The Covid-19 outbreak has pushed the aviation industry into unknown territory, forcing us to face extreme challenges which we have never encountered before,” says Yvonne Manzi Makolo, CEO of RwandAir (pictured above).

    [This feature first appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Aircraft Cabin Management, which you can read in full here.]

    “For five months, an almost complete shutdown of Rwandan airspace meant we were able to protect the business until flights eventually resumed on 1 August.” While this was clearly very difficult for the carrier, Makolo says it also offered an unprecedented opportunity for the airline to stop and consider its future direction.

    Gradual return

    RwandAir has a growing route network that includes intra-African routes as well as destinations in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. However, like so many other airlines around the world, it has had to adjust to the current market created by the impact of Covid-19. Makolo explains that, to weather the impact of Covid-19, the airline has slimmed down operations to ensure it is flexible enough to meet this short-term challenge while also streamlining it for the future. 

    “We constantly monitor the best-performing routes, adding further flexibility to our response to changes in market performance as the situation evolves. When travel restrictions began to relax across the globe, we introduced a gradual return to service and focused on rebuilding our African routes first, with a view to incorporating our long-haul routes at a later stage.”

    With flights to popular destinations such as Johannesburg, Nairobi, Lagos and Harare back in the air, RwandAir is currently operating 20 out of its 29 routes – accounting for almost 70 per cent of the airline’s total network. “To connect Africa with the rest of the world and enable the return of essential trade and business travel, we have now resumed long-haul flights to London and Brussels. The shift from London’s Gatwick Airport to Heathrow, the UK’s biggest airport, marks an important milestone for us as we can take advantage of a bigger catchment market for premium business and leisure travel,” Makolo notes.

    Focus on cargo

    As all scheduled commercial flights at its Kigali hub came to a halt, RwandAir turned its attention to long-haul repatriation flights and focused on cargo to support exports and essential medical supplies primarily to London, Brussels and Guangzhou. Makolo says the carrier repurposed its wide-bodies to exploit their full cargo capacity and recognised the strategic importance of the freight sector. 

    “Before the pandemic, we were already looking forward to growing our cargo services – especially after the opening of our route to Guangzhou – but the increased demand and cargo revenue during Covid-19 has prompted us to consider acquiring a cargo freighter in the near future,” she explains. 

     

    “While we’ve had to slow down our network-expansion plans, we are proud to have a fleet of 12 passenger aircraft, including two Airbus A330s which offer a choice of three cabins, including international Business 

    Class with fully-flat beds, for the discerning traveller.” 

     

     

    RwandAir also operates six Boeing 737s serving mid-haul routes within Africa and four Bombardier aircraft, which provide 

    essential regional connections to destinations such as Nairobi. “All our A330s and 737s are equipped with a personal in-flight entertainment screen – or an overhead screen – in Business and Economy Class, with RwandAir’s vast selection of films updated every three months,” Makolo says.

    World-class hygiene

    While commercial flights were temporarily suspended, RwandAir also took important steps to ensure the health and safety of its customers and staff once operations resumed. According to Makolo, a deep-clean programme of all aircraft and airport operations took place, and the airline introduced world-class, easy-to-understand hygiene and safety protocols not only to make RwandAir experience Covid-safe as much as possible, but also to ensure its customers can fly with confidence once again.

    New opportunities

    So, what does the post-pandemic future hold for the ambitious African carrier? “For better or worse, the pandemic is allowing a reset of the aviation sector,” Makolo says. “Airlines which have taken measures to protect their liquidity will survive – and hopefully thrive. We are going to position RwandAir as the top African carrier, able to offer connections within Africa with quick and efficient transfers through Kigali to key long-haul destinations.” 

    To achieve this, Makolo explains the carrier has embarked on a mission to introduce greater automation into RwandAir’s systems, while Covid-19 has also accelerated its drive to encourage customers to choose transactions via online platforms instead of coming to its sales offices.

    Makolo is confident RwandAir has a place in the continent as a world-class airline. “There is a lot of untapped potential in African markets, which will enable us to grow and expand the airline as we recover from the pandemic. 

    “Through external investment we aim to ramp up our onboard customer service to focus on becoming a four-star airline, offering a premium experience to our customers which will help put RwandAir at a competitive advantage.

    “But most importantly, we will continue to dare to dream. We will look for new untapped markets and opportunities to ensure RwandAir remains the beating heart of African aviation.”