Air Namibia is one of the State-owned airlines in Africa being repositioned to drive connectivity in Namibia and Africa. The Interim Chief Executive Officer of the airline, Mr. Xavier Masule, is relying on his experience in the industry to improve the airline. He also hints on the suspension of Air Namibia’s West African operation due to external challenges in this exclusive interview with Aviation & Allied Business Journal.
Q: You recently took over the leadership of Air Namibia. How would you describe your experience so far?
A: The experience is good and in a way fulfilling. However it is quite a challenge. The challenges are more linked to the changed competitive landscape and market dynamics. Competition in our long-haul markets intensified as a result of mega airlines which entered the Namibia market. On the other hand, demand in some of our key markets, including Namibia, Angola and South Africa mainly, is soft as a result of underlying economies which are not performing well, and some are in recession.
Having been a senior executive in the industry for more than 10 years comes in handy and helps in understanding the situation, and also helps in guiding the team on how we should navigate through the maze.
Q: How has your operation to West Africa been, and how much further do you want to expand in other parts of Africa?
A: There was a major set-back indeed on our plans to grow the airline as we had to suspend the route due to external factors. The first seven months after entering the market were quite well and the operation was paying its direct operating costs, as well as adding value positively to the route network. We hope and trust that our governments will intervene and resolve the small glitch which resulted in the suspension of the operation.
Q: Aircraft acquisition has been a challenge for African airlines, what is your own situation at Air Namibia?
A: We are an African airline and we also feel the pressure. Availability and willingness to supply aircraft is not a problem at all. What we seem to have as a disadvantage is our small size, whereby due to poor economies of scale, we are not able to get competitive rates or pricing as those our peers from other regions are able to get. Smallness comes with a penalty you pay. We have no immediate plans to increase fleet size, but options and opportunities to re-fleet in order to benefit from new products on the market are always pursued. With higher lease rates come also unfavorable aircraft maintenance rates, once again due to not being in a leverage position to have pricing power.
Q: What do you consider a major challenge to Air Namibia and African airlines generally?
A: Access to new markets in the region, where the best opportunities are is one challenge. The process to get designation and grant of traffic rights takes very long, and often comes with restrictions. Economies of most countries are also of such a nature that the purchasing power of the market is low, so you rely heavily on external points of sale to generate decent yields. Population density in some countries, low or non-existing commuter traffic is another; and the issue of visa requirements for Africans to visit other African countries – this also contributed to our suspension of our flights into West Africa when a visa ban was imposed by the Nigerian high commissioner to Namibia for Namibian passport holders.
Low inter-trade between African States is another factor, as well as low or poorly developed supporting infrastructure, and expensive user chargers.
Q: The Single African Air Transport Market is a key focus of the continent now. How prepared is Air Namibia to play in this market?
A: The main aspect of SAATM is the exercise of 5th freedom traffic rights and privileges. This is a positive aspect of the concept, and we at Air Namibia are happy about it and very ready. We happen to be one of the few African airlines already operating using 5th freedom traffic rights. We support the idea and indeed it will help many economies integrate to foster trade links. This, however, needs to be supported by relaxation of immigration regulations and visa requirements. Opening the sky is one thing, but if actual people movement as well as import of goods still has restrictions it will prevent attainment of full potential.
Competition rules and laws should also be thoroughly looked at to ensure the playing field is level for all players; else we will end up with only one airline on the continent.
Q: Do you think African airlines would create an Alliance someday, and how much does Air Namibia partner with African airlines?
A: This will be difficult to achieve, mainly as a result of ownership structures of most airlines, their commercial strategies are required to balance shareholder views and normal commercial aspirations. We have a number of commercial agreements with other African airlines, and we believe this is the way forward.
Q: There is so much clamour for women empowerment in African airlines and aviation industry. How can more female leaders emerge in aviation in Africa?
A: Women are our sisters, mothers and daughters. They are equally capable and have same capabilities as their male counterparts. They unfortunately on the other hand have high demanding roles in society more than men, putting them in much more challenging positions. So they need to be supported to lessen their other societal roles so that they have same opportunities and devote ample time on their careers as is the case with males.
Q: There is new commitment by ICAO and UNWTO to drive aviation and tourism growth in Africa, given Africa’s multitude of cultures and wildlife which present strong attraction for tourism. How is Air Namibia connecting to this tourism potential?
A: Air Namibia exists and was established to be one of the key role players in tourism development of our country and for the region at large. We have forged strategic alliancies with various players in the industry, where we do cross-marketing and undertake joint marketing activities. This has helped develop Namibia as a true touristic destination, given the beauty of our country and natural attractions, easy access to the country is really important.
Q: What aspects of Africa’s cultures and cuisine excites you, and how best do you relax considering your very tasking role?
A: The drums and dancing, the diverse cultures are indeed a rich heritage which we should embrace and make sure we blend some of these in our service offering. West African cuisine, in particular tilapia fish with banku whenever I visit West Africa.
Q: What do you look forward to for Air Namibia over the next decade?
A: Double the size in terms of destinations, become financially sustainable and make contribution to the economies of our countries increase 10-fold.