in Air Transport / Features

People power

Posted 9 August 2018 · Add Comment

In Namibia, there aren’t many people. This means, as Victoria Moores finds out, that Air Namibia acting managing director advocate, Mandi Samson, recognises the role played by every single member of her team in the airline’s success.

Namibia is home to just 2.5 million people, making it the second least-populated sovereign country on the planet (only Mongolia has fewer people per square mile).
Even the name ‘Namib’ translates as ‘vast place’, creating an essential role for Windhoek-based Air Namibia.
Advocate Mandi Samson joined the government-owned airline as acting managing director in August 2015. She is now rolling out the second year of Air Namibia’s five-year plan.
“It was drafted with the assistance of our very capable in-house team,” Samson said. “I think it’s very important for African airlines to realise the value that they have in-house and not just bring in transplanted talent that has no context and gives you a cut-and-paste plan that you’re going to have to either fix or rehash at the end of the day.”
This firm focus on people was one of Samson’s highest priorities when she was appointed. “That was the board’s first item. It was non-negotiable. We said we’re going to endorse strength and talent from within. We put that talent first and give it due recognition and appreciation. We empower the team; they’ve been through a lot over the years.”
The five-year plan tackles three core areas: optimising operations, putting the airline on a sustainable financial footing, and maintaining Air Namibia’s high level of safety compliance.
While still drawing on its own talent, Air Namibia brought in external experts to help with the network review. “We are looking to optimise use of our fleet and cabin crew. You are supposed to use aircraft for 12 hours, or more, each day. If you’re only using them for five or six hours, it makes no sense,” Samson said.
Air Namibia operates full-service flights to six destinations in Namibia, a further six regional points and two long-haul routes to Frankfurt, Germany and New York, USA.
In March 2018, it was due to expand its African footprint, adding Airbus A319 flights from Windhoek, via Lagos in Nigeria, to Accra in Gabon. “This much-needed service will reduce travel times between Namibia and west Africa by more than 60%,” Samson said, adding that the new flights would be performed by existing fleet and crews, improving utilisation.
The route will operate four times weekly, using fifth-freedom traffic rights granted by Ghana and Nigeria.
Samson is an African air transport liberalisation expert. After training in aviation law, she worked for the Namibian attorney general and was on the committee that negotiated Namibia’s air service agreements. She helped the Southern African Development Community (SADC) draft its competition rules, paving the way for a common air transport market among the local regions and, more recently, she was brought in by the African Union (AU) to advise on intra-African air transport liberalisation.
She was also general manager at Namibia Airports Company (NAC), but her distinguished career is not limited to aviation. She has chaired the board of the government’s pension fund, worked on law reform and been involved in mining, maritime boundaries and fishing rights. She has two masters’ degrees and is completing an air transport doctorate with Leiden University.
Namibia is no stranger to strong female leaders. It is one of the few African states to have a female prime minister – Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila – who has been in office since 2015. Samson said the government has been “an amazingly supportive and dedicated shareholder”, seeing the airline through its ups and downs.
“They have been very understanding, dealing with an asset that has been in distress,” she said.
This high-level support is hardly surprising as Air Namibia plays a vital role, supporting tourism and helping make travel more accessible for locals. “Before, it was beyond affordable,” Samson said. Now there is a trend towards lower fares.
Air Namibia’s high-level mission is to be “a safe, reliable and profitable airline – helping tourism to thrive and encouraging business investment.” This means part of the airline’s role is to highlight tourist attractions, creating a “net economic gain” for the country.
Air Namibia has old roots, which were planted in 1946 and began to take hold from its launch in 1949. “It’s obviously gone through various metamorphoses,” Samson said, including a key transition when the country gained independence.
A major area of the airline’s evolution has been in compliance. Once again, Samson lays the credit for this with the airline’s hard-working people. “We’ve been in non-stop audit mode. You can sell as many tickets as you like but if you don’t put safety first it’s not a persuasive argument.”
Air Namibia secured ICAO five-phase certification in March. The airline has also been IATA IOSA compliant since 2007 – the most recent renewal was in September 2017 – and it gained EASA third-country operator (TCO) acceptance in February 2016. “Not many African carriers fly direct to Europe. We are very proud of that because it means we can fly to any country in Europe if we have the traffic rights.”
In terms of business performance, Samson acknowledged that Air Namibia’s financials have been challenged over the years, but work is under way to make the airline more sustainable. “Financially, we are in the same position as other African airlines,” she said. “We do get government subsidies to serve as a buffer against our operating revenue shortfall.”
After combing the airline’s cost base for potential savings, without compromising on quality, Samson identified aircraft financing as an area for change.
“Restructuring our aircraft leases is a top priority that will immediately have an impact on the bottom line in terms of lease costs and foreign currency exposure. It will also strengthen our balance sheet,” Samson said. “Where we are paying leases in foreign currency, there is potential for our local finance industry to come in and for Air Namibia to acquire the assets in a local context. That will take away millions and millions of dollars in terms of foreign exchange exposure.”
Air Namibia operates a fleet of 10 aircraft, comprising two leased A330s, four A319s (two of these are owned) and four Embraer ERJ135s – these are coming to the end of their lease term. Samson said all these leases will be reviewed. “Our outlook for 2018 is positive if we proceed with the restructuring of the leases. This will be a substantial change, along with the impact of the route network review,” she said.
Belly cargo is another focus area. At the moment, it makes up 6-9% of Air Namibia’s revenue, but Samson is confident that this can go higher. “We realised we needed a dedicated strategy for that, so we created a cargo sales position and added ground operations capability. Operations and sales have improved.”
Likewise, there is scope to expand in aircraft maintenance. The airline currently maintains its Embraers in-house and Samson is looking to do work on the A319s and A330s too. “We would settle for line maintenance on the other fleets [beyond the Embraers], but at this point we don’t have authorisation,” she said.
Finally, partnerships play an important part in the airline’s strategy. In 2017, Air Namibia added three new codeshare agreements with German carrier Condor, Ethiopian Airlines and Turkish Airlines. Others are under negotiation but, while Samson sees a value in partnerships, she is not looking to invest in or set up any airlines outside of Namibia. “At this point, we are very inward-looking. We need to look after ourselves first, especially in turbulent times. We want to grow the footprint of Air Namibia in Africa and acquire additional interline and other agreements.”

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