in Air Transport / Features

Nile's tide is on the turn

Posted 2 September 2020 · Add Comment

Even before the current Covid-19 crisis, which has seen airlines all over the world seriously affected, Egyptian airline, Nile Air, had paused its expansion. Managing director, Yossrey Abdel Wahab, explained why to Martin Rivers.

In recent years, Nile Air had seemed to be a rare bright spot in Egypt’s civil aviation market, spreading its wings even as the country grappled with a series of political and security crises.
Former boss, Ahmed Aly, attributed the airline’s success to its varied customer base of business travellers, pilgrims, tourists, and those visiting friends and relatives.
Under his watch, the full-service carrier grew its fleet from two to seven aircraft, while launching a host of new routes.
But the expansion ground to a halt in 2017 and Aly’s successor, Yossrey Abdel Wahab, is far from convinced about the wisdom of the strategy.
It might have worked in less volatile times, he said, but with EgyptAir under pressure, the government is taking what many see as an uneven approach to traffic rights.
“The flag-carrier has been going for our destinations,” Wahab complained. “[Before the coronavirus struck], they had multiple daily flights to Jeddah, Medina. And the authorities refused to give us daily to Jeddah or Riyadh. Instead, they give them to Saudi companies.
“There is a problem from our authorities. I have some destinations; I was surprised when the authorities gave the same destinations to other companies. Maybe they want to make us damage ourselves? Then we are closed and all our employees are going [out of work].”
Pitted against full-service rivals, with higher frequencies, and budget rivals, with lower costs, Nile Air quit many of the routes that were launched during Aly’s tenure.
Al Ain in the UAE; Basra in Iraq; Port Sudan in Sudan; and Abha, Hofuf and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia have all been axed.
Before the crisis, scheduled flights were still operated to eight points in Saudi Arabia; Baghdad in Iraq; Istanbul in Turkey; and Kuwait. The hub at Cairo International Airport was complemented by operations at seven other Egyptian gateways (Alexandria, Aswan, Asyut, Hurghada, Luxor, Sharm el-Sheikh and Suhag).
But, with many of those routes still in the red, frequencies were variable and the airline’s five A320s and two A321s were increasingly being placed with charter and wet-lease customers.
Last summer, for example, three aircraft were wet leased to Wings of Lebanon during what should have been Nile Air’s busiest time of the year. The airline also operated repatriation flights on behalf of the UK Government following Thomas Cook’s collapse.
Wahab confirmed that charter flying for tour operators had become one of the company’s main income streams – and not by choice.
“We were taking a lot of business from Spain, France, Italy,” he noted. “The potential for Egypt was coming strong. We had a lot of tourists. But it is not our work. We are a scheduled carrier, not a charter company.”
Domestic operations from Cairo had survived the cull, but, once again, Wahab was downbeat on their performance. “Domestic [flying] is not profitable because it is a short cycle,” he insisted. “It is no good. It damages your aircraft. You put a lot of money in maintenance.”
A former journalist himself, the airline chief was reluctant to make bold claims in the media and would not be drawn on specifics about his recovery strategy.
However, the recent strengthening of two overseas stations perhaps gave a hint of management’s thinking. Jeddah and Kuwait were, last year, served from more than five airports in Egypt, tilting the network away from the Cairo hub.
What is not clear is whether that was a deliberate strategy or a forced retreat due to protectionism in the capital.
“Until now we are just trying to stand on our feet. We are looking for the civil aviation [authority] and the [transport] minister to stand with us – like when they stand with EgyptAir – because we are a national carrier also, and we work under the same laws,” Wahab said.
“I will make a lot of noise before I die. I’m going to the minister, the prime minister, the president, and after that I’m going to God.”

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