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How Ethiopian Airlines rode out the coronavirus pandemic

Ethiopian Airlines planes   -  
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AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene

Ethiopia

The travel sector has been one of the worst casualties of the coronavirus pandemic, with flights grounded and borders closed.

But Ethiopian Airlines found a way to limit the damage.

Africa's biggest airline is facing more than $1 billion in lost revenue and saw a 90 percent drop in international passenger traffic.

But the company pivoted in March to meet surging demand for air freight, repurposing 45 passenger jets to build out its cargo fleet.

"We were very quick, very fast, flexible and agile to move our forces, resources and everything to cargo," Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam told AFP in an interview.

"I would say that those actions have saved the airline."

So far Ethiopian has avoided seeking a bailout, laying off any full-time employees or requesting deferrals on debt payments, Tewolde said.

It even reported a profit of $44 million (37 million euros) for the first half of the year, he said, although the company declined to give details because the figures are unaudited.

The airline was further aided by the UN's decision to open a humanitarian transport hub in Addis Ababa in April.

To date Ethiopian has operated 360 cargo charters of personal protective equipment to more than 80 countries, Tewolde said.

And once a vaccine is approved, Ethiopian plans to make available "at least 40 airplanes" to distribute it globally.

African carriers

As the industry attempts to recover, Tewolde is looking to deepen ties with other African carriers, notably beleaguered South African Airways (SAA).

"It is... an opportune time now to support other airlines because we are in a better position," he said.

Ethiopian already partners with Malawian Airlines and ASKY Airlines out of its hub in Togo.

It also holds a 45-percent stake in Zambia Airways which Tewolde said he expected would launch "either in October or November".

But Tewolde lamented that African carriers currently only meet about 20 percent of the continental market's needs.

"We have been aiming to reverse this market share, meaning African airlines, indigenous African airlines, should get at least 50 percent," he said.

With that in mind, Ethiopian is in talks over the restructuring of SAA, which has survived only through years of state bailouts.

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