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Spreading wings

Posted 15 January 2018 · Add Comment

Starting an airline in a country with continuous unrest around you may seem unwise but, as Alan Dron discovered, Libyan Wings is doing remarkably well… if only it could fly to more destinations.

Libyan Wings at present operates a daily flight to Istanbul from its base at Mitiga, outside the country’s capital Tripoli, plus no fewer than three daily services to Tunis, just under an hour away from its home base. It would be fair to describe its business as ‘healthy’.
“The response of the market is just amazing,” said chief executive officer, Edgardo Badiali. “In July and August we were running at around 96% load factor. OK, that was partly because of Eid, but we actually had to put on additional flights. And the trend goes on.”
Factors behind the remarkable loads include a strong punctuality record, which is “very much appreciated” by passengers who for years have put up with a distinctly lacklustre performance in this area by other carriers, together with good service, on ground and on board, said Badiali. “All our employees deserve a big ‘thank you’ for that. We manage to be punctual at all stations, even in Tunis.”
This is no small feat, especially in the summer peak season at the Tunisian capital, when infrastructure and suppliers struggle to cope with the high demand.
“Nearly every day, a majority of the other carriers were delaying flights. We always managed to get out pretty much on time because of the efforts of our people (ground staff, pilots and cabin crew) as well as the support of a small company there doing supervision for us, pushing things through. We’re really happy with that achievement.”
Tunis is a lucrative market for Libyan Wings, with several distinct categories of passengers: “There are a lot of Libyans living and investing in Tunisia. It is also a tourist destination for Libyans and there’s also a lot of medical traffic, due to the good medical infrastructure in Tunis, which is becoming a medical tourism centre for people from other countries.“
With most countries having withdrawn their embassies from Libya for security reasons, Tunis is the nearest convenient city to which diplomats can relocate. This has resulted in many Libyans making the trip to the Tunisian capital to obtain visas for foreign travel. Senior diplomats making trips into Libya are also regular passengers on Libyan Wings’ flights, said Badiali.
Passengers have also been appreciative of his company’s in-flight service, he said. Libyan Wings’ two Airbus A319s are operated in a two-class layout, with 12 business-class seats plus 108 in the economy cabin. Business-class travellers get a hot meal, even on the 55-minute hop between Mitiga and Tunis, with the main cabin also provided with a meal tray. More extensive food is provided on the 2.5-hour flight to Istanbul.
Behind the scenes, Libyan Wings is working on several projects that, while not exciting to passengers, are potentially invaluable to the future operational and financial health of the company.
One of the most important of these projects is to gain qualification under the IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) programme.
“There are two reasons why this is important: operations and commercial. It’s good to get a view from outside, to make sure we’re on the right track regarding our safety processes. And if the market opens up and I need to enter a codeshare or interline agreement, without IOSA status it’s nearly impossible nowadays.”
There is one problem in gaining IOSA certification: auditors are reluctant to travel to Libya while the uncertain situation on the ground persists. But Badiali is convinced they will find a solution to the problem.
Among other advances, the company is introducing electronic flight bags for its pilots and is developing an app for mobile electronic devices to make it easier for its customers.
Innovation will be at the centre of the company’s focus in the coming months and years. “Some of that stuff (automation, digital development, etc) is not really ‘mandatory’ in our actual situation but we need to go through our learning curve in this field in order to be prepared and have the right culture in place,” said Badiali
On the training front, the company makes use of Lufthansa’s Airbus simulators for its pilots.
Libyan Wings still operates the two Airbus A319s with which it began operations in 2015. “We’re looking for a third aircraft to lease or purchase, probably an A320, ideally. But we would take an A319 or A321.”
The A321’s additional capacity would make it useful for religious tourism traffic to Saudi Arabia, for example: “In some ways, an A321 would be ideal, but we prefer to be a little more conservative – despite the load factors we’re running.”
At the 2013 Dubai International Air Show, Libyan Wings, then still very much in start-up mode, announced its intention to buy four A320neos and three wide-body A350s. At the moment, the company is keeping in touch with Airbus regarding the deal and deliveries are likely to be some years in the future.
The biggest hurdle facing the young Libyan carrier is a lack of new destinations. Badiali would very much like to expand the airline’s route map, but faces problems in doing so. Libyan Wings, like all Libyan airlines, is barred from flying to Morocco, for example. The same is true for Egypt if the flight does not originate from the eastern part of Libya – from which the fledgling company does not operate. Efforts to solve this problem are on-going and Badiali hopes a solution will be arrived at soon.
“I would go tomorrow,” he said. “For us, that would be the most natural, next step. Cairo would be great.”
Similarly, Europe is off-limits, due to a European Union ban on Libyan carriers, as the EU has blacklisted Libya’s aviation authorities. But events are moving in that field, as well; the local civil aviation authority (LyCAA) has been putting in considerable efforts to overturn its current status as soon as the situation in the country normalises.
From the very beginning of its operations, Libyan Wings has been careful to find European Aviation Safety Agency-approved organisations to perform maintenance on its A319s. An Italian company, approved by the LyCAA as well as its own CAA, handles the upkeep of the aircraft. The same is true for the airworthiness management of the fleet, which has been outsourced to an EASA-approved organisation, under the supervision of Libyan Wings Technical department.
Closer to home, the Libyan authorities are talking about reconstructing Tripoli International Airport, which was badly damaged in 2014. If the country’s main airport is re-opened with renewed facilities, Libyan Wings could think about traffic from sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, building a network hub between the two continents.
Mitiga Airport, located around 8km east of Tripoli, has been largely free of major security problems. Facilities there have been improved, despite the continuing unrest in the country, and Libyan Wings has a rapid alerting system if incidents occur near the airport that might affect safety.
“I am confident,” said Badiali. “With the commitment and the enthusiasm of our people, we will be able to further grow and become, hopefully, an important player in the region”.


 

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