Congo Airways boss, Desiré Balazire Bantu, explains to Martin Rivers and Romuald Ngueyap how political unrest at home has slowed the flag-carrier’s growth plans.
Desiré Balazire Bantu was appointed chief executive of Congo Airways in 2016 with a mandate to deliver sustainable growth at the state-owned flag-carrier, which launched services the previous year.
His aim of deploying 10 aircraft by 2020 quickly unraveled when the then president, Joseph Kabila, refused to step down at the end of his term, igniting a full-blown political crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
It was not until this January that a successor replaced him and relative calm returned to capital city Kinshasa.
“A lot of things changed. The country was expecting to have elections but they were postponed for two years and this had an impact on our strategy,” Balazire recalled.
“Because we are a public-owned company, we need to have a government which can plan with us for the long-term. The government we had during the transition period could not
… But we have, now, a new president. He recently appointed the prime minister. They are working to have a new cabinet. And I think that with that team we can work now for our future.”
Despite the challenging climate, Congo Airways has expanded its presence and now serves 14 airports in the vast central African country. Most of its routes are operated with a fully owned fleet of two Airbus A320s and two De Havilland Canada Dash-8 Q400s, though wet-leases are also frequently used to lift capacity.
Attempts to expand beyond the DRC’s borders have been less successful: only one of the three international markets added last year – Johannesburg (South Africa) – is still being served.
Asked about the closure of the fifth-freedom route from Kinshasa via Douala (Cameroon) to Cotonou (Benin), Balazire blamed tough competition with the continent’s more established airlines.
“We are not the only operator. We have Kenya Airways, Ethiopian, Asky and also Air Côte d’Ivoire,” he noted. “Passengers are more familiar with their products and so on. This means we have to work very hard in order to convince those passengers to be travelling with us.”
The chief executive cited a study by one consultant which found that only 35 passengers were likely to travel each way on the Kinshasa-Douala leg. That would represent a 51% load factor on the Q400, making the route commercially unviable, even with the smallest model in Congo Airways’ fleet.
Cargo uplift in Benin also fell short of the company’s expectations, he added.
Management will “re-examine” the business case for Douala and Cotonou in the future, but Kinshasa is unlikely to be used as the point of origin.
Instead, Balazire now wants to introduce a five-point service originating in Brazzaville, the capital of neighbouring Congo Brazzaville. That line would first stop in Libreville (Gabon) before passing through Douala and Cotonou and eventually reaching Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire). It is considered viable because of the recent failure of Equatorial Congo Airlines (ECAir), Congo Brazzaville’s own flag-carrier.
“And also, we have Bangui,” Balazire noted, referring to the capital of the Central African Republic. “The airport asked us to go there, but there is no market
from Bangui to Kinshasa. But there is from Brazzaville to Bangui.”
Congo Airways previously set a target of opening eight new overseas stations in 2019 – also including Pointe Noire (Congo Brazzaville), Bujumbura (Burundi), Nairobi (Kenya) and Luanda (Angola) – but meaningful expansion will not be possible until more aircraft join the fleet. There is, therefore, no timeframe for any of the route launches.
Efforts to spread the flag-carrier’s wings beyond Africa also lack momentum, though Balazire remains hopeful that European and Asian flights could get off the ground by 2021.
“In Europe, we are targeting Brussels and Paris,” he confirmed. “Congo Airways is already in the process of [undergoing] third country operator [TCO] certification. We are also targeting Asia to go to Dubai and Guangzhou, and we will see if we can also combine this with Mumbai.”
Asked about plans to acquire two wide-bodies for the proposed long-haul network, the chief executive downplayed suggestions of a direct order with Airbus or Boeing.
“We have two possibilities,” he insisted. “The first one is to lease the wide-bodies. We have some offers from lessors and we will continue discussing with them. The other possibility is to collaborate with Ethiopian Airlines. They are ready to give us the right aircraft. They can sub-lease them.”
Balazire is confident that Congo Airways will secure TCO status from the European Union this year, noting its successful completion of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) operational safety audit (IOSA) in 2018.
However, if there is a delay to certification, the airline also has a third option: taking delivery of wide-bodies and registering them in a foreign country under a flag of convenience. That approach has been favoured by Libya’s airlines since their inclusion on the European blacklist. But it is considered a last resort by Congo Airways, which was created to raise standards in the DRC.
On the financial side, the airline’s turnover increased from $39 million in 2016 to $74 million in 2017. “For 2018, the preliminary figures indicate nearly $73 million,” Balazire said, citing the impact of political unrest.
He added that talks with Ethiopian Airlines about a “strategic partnership” are also gathering pace.
Ethiopian Airlines has adopted a multi-hub strategy by investing in several African flag-carriers, including Togo’s Asky and Malawian Airlines. It is now negotiating a 15% stake in Congo Airways’ ground-handling subsidiary, Africa Handling, which could serve as a precursor to buying equity in the airline.
In 2016, the DRC’s former transport minister, Justin Kalumba Mwana Ngongo, told African Aerospace that Ethiopian Airlines had sent him six letters asking to invest in Congo Airways.