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Posted 22 December 2017 · Add Comment

Tunisia’s new all-cargo airline, Air Cargo Express, is now operating a second freighter and plans to have another three by the end of 2017. Tom Pleasant reports.

Air Cargo Express gained its air operator’s certificate in September 2016 and launched its first flight, using a 737-300 freighter, from Tunisia’s Enfidha-Hammamet International Airport to France’s Paris Charles de Gaulle in February 2017.
It now has a second of the aircraft type, flying to Germany’s Cologne Bonn Airport.
CEO, Anis Riahi, said the airline would continue to focus on the 737, adding another three to the fleet by the end of the year.
Unlike the -300s, these will all be 737-400s, with the airline leasing one and buying the other two. The long-term goal, he said, was to reach 12 aircraft by 2020.
As well as for its own flights, these will be used to service interline-agreement partners, such as AirBridgeCargo, Air France, American Airlines and Cargolux. The airline has also partnered with one integrator, UPS, and Riahi hopes to secure more of these.
The airline is busy building a 2,000sqm warehouse at Tunis-Carthage International Airport, due to open before the end of 2017, to handle its increasing cargo shipments. As well as the usual electronics and perishables, such as mobile phones, fruit and vegetables, it will also be fully certified to handle pharmaceuticals, a profitable cargo, but one that requires extremely precise care throughout its journey.
For the moment, Riahi is concentrating on consolidating the core freighter flights, using Tunisia as a stepping-stone for air cargo between the two continents. “We won’t only focus on the Tunisian market, because Tunisia’s geographical position gives us a competitive advantage for pushing in both directions between Africa to Europe and Europe to Africa.”
The path to these first-year operations has not been easy. The launch of Air Cargo Express was first announced in October 2015, with the first flight slated for January 2016, using a 737 and a CRJ 200. The fleet was then due to grow to six aircraft, adding a 767, another CRJ 200 and two Cessna 208B, by April last year, and a 767 five months later in September.
Riahi hints at meddling from a particular individual within the Tunisian Government for the delay and these subsequent fleet changes. While he didn’t say so, it is likely that much of that interference came from Mehdi Ben Ghrabia, a Tunisian Government minister currently defending himself against allegations of corruption. One of his companies is World Freight Services (WFS, not to be confused with several other companies by the same name around the world), which was planning to start up its own cargo airline, in partnership with Tunisair, at the same time that Air Cargo Express was announced.
Even when Air Cargo express was launched, it faced additional problems over unfair competition, with allegations that the Ministry of Transport awarded licenses to a European company that were not mutually respected in bilateral agreements.
Looking to the immediate future, Riahi, remains optimistic. “We want to have daily flights between Tunisia, and France and Germany and then expand to daily flights to Algeria and Morocco in North Africa and three or four destinations in West Africa, probably Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Ghana. Later, we would have [secondary] cargo hubs in Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Guinea-Conakry.”
Eventually, he wants the airline to be able to fly to 51 countries within Africa by the end of 2018, but securing the traffic rights for these, and anywhere else in Europe, will be “a big headache and a big fight”.
That fight has already drawn blood in Malta, which withdrew permission for Air Cargo Express to fly there, refusing to honour the two countries’ bilateral agreement. “We are working with our transportation authority to return to Malta and we’re confident that will happen soon,” said Riahi.
He remains philosophical about the overall rights situation, though: “If there’s any issue with the fleet, crew or maintenance, those are things we can control. But, honestly, the only thing we are not able to directly control is securing traffic rights, particularly in Africa.
“This is an issue that affects the development of all airlines, not just us. We need to open the market to everyone so we can all operate on the same level. Competition needs to be transparent and it’s too easy for political interference to get in the way of that.
“Securing full authorisation for traffic rights could actually be the main issue we focus on next year and also be the biggest challenge for us. That is why we are working with the Tunisian transport authority to secure the Yamoussoukro Decision. We are doing our best to convince [other countries to accept this], but now it’s just down to politics.”
Aviation associations are also hard at work on this same issue, which is why, due to its North African heritage, as well as being a member of the African Airlines Association (AFRAA), Air Cargo Express is also a member of the Arab Air Carriers Organization (AACO). “We are very happy to work with both associations. We want to consolidate our relationships with them, either with procurement or any other services.”
As well as cargo, the airline is also planning to provide maintenance to other airlines. Currently, it has a deal with FL Technics to provide it with maintenance services. However, in July of this year, Riahi was part of a Tunisian trade and political delegation that flew to the US. Among the agreements signed on the trip was one between Air Cargo Express and Boeing to open a 12,000sqm maintenance centre at Enfidha Airport, scheduled to start operating in the middle of 2018.
“Tunisia is a low-cost country but we also have good aeronautical engineers and maintenance knowledge,” says Riahi. “We are confident that we will not only be able to look after our own fleet, but also to compete against European MRO providers for contracts with other African airlines.”

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