Amidst the adversity of the tragic crash of Flight 302 and the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic, Ethiopian Airlines Group stands tall. Mesfin Tasew Bekele, the Group’s CEO, reiterates the need for increased cooperation among African airlines to enable the aviation industry to play its due role in the continent’s development.

Ethiopian Airlines CEO Mesfin Tasew Bekele, who took over as CEO of Ethiopian Airlines from Tewolde Gebremariam in March 2022, was in Vienna for a day to attend the “Ethiopian Airlines-Executive Profile”. We had the opportunity to meet the new CEO in person. Despite the limited time, Bekele remained composed and unhurried in his responses, allowing the con­versation to develop naturally.

As a strong advocate of Pan-Africanism, the man who dedicated a lifetime to African Aviation emphasizes the potential advantages of the African continent, including abundant natural resources and a large population of young people who can be trained and motivated to contribute to its growth. “While Africa is still in the process of development, effective utilization of its natural resources, proper training of human resources, and the implementation of appropriate policies and regulations by African governments can stimulate economic growth and eradicate poverty,” Bekele comments. “The air transport industry has a crucial role to play in this development endeavor, as it acts as a catalyst for socioeconomic progress.”

Ethiopian Airlines (formerly Ethiopian Air Lines, EAL) was established with a similar goal. Its story began with Emperor Haile Selassie I’s aim of modernizing Ethiopia through aviation. With support from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, negotiations were initiated to establish a commercial aviation company, and in 1945, Ethiopian Air Lines was officially founded with government funding. It was in 1984 that Mesfin Tasew Bekele began his journey with the Ethiopian Airlines Group, marking the start of his thirty-eight-year association. Finally, in March 2022, he assumed the role of CEO, leading the largest airline in the African continent, often referred to as a testament to capitalist success within Marxist Ethiopia. “As we have consistently been generating profits for the past two decades, questions about how a government-owned airline can achieve such rapid growth, financial success and overall prosperity are being raised,” he notes with a grin. “The answer is simple: Ethiopian Airlines operates as an independent business entity despite its government ownership.” The Ethiopian government does not interfere in the airline’s operations, states Bekele, as a result of the robust leadership policies and procedures. This allows the airline to operate purely on business principles, free from government intervention. “This approach has proven ­in­strumental in ensuring competitiveness, rapid growth, and sustained profitability,” argues Bekele.

Reuters reports that during the 2022/2023 fiscal year, Ethiopian Airlines witnessed a 20% ­increase in earnings amounting to $6.1 billion. Despite the adverse effects of the Russian-­Ukraine war and the rise in fuel prices, the airline transported 13.7 million passengers and handled 723,000 tons of cargo throughout the fiscal year. In 2022, Mamo Mihretu, the CEO of Ethiopian Investment Holdings, claimed to Business Insider that Ethiopian Airlines “posted $5 billion in revenue this financial year, a 79% growth compared to last year. Profit grew by 90%, reaching $937 million despite the headwinds of the worsening global economic outlook, rising fuel cost, and global pandemic”. Bekele agrees with both Reuters’ and Business Insider’s statements: “The recently released audited report has con­firmed that our annual revenue exceeded $5 billion, and our profit surpassed $900 million.”

Bekele has been with the Ethiopian Group since 1984. After serving as the Group’s COO for eleven years between 2010 and 2021, Bekele took on the role of CEO at Asky Airlines in 2021 (until March 2022). The privately owned pan-­African Airline based in Lomé, Togo, was established in 2007 through a collaboration between prominent regional banking institutions in Africa, alongside Ethiopian Airlines which holds a majority stake of 40%.

Upon assuming the position of CEO at Asky Airlines in 2021, amidst the challenging circumstances of the pandemic, Bekele faced the task of addressing the airline’s financial losses. According to The African Report, the pan-African airline did not receive any financial support from Lomé during the crisis. Being a privately owned company, Asky had to rely on its resources to navigate through the challenging times. One of the key resources at their disposal was Bekele, who played a significant role in restoring the company’s profitability. Recognizing that certain aspects of the business were robust, the CEO proceeded to reevaluate the company’s strategy while making adjustments to its business processes. Consequently, within one year, Asky Airlines was profitable again, achieving the highest level of financial success in its twelve-year history, Bekele notes.

Operational disruptions are not unprecedented for the airline, and the pandemic was not the first big challenge the Group faced. Never­theless, it was an unprecedented situation. Ethiopian Airlines was compelled to ground all its passenger operations, a situation that persis­ted for several months, with a minimum of five months being the norm. “Such a significant disruption had never been experienced in the history of our airline,” Bekele says. He acknow­ledges and says that he believes they showcased agility in response to this crisis. Recognizing the need to adapt, Ethiopian Airlines identified opportunities in the cargo sector and swiftly shifted its focus to cargo operations. This strategic shift proved fruitful as it generated sufficient revenue to sustain the business. Remarkably, the airline managed to weather the storm without resorting to major structural changes, such as downsizing or employee layoffs.

On 10th of March 2019, only a month after Forbes interviewed the former CEO Tewolde Gebremariam, one of the most devastating accidents in the airline’s history occurred: Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, a Boeing 737 Max 8, crashed shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa on its way to Nairobi. This accident claimed the lives of all 157 people on board, representing more than 30 different nations. “The crash of Flight 302 stands as an indelible tragedy that continues to deeply resonate with Ethiopia, Ethiopian Airlines, and the global community,” says the current CEO. “It occurred due to deficiencies in the design and production of the aircraft, a fact acknowledged by all parties involved. It is our utmost desire that such a devastating event never befall any airline.”

Looking at the future of African aviation, the pan-African advocate notes that the continent is expected to experience growth in its transportation industry. Currently, however, the African market remains relatively thin in comparison to the highly developed air transport market in Europe. “There are a few smaller airlines scattered across the continent, but the majority of air traffic, approximately 80%, is serviced by Euro­pean carriers,” Bekele says. “The competition pri­marily exists among non-African airlines.” These include Air France, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines and airlines from Middle Eastern countries such as Emirates and Qatar Airways.

Bekele thinks that the air transport industry in Africa is currently in its nascent stage and is not contributing sufficiently to the continent’s development, even though the pre-pandemic industry supported 7.7 million jobs and $63 billion in economic activity in Africa, according to International Air Transport Association. “This is partly due to the absence of a conducive business environment within Africa, which hampers industry growth,” Bekele argues and elaborates on several major challenges faced by the industry: First, African governments often do not grant adequate traffic rights approvals for African airlines. Secondly, high taxes on air transport and a shortage of aviation professionals in the continent pose further obstacles, and thirdly, fuel prices are high, leading to increased overall costs of air transport in Africa.

Despite these issues, and precisely because of them, Bekele firmly believes that Africa’s transportation industry has a significant role to play in advancing the continent’s progress. Already, there are specific initiatives undertaken by the African Union to support the growth of the industry. The challenge lies in the full commitment and implementation of these initiatives by the governments. “Once they endorse and effectively implement these measures, the air transport industry in Africa can flourish,” according to the CEO.

Mesfin Tasew Bekele has a B.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and a M.Sc. in Communications Engineering (from Addis Ababa University) as well as an MBA (from Open University). For the eleven years between 2010 and 2021, Bekele was the Chief Operations Officer of the Ethiopian Airlines Group. Prior to being Ethiopian Airlines’ CEO, between 2021 and March 2022, he was the CEO of Asky Airlines.

Fotos: Katharina Gossow
Infografik: Valentin Berger, Emin Hamdi


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