The chief executive of Ethiopian Airlines has this year had to navigate the biggest crisis in the history of the international aviation sector as Covid-19 grounded planes and emptied the continent’s busiest airports.
An employee of the airline for more than 35 years, GebreMariam made an early decision during the pandemic to temporarily switch to transporting cargo, which he says helped to avert financial ruin by allowing the airline to maintain an income stream when around 90% of its passenger fleet was grounded.
Still, by April the airline had lost $550m since January, and the crisis is far from over. The IATA predicts the continent will hit just 30% of 2019 passenger levels, down significantly from the 45% it projected in July.
That means Africa will see just 45m travellers this year, compared to 155m in 2019, with numbers likely to be significantly down across all of Ethiopian Airlines’ remaining routes.
Nevertheless, the airline is looking for opportunities amid the rubble, and entered initial talks over a potential rescue of the stricken South African Airways, which it could help to manage.
The move hints at the continent-wide ambitions of the airline even at what is likely to be its lowest ebb.