Holding the fort…
Faced with intolerable challenges in its home market, Libya's Afriqiyah Airways is defying the odds to stay airborne and even set up a new subsidiary in Malta. Martin Rivers talked to chairman Abubaker Elfortia.
When Libya’s globally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) was signed into existence in December 2015, the United Nations hailed its “clear plan for rebuilding a strong, united and peaceful Libya” after five years of unrest split the country down the middle with two competing governments.
The 12 months that followed saw the Misrata brigades, a band of militias loyal to the GNA, drive Daesh from its strongholds in Libya – liberating thousands from the ultra-hardline terrorists and securing a key victory for the fledgling government.
But, beyond that all-important military success, there are few reasons to look back on 2016 as an encouraging year for Libya.
Hopes for unity have unravelled in the face of continued opposition from power-brokers in the east of the country, who flexed their muscles this summer by voting against the GNA’s mandate and seizing oil terminals. One western group responded by seizing premises in Tripoli and trying to restore executive powers to Khalifa Al-Ghwell, the former prime minister.
The reality is that today’s Libya is a deeply divided country – as it has been since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 – with power spread thinly between myriad armed groups, who shift allegiances regularly and show no deference to the democratic process.
For the country’s two state-owned carriers, Libyan Airlines and Afriqiyah Airways, survival comes at a cost. Their shared home base, Tripoli International Airport, was all but destroyed in 2014 when western Islamists drove the then UN-backed government from power. More recently, both parastatals have been targeted by militiamen apparently eager to settle scores: Fathi Al-Shatti, the chairman of Libyan Airlines, was held by kidnappers for 47 days last year; while one of Afriqiyah’s A330s has been impounded by gunmen operating with impunity at Tripoli’s surrogate gateway, Mitiga International Airport.
With few Libyans splashing out on air travel, and still fewer foreigners willing to visit the country, Afriqiyah is now deploying just six of the 16 aircraft under its ownership.
“There are still difficulties. It’s no easier,” chairman Abubaker Elfortia told me during the annual meeting of the Arab Air Carriers’ Organisation (AACO) in Casablanca in November. “Why? Because the government is not completely formed – we don’t have ministers yet – and this is not helping at all. And the other thing which is affecting Afriqiyah and the airlines is the cost of hard currency.”
The Mitiga-based carrier currently flies to four domestic points (Misrata and Zintan in the west, Bayda in the east, and Sebha in the south west) plus six regional destinations (Alexandria in Egypt, Amman in Jordan, Istanbul in Turkey, Khartoum in Sudan, and Tunis and Sfax in Tunisia). It also operates west African charter flights to Accra in Ghana, and Niamey in Niger.
Elfortia insisted that Afriqiyah is welcomed in all corners of the country, irrespective of tribal allegiances. “The political [situation] has no effect [on our domestic network],” he said, highlighting plans to begin serving Kufrah in the south east. “We are flying all the time from west to east to south, regardless of any political situation.”
Nonetheless, the fragmented state of the fleet speaks volumes about the airline’s day-to-day troubles. Alongside its six operational units – three Airbus A320s, two A319s and one A300F – Afriqiyah has five aircraft in storage, most of which are damaged (two A330-200s, two A320s and one A319); two A320s leased out to Lithuania’s Small Planet Airlines; and one A330-300 leased out to Turkish Airlines.
It also owns the A330-300 blockaded by militiamen in Mitiga, plus the infamously extravagant A340 that Gaddafi acquired as a private jet for use on his diplomatic trips.
With one damaged A330-200 (5A-ONP) now undergoing repairs in Hamburg, and the A340 sitting on the tarmac of Perpignan Airport in southern France, almost one-third of the fleet is currently stationed outside of Libya.
There is also no guarantee that the damaged A320-family jets will be returned to service. “[We have to decide] is it feasible to fix them or not,” Elfortia said, adding that engineers are still inspecting the aircraft – more than two years after they were riddled with bullets during the Islamist assault on Tripoli. Three additional planes were destroyed by aerial bombardments in 2011 and 2014 (one A300, one A320 and one A330-200).
Asked about the A330-300 impounded in Mitiga, the chairman admitted that some stakeholders in the country object to the strategy of leasing out metal to foreign operators. Afriqiyah managed to transfer one of its wide-bodies to Turkish Airlines in 2015 under an eight-year lease (5A-ONQ / TC-JOM), but attempts to relocate the second unit (5A-ONR / TC-JON) were unsuccessful.
“The contract was for the two aircraft, and the other one has been stopped from going,” Elfortia said, confirming that vehicles are being used to physically block the plane. “Of course, leasing the aircraft is the proper solution for the time being. The A330 is a big aircraft. It’s supposed to be operated for long distances. And what makes it even more urgent now is the need for hard currency, which the airline needs [in order] to keep operating.”
Dismissing calls by some parties for the wide-body to be deployed within Afriqiyah’s network, he stressed: “There’s no embassies in Libya! Really you cannot fly [it]. There’s no routes that are suitable for it.”
An order for 10 next-generation A350-900s, meanwhile, remains active with Airbus, though deliveries are inconceivable in the current climate.
On the narrow-body side, the two A320s placed with Small Planet are the same units that Afriqiyah deployed under an Irish flag of convenience in 2014 to bypass the EU’s blacklisting of Libyan carriers. Those aircraft have been re-registered with a Lithuanian licence (LY-ONJ and LY-ONL) and are now being flown by the charter and wet-lease specialist within Europe. “Because they are Europe-registered they are easy to lease out,” Elfortia said, describing the income they generate as “compensation” for low activity within Libya.
While there are no plans for Small Planet to operate the aircraft between Europe and Libya – as Ireland’s Air Contractors did, briefly, in 2014 – they may help build connectivity in a more roundabout way.
Afriqiyah last year set up a subsidiary airline, PanAfriqiyah, in the nearby Mediterranean island of Malta, appointing former Air Malta boss Louis Giordimaina as a non-executive director. Though he was cautious about discussing the business model, Elfortia made clear that the subsidiary – which is seeking a European air operator’s certificate (AOC) – would take over responsibility for its parent’s long-held hub aspirations.
“Our model as Afriqiyah Airways is to bring passengers from Europe and have the hub and then distribute them to Africa,” he explained, recalling the company’s glory days before the Arab Spring, when it served 18 destinations in Africa and eight in Europe. “We see that our model is being disturbed due to the recent trouble, so really we are changing the hub from Tripoli to Malta. We are focused on starting [PanAfriqiyah] with two aircraft, and in three years we should have about six aircraft.
“We will be leasing. If the situation in Libya stays the same way as it is now, and we still have the two aircraft registered outside with Small Planet, we could start with them.”
Elfortia denied that the subsidiary is an attempt to get around the EU ban, which Brussels imposed in 2012 amid concerns about Libya’s post-war oversight capabilities. To the contrary, he said, Afriqiyah wants to restore its north-to-south hub in a stable environment, while also enhancing training opportunities for staff. “The target is to upgrade Afriqiyah and the employees of Afriqiyah,” he reiterated. “This means that they can come and do on-the-job Training in Malta.” Long-term, the subsidiary may even “deploy wide-bodies for flying from Malta across the Atlantic”.
Whatever the strategic motivation, it seems inevitable that PanAfriqiyah will include Libyan points in its African network – thereby improving the experience of Libyans, who must presently self-connect to Europe over hubs in Tunisia and Turkey.
There are no foreign airlines serving Libya today. Although several carriers restored flights after the overthrow of Gaddafi – among them British Airways, Lufthansa, Alitalia, Turkish Airlines, Qatar Airways and Etihad – all withdrew due to security concerns.
In October, Elfortia’s outward-looking investment strategy also saw Afriqiyah acquire 20% of the Aviation Training Centre of Tunisia (ATCT). The chairman said the move would cut costs at the airline by allowing its pilots to obtain European-standard simulator training without travelling to Germany. It should further provide a new revenue stream for the cash-strapped company.
Turning to the stalled merger between Afriqiyah and Libyan Airlines – which had been nearing completion around the end of Gaddafi’s rule – Elfortia said consolidation remains the “target” but is not considered an immediate priority. “At the moment, to merge the two airlines means we are merging the problems of the two airlines,” he explained, pointing to staffing issues at the sister carrier. “Merging definitely is coming, but it will not be very soon. First of all we have to have a government, because this needs government support and it’s a government decision … It will not be before three years.”
With “cultural” differences hampering efforts to form “a true alliance”, the chairman said joint network planning should be the first step. “We fly to the same destinations,” he noted. “We are trying now to organise more – at least to have our flights to the one destination on separate days.”
Eighteen months ago, when Arabian Aerospace reported from the burned-out shell of Tripoli International Airport, officials spoke hopefully about the prospects for reconstruction and a long-overdue return to stability. Neither has come to pass.
“There is nothing going on there yet, to be honest. There is no repair work,” Elfortia said of the once-bustling gateway. Admitting that his company can no longer even provide safe passage for journalists, he repeated: “Everything needs the government, and the government is not there yet.”