent to return to 86.3 percent of pre-crisis demand levels on 83.9 percent of pre-crisis capacity. Air cargo revenues are also expected to reach $201.4 billion this year, more than doubling the $100.8 billion earned in 2019.
Reporting by Berna Namata and Gerald Andae