How Ebola Meant Africa World Airlines Was Ready For COVID-19

The global health crisis has rocked the aviation industry across the continents this year. As a result, airlines have been seeking ways to adapt to the challenging conditions that have arisen. However, some carriers were able to respond more swiftly than others, thanks to their previous experience. Simple Flying had the opportunity to speak with former Africa World Airlines (AWA) COO Sean Mendis about how the carrier was able to prepare for the pandemic due to previous Ebola outbreaks in Western Africa.

How Ebola Meant Africa World Airlines Was Ready For COVID-19
AWA has been hard at work following the rise of the pandemic. Photo: Africa World Airlines

Learning from the past

Mendis emphasizes that the Accra-based carrier took note of previous experiences in the middle of the 2010s. Altogether, in case there was a similar situation, local aviation bodies launched programs to be ready for next time.

“AWA’s preparation for a pandemic dated back to well before COVID-19. Lessons were learned from the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014-15 and indeed, Ghana Airports Company Limited conducted a full-scale pandemic response simulation exercise in December 2018 as part of the routine preparedness, for which AWA contributed an aircraft and crew,” Mendis told Simple Flying.

“The risk of a pandemic, whether COVID or something else, was a constant reality not just for AWA but for all operators in the region. I have said multiple times that any African airline who did not have some sort of pandemic preparedness plan before COVID probably deserves to go out of business anyway due to sheer negligence.”

AWA Plane
After only commencing operations in 2012, the airline had to quickly deal with health crises. Photo: Sm105 via Wikimedia

Other factors

Mendis also highlighted recent aspects that helped AWA prepare for the pandemic. He said that the airline became aware of what subsequently became COVID-19 in late 2019 due to intelligence received from its shareholder, HNA Group. Therefore, the company had already begun to institute pre-screening programs by January 2020.

Features included identifying interline passengers traveling from early coronavirus hotspots such as China and Italy and developing a multi-level containment plan that was subsequently rolled out as the situation developed. The company was also identifying potential suppliers for PPE requirements and increasing onboard provision of products such as sanitizers, gloves, and masks.

Local health authorities also instituted thermal screening for all international arrivals, along with contact tracing forms by the end of January. By February, AWA had instituted escalated precautions such as mandatory hand sanitizer usage for passengers in areas such as boarding.

Then by March, the airline had a systemwide mask usage mandate for all customer-facing staff. Therefore, by the time Ghana recorded its first case that month, the carrier was already in a position where it knew what steps had to be taken, and it was just a case of implementation. Subsequently, the firm successfully rolled out its “Level 2” containment plan, which included shipping supplies of items such as PPE and sanitizer to all of its stations within 48 hours of initiation.

Hand sanitizer in Kenyan airport
Airlines and airports across Africa and the globe scaled up sanitizing efforts amid the rise of the virus. Photo: Getty Images

Across the company

There were also public awareness campaigns along with internal advances. For instance, the airline launched a comprehensive communications plan called “Fly Safe, Fly Confident!” This project includes an ongoing social media campaign, along with an information tab on the top of the carrier’s website to provide the latest updates.

Notably, the airline ensured that its management team was also visible on the front lines to set an example, as well as to monitor the protocols implemented. Mendis shares that he personally visited every one of the company’s stations multiple times during the pre-pandemic and pandemic period. This approach helped to get feedback from the frontline staff and ensure everything was going according to plan.

The global impact of the virus is far from over. However, following the temporary suspension of operations in April, AWA resumed domestic passenger services from the beginning of May after the expiry of inter-city movement restrictions. Moreover, the airline instituted phased resumptions of international flights from September. Nonetheless, during the downtime, it continued to operate repatriation flights. Altogether, the airline would be confident in handling the global situation heading into 2021.

What are your thoughts about how the Ebola epidemic helped Africa World Airlines prepare for this year’s pandemic? What do you make of the situation in the African aviation industry? Let us know what you think in the comment section.