AIR COTE D’IVOIRE: Doing It Better – Interview With Rene DECUREY

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Mr. Rene Decurey is the Managing Director of Air Cote D’Ivoire, a rapidly growing carrier in the West and Central African region. He spoke with Ewos IRORO in Abidjan recently and shared the airline’s growth strategy among other contemporary industry issues.   
Rene DECUREY, MD, Air Cote d’Ivoire Photo Courtesy: marcopolis.net

Q: Air Cote d’Ivoire recently took delivery of a third Q400 aircraft. What does this new aircraft delivery mean to you both as an individual and as a company?
Well for me it is a great satisfaction and I am really proud for this new acquisition because for a young African carrier it is not evident at all to be able to fund and to raise funding for a new aircraft. First of all you have to prove that you are capable.

And secondly, you are coming out of a region and out of a country which was in a deep crisis not so long ago. So the trust in you and your country is quite limited; or should I say was quite limited. And to succeed to raise the funding and to get a new aircraft from a world renowned manufacturer is really very satisfactory for me.

Q: How does this new acquisition fit into your growth and network strategy?
You know that in West Africa and Central Africa the traffic flows are still quite small. Just to illustrate this, the biggest route in this region is between Accra and Lagos. On this route you have around 250,000 passengers a year. If you take, for example, Nairobi to Mombasa you have 800,000 to 900,000 passengers a year. And all the other routes in West Africa or Central Africa are even smaller. So you do not have unlimited potential. So you need to adapt your fleet to the real potential this region has. So, we have certain routes with 100 passengers per day per route. And we have others where there are only 40 – 50. So you need two different aircraft types. And the Q400 for us is the ideal aircraft because it’s fast, it’s quite small but still big enough in order to cater for the requirements we have. So we can use the Q400 to develop certain low potential routes and we have the Airbus for the bigger routes in order to really make them profitable and to operate those routes with the aircraft adapted to them.
Q: Is it fair to say that what you are doing now puts you in a position to relive the glory days of Air Afrique?
I think we do it better. We do it better because if you have Air Afrique which needed to cater for the needs of different countries you are full of compromises at the end. Whereas we have only the requirement of Ivory Coast which means the country only. And this is already a big requirement. But we have to emphasise on Abidjan, which is easier unlike Air Afrique to cater also for other countries. That’s why I think we have a bigger potential.
Q: West Africa compared to other regions in Africa does not have a strong airline player. What do you think could have been responsible for the demise of airlines like Nigeria Airways or Ghana Airways and what would you say is the right way forward?
I cannot speak for Ghana or Nigeria because every market is of course different. But still I think when you start you need a big support of the country. We profit from a strong will by the Government to raise the economy, to deepen the economy. And we profit from that of course being a player to the national economic development. I cannot tell exactly for Ghana Airways or Nigeria Airways. If you have a downturn in the economy then of course it is much more difficult for the local player to survive. The other thing, which I think in our case is very important, is that the airline is not regarded just as an airline. We regard airport, airport development and whatever is around the airport as also part of the airline development. So we couldn’t develop without the development of Abidjan airport. And I think in the case of Nigeria and Ghana, I think the airline and the airport did not develop at the same pace. I think.
Q: Cote d’Ivoire is home to Yamoussoukro where the Yamoussoukro Decision was signed so many years ago. But we have not been able to fully realize the ideals of the YD. Now, looking at Air Cote d’Ivoire how do you hope to use your new found vision to achieve the aspirations of the YD and to build up your business?
I think liberalization is great when you have all the ingredients. As I mentioned before, the potential in West Africa and Central Africa is still quite limited; or very limited. If you think that 50% or more than 50% of all the routes have below 50 passengers per day; I mean 50 passengers per day doesn’t allow two or three or four carriers. If you want to liberalise those thin routes by putting two or three players on the route none of these players will survive. And I think liberalization needs to be done in phases according to the potential of development. And certainly we have competition. We face it every day.  That is not a problem, but the competition should be fair. And if you have East African carriers coming to West Africa and just adding a leg to the route, for example from Accra to Abidjan and dumping prices which does not allow the local carriers to operate, I think that this is not the meaning of what Yamoussoukro wanted to do. And for me liberalization is fine but it has to be controlled at the beginning until you reach a certain level, then you can pump in additional capacity; but not before. Otherwise, you will make everybody disappear and that cannot be the aim of liberalization.
Q: With regards to the Q400s once again, do you have plans for cargo business because intra trade is still a challenge within Africa?
Well Yes; we even discussed with Bombardier. There is a cargo aircraft, a variant of the Q400. It is not produced by Bombardier but it is retrofitted. And the retrofit is always a compromise. What we would have liked is to see the Q400 as a full cargo version with a big cargo door that you can put pallets in, move it and take it out again. This will be the ideal aircraft for us in order to bring goods by big airplanes into Abidjan and we feed with the aircraft we already have on the operational side. And we do not need additional pilots or different pilots. We do not need additional spare parts, we have them already. So this will be ideal. We have discussed it with Bombardier and they are thinking about it. And it is certainly a phase we will address later on.
Q: With regards to partnership with other international carriers in order to grow your network beyond the region IOSA is crucial. Are you looking at IOSA and if you are what steps have you taken in that direction. Also are you probably considering joining AFRAA?
We have started the IOSA process in 2013 with other carriers like ASKY, Senegal Airlines and Camair-Co. At the end of 2013 our Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) underwent a process of upgrading to the latest ICAO standards. This meant that our CAA had to recertify Air Cote d’Ivoire and all its carriers completely; which meant for us that we had to readjust the manuals. And we only got a recertification by our CAA on January 8, 2016. And as soon as we had this recertification we could restart the IOSA process. Our objective is to terminate this process by the end of March 2016 and to start code share with our partners. As you know we have partners like Air France, which is a shareholder. And we want to code share with them to Paris. We have also in the group Kenya Airways and we want to code share with them. And this will be possible as of December this year.
With regards to AFRAA, we are not part of AFRAA because I think we are not ripe to be with AFRAA. We are tackling our problems for the moment ourselves in order to solve them immediately and get solutions. AFRAA is not a quick decision association. It can bring you something on the midterm; we will examine this but not for the moment. However, IATA is a very good topic for us. As soon as we have IOSA we intend to become a full IATA member because when IATA is discussing something on the local level here for West Africa, there is no IATA carrier in the face of IATA because there is no full member. So they have to take other IATA carriers operating in the region like Air France, Brussels Airlines, South African Airways; which is fine. But they do not belong to the region. So we really want to become a carrier that is able to directly influence the decisions of IATA for our region.
        
Q: What is the vision of Air Cote d’Ivoire for the continent and of course globally?
For the moment in our vision we have mostly the regional and domestic routes. And as I mentioned earlier, a child has to walk and to run in two different phases. We cannot do the intercontinental services now because we cannot do it with the resources we have. And I do not speak only of financial resources; I speak of pilots, cabin crew, and ground staff. We need to grow first. But in the mean time until we reach this global network we can code share with our partners. And I think partnership is crucial to this vision in order to get expansion; regional expansion or intercontinental expansion not with our aircraft but with our partners.
  
Q: If you had a message for African airline players that you believe would help them to develop their airlines and of course raise the bar, what would that be?
Get credibility and get the survival guarantee. You mentioned before Yamoussoukro; I think when you have two carriers on the route and we have shared the route where we have a competitor but from whom we know that they do not pay the bills; so why would you issue a ticket on that service when you know that maybe you would not be paid or you would be paid much later? So you don’t interline. And I think those carriers who have surpassed their ambitions and they cannot honour anymore but they want to contract, it is a problem. I just hope that we would be faced in the future with real carriers on whom you can count, on whom the passengers can count to go one-way with one and come back with the other one interlining as it is done everywhere in the world where you have serious airlines and not airlines which just vegetate and disappear again.
Q: With regards to training young indigenous pilots, what assurances can you give that those pilots will be employed by the airline?
Well we have basically given those pilots the assurance that if they pass the final exam they will get a job with us. We paid for the full training course of these pilots but once they pass they will have to remain with us for the next ten years in order to repay the investment we have done. We don’t want to train pilots here and as soon as they are finished they take their bags and they go to Emirates or to somewhere else.

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