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46 African Business February 2017

FEATURE: AVIATION

A recent hijacking underscores


the problems facing the troubled
countrys carriers.

Can Libyas
aviation sector
take off again?

W
hen Afriqiyah Airways Flight 209
touched down at Malta Interna-
tional Airport on 23rd Decem-
ber 2016, its arrival was anything
but the illustrious new beginning
management had envisioned. For
more than a year, the state-owned Libyan airline had
been working on the Mediterranean island to lay the
foundations for PanAfriqiyah a new subsidiary
intended to rise above Libyas lawlessness and restore
the companys battered fortunes. Instead, Flight 209
was targeted by hijackers with fake weapons who
promised to kill all aboard if the domestic service
was not diverted.
In the European Union, of which Malta is a mem- Afriqiyah Fathi Al-Shatti, the chairman of Libyan Airlines,
ber state, the incident commanded round-the-clock Airways another state-owned carrier, was held by kidnappers
media coverage and a frantic search for answers. Air- for 47 days. Reflecting the situation elsewhere in the
craft hijackings have become exceptionally rare since plans to country, it is local militias not central government
11th September 2001, when new security measures restore its that control the aviation sector.
were introduced in response to the deliberate crashing
of four commercial planes on US soil by Al Qaeda. former role No quick return to stability
The potential for aircraft to be turned into weapons as a hub For Abubaker Elfortia, Afriqiyahs chairman, betting
in this way remains a source of intense anxiety across
the Western world.
operator on a swift return to security and stability would be
commercial suicide. He accepts that the countrys
But to a Libyan audience, Flight 209, though trou- connecting post-Arab Spring surge in air traffic fuelled largely
bling, was far from shocking. The countrys airlines Africa to by optimism about oil production is now a distant
have been in a dismal state since the overthrow of Europe. memory, replaced by stagnant demand and a total
Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, lunging from crisis to absence of international visitors. Today, no foreign
crisis amid an endless string of security breaches. airlines fly to Libya from anywhere in the world, while
The destruction of Tripoli International Airport by the countrys own carriers have been banned from
Islamist rebels in 2014 an assault that wrote off 10 entering European airspace. Afriqiyahs scheduled
aircraft, including two operated by Afriqiyah was route network consists of just four domestic points
just one of several recent incidents. In 2013, gunmen and six regional ones (Alexandria in Egypt, Amman
stormed the gateways Air Traffic Control tower to in Jordan, Istanbul in Turkey, Khartoum in Sudan,
obstruct the landing of a Qatar Airways flight. In and Tunis and Sfax in Tunisia). Before Gaddafi was
2014, shortly before the Islamist assault, a bomb was booted from power, it served 18 destinations in Africa
planted and detonated on its main runway. Last year, and six in Europe.
February 2017 African Business 47

Lithuanian and Turkish partners, thereby bringing


in more foreign cash.

Afriqiyahs new model


The next step, Elfortia confirmed, is the launch of
the brand new airline subsidiary in Malta. If all goes
according to plan, PanAfriqiyah will restore the com-
panys former role as a hub operator connecting Africa
to Europe. It is being set up as an autonomous unit
with a European Air Operator Certificate (AOC),
exempting it from the ban Brussels has slapped on
Libyan carriers.
Our model as Afriqiyah Airways is to bring pas-
sengers from Europe and have the hub and then dis-
tribute them to Africa. We see that our model is being
disturbed due to the recent trouble, so really we are
changing the hub from Tripoli to Malta, said Elfortia.
We are focused on starting with two aircraft, and in
three years we should have about six aircraft.
Elfortia stressed that the purpose of the new sub-
sidiary is not to get around the EU ban, but rather
to allow Afriqiyah to resume intercontinental trans-
fer flights while also providing a safe base to train
staff. Nonetheless, the potential benefits of setting
up a Europe-approved subsidiary just 350km north
of Tripoli are clear. At present, the majority of Libyan
passengers bound for Europe self-connect via hubs in
Tunisia or Turkey switching airlines with no guar-
There are still difficulties. Its no easier, said El- A crew member helps antee of making their onward flight (the codeshare
fortia when asked if the formation of the Government hostages to disembark agreements which should merge their journeys into
after the hijacking
of National Accord (GNA) in December 2015 had of Afriqiyah Airways through-tickets have been suspended). With its Mal-
materially improved the operating environment. Flight 209. tese subsidiary, Afriqiyah will be able to bridge Libya
Though heralded as a new beginning for Libya by the and Europe via one hub, one brand and crucially for
United Nations, the political accord has so far failed to passengers one individual booking.
quell fighting between the myriad factions providing The fact that the hijackers of Flight 209 managed
security in the country. to smuggle fake weapons through Sebha Airport
Why? Because the government is not completely located in the southwest of Libya underscores the
formed we dont have ministers yet and this is not risk facing any European airline that opens routes
helping at all, he added. And the other thing which to the country, including PanAfriqiyah. While that
is affecting Afriqiyah and the airlines is the cost of incident was orchestrated by apparent supporters of
hard currency. Gaddafi, so-called Islamic State would not hesitate
Afriqiyah is powerless to spur Libyas political lead- to exploit such vulnerabilities for kamikaze attacks.
ers into action, but management can at least reduce The presence of a weakened but still powerful Islamic
their exposure to foreign exchange fluctuations. Last State affiliate within Libyas borders amplifies this
October, the company acquired 20% of the Avia- threat. But after five years of civil war, state-owned
tion Training Centre of Tunisia (ATCT), a simula- enterprises are beginning to lose patience with their
tor training specialist based in the North African disparate political masters. An expedient partnership
country. The investment brings a sorely needed extra with European allies may be the best way forward for
revenue stream to Afriqiyah, as well as cutting costs the creaking aviation sector. It would certainly make
by removing the need to send pilots to Germany for life easier for the countrys hardy business travellers.
training. Three aircraft have also been leased out to  Martin Rivers