The last few months have been tough on all airlines, and some may never recover at all. However, for Ghana-based Africa World Airlines, the pandemic was just another challenge to overcome. Here’s the story of West Africa’s ambitious airline, and how it’s using the crisis to come back even stronger.
West Africa’s most ambitious airline
The HNA-owned Africa World Airlines (AWA) is a wholly Ghanaian carrier, except for its ownership. Flying a fleet of eight 50-seater Embraer E145s, the airline has been fiercely ambitious, keen to develop Accra as a hub and the primary gateway to West Africa. Its partnerships with SAA, Brussels Airlines, Emirates, and Ethiopian put it in a strong position to achieve this goal.
The airline is well known for its high utilization of aircraft and high-frequency operations. Pre-pandemic, its route to Kumasi flew up to 10 times a day, while Lagos operated six times daily. Many other routes were flown multiple times a day.
This business model is a way to compete effectively with the busses. Flying in Africa is typically expensive, but AWA seeks to break that mold. Speaking to Anna.aero last year, COO Sean Mendis said,
“We’re faster, more comfortable, more convenient, and often have a lower base fare than buses.”
On the receiving end of multiple awards, including the prestigious Routes Africa Awards Airline Excellence Award for “Innovation and Capacity Growth” in December last year, AWA was set for a successful 2020. Unfortunately, the universe had other plans.
The challenges of COVID
When the COVID pandemic hit, AWA reduced its local flight schedule by 20% and regional by 45%. Travel restrictions to Cote d’Ivoire implemented on March 20th saw it abandon services to Abidjan and Freetown, and domestic passenger traffic was down to around 300 passengers a day; a considerable downturn from the 2,200 typical of the pre-pandemic demand.
On March 30th, all flights were grounded. The President closed all of the country’s borders, invoking the Restriction Of Movement Act. There were to stay shut until April 30th in a bid to stop the spread of COVID in the country.
As it has been for every airline around the world, times were tough for Africa World Airlines. However, AWA was in a better position than most. It went into the pandemic with low levels of debt and with its eyes wide open, thanks to guidance from its Chinese shareholder HNA Group. The airline has not received a bailout of any form and doesn’t expect one either.
Setting the pace for resumption
Domestic flights resumed, as expected, on May 1st. AWA scheduled routes from Accra to Kumasi and Tamale, while local competitor Passion Air scheduled similarly. Between the two operators, at least 12 domestic flights took off over that first weekend of flight resumptions. Ghana was the first African nation to resume flight services since the lockdown.
However, things did not look the same as they had pre-pandemic. Strict safety protocols were in place, starting with complete fumigation of the various regional airports. Mask wearing became mandatory, hand sanitizers were provided and recommended, and social distancing measures were in place throughout the airport and on the plane.
Onboard, the middle row of seats were left empty. The E145s flown by AWA have a 1-2 layout, so everyone got a window seat while the aisle seat was blocked. Despite the lower loading of the plane, AWA worked hard to keep the prices consistent.
Bags were disinfected, hands cleaned at the boarding gate, and AWA sold out every flight on that first day. At the end of every rotation, a cleaning team undertook a deep clean of the aircraft. Mendis told Simple Flying about this, explaining.
“We spray and clean the aircraft after every flight. This includes at every outstation. This follows a checklist that includes high contact surfaces such as tray tables, seatbelt buckles, side walls, windows, armrests, overhead bins and more.”
As expected, this presented some challenges for AWA in terms of its turnaround times. But, in typical optimistic fashion, AWA was prepared to find the silver lining in the midst of the COVID crisis.
Finding opportunity within a crisis
Initially, it was hard for AWA to stick to schedule. The additional measures required to ensure a safe and healthy operation took time and working with a reduced level of staff further compounded this. However, despite this challenge, the airline pushed through and worked with its staff to increase their efficiency.
As a result, the airline drove down these potentially arduous turnaround times to just 30 minutes, and in some cases has reduced this even further to only 25 minutes. A commitment to developing the most efficient workflow possible now means a throughout deep clean can be completed in just seven minutes, with cabin crew stepping up to help the cleaning teams where necessary.
Simple Flying asked Sean Mendis about this incredible achievement. He told us,
“The COVID pressures have forced our ground operations teams to step up and optimise our processes to work more efficiently. I am confident that the workflow improvements will continue beyond the current pandemic to increase staff productivity by up to 30% in the long term.”
What other measures will stay?
While the improvement in productivity will undoubtedly prove to be a huge benefit for AWA, and something that will persist long after COVID is consigned to history, what else will stay? Will we wear masks on flights forever? What about sanitizing bags? How long will the middle seat block remain?
This is precisely the subject I’ll be talking to Sean Mendis about in more detail less than a week from now. Along with Joao Po Jorge, Director General, LAM – Linhas Aéreas de Moçambique, S.A, and Zuks Ramasia, CEO, Board Of Airline Representatives Of South Africa (BARSA), we’ll be tackling the topic of what the ‘new normal’ will really look like as part of the Africa Tomorrow conference.
Africa Tomorrow has been developed in this time of uncertainty to unite the industry’s leaders and to encourage online networking for discussions on how we deal with the economic circumstances caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s more than just another webinar and is being brought to you by the teams behind AHIF – Africa Hotel Investment Forum and AviaDev Africa.
Featuring six hours of essential insights delivered by 100+ speakers, networking opportunities with thousands of industry peers, live video-meeting functionality, and a virtual expo where you can meet some of the most innovative industry brands, it promises to be the preeminent event for Africa’s travel and tourism industry this year.
Attendance is free for African residents and businesses. You can REGISTER NOW and join us to explore the new normal.