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Third time lucky?

Posted 2 June 2017 · Add Comment

Mauritania Airlines International is plotting slow, steady growth in a bid to avoid the fate of its predecessors. Martin Rivers and Vincent Chappard talk to Mohamed Radhy Ould Bennahi, chief executive of the third airline to fly Mauritania's flag in a decade.

When Mauritania Airlines International was established in December 2010, it marked the third attempt at a flag-carrier in a decade by the Islamic Republic.
Just three years previously, Mauritania Airways, a joint venture with Tunisair, had been set up with the same aim of providing connectivity for the little-known west African nation. Its rapid fall from grace followed the slow demise of Air Mauritanie, the country’s historic flag-carrier, which cooperated with pan-regional carrier Air Afrique for most of its four decades in the skies.
That financial headwinds grounded both predecessors is hardly surprising when one considers Mauritania’s vital statistics. With an agriculture-focused economy and a small, conservative population that typically eschews overseas travel, the country suffers from weak demand on both the inbound and outbound sectors.
Mauritania Airlines International is the only carrier in the country, accounting for all of the 248,000 passengers who flew with locally registered operators in 2015.
But, with just seven foreign airlines serving capital city Nouakchott on a scheduled basis – Air Algérie, Air Côte d'Ivoire, Air France, Binter Canaria, Royal Air Maroc, Tunisair and Turkish Airlines – the government is determined to make a success of its flag-carrier, leveraging the company for economic development and improved bilateral relations.
Winning Mauritania’s removal from the European Union’s Air Safety List in December 2012 was a watershed moment for the sector. Predecessor Mauritania Airways had ceased operations just one month after it was banned from EU skies amid accusations of “persisting deficiencies” in its operations and maintenance.
Air Mauritanie had also been banned by the UK Government prior to the introduction of a Europe-wide blacklist.
“We’ve invested a lot. We’ve improved a lot,” Mohamed Radhy Ould Bennahi, the new flag-carrier’s chief executive, told African Aerospace. “Everyone, including the civil aviation [authority], did their best to get out of this blacklist. But all this is behind us. We are now a member of IATA [the International Air Transport Association] and we are IOSA [IATA operational safety audit] certified.”
The removal of EU restrictions allowed Mauritania Airlines International to begin serving Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory located off the north-western coast of Africa, in May 2013. Flights from Nouakchott are now operated four-times weekly with a stop in Nouadhibou, Mauritania’s second largest city. Another link to Paris followed in December of the same year, but was suspended in February 2015 for “commercial reasons”.
As of the beginning of 2017, the overseas route network also includes Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, Bamako in Mali, Casablanca in Morocco, Conakry in Guinea, Dakar in Senegal, and Tunis in Tunisia. Other international routes that have been trialled and suspended include Algiers in Algeria, Banjul in Gambia, Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire in the Republic of Congo, and Cotonou in Benin.
On the domestic front, triangle flights are currently operated between the two main cities and Zouérat in the north.
The flag-carrier serves its network with a fleet of two Boeing 737-500s, one 737-700, one 737-800 (newly delivered in November) and one Embraer ERJ 145. Mauritanian president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, has announced that one 737 MAX will also arrive in Nouakchott later this year.
“Above all, we want to renew our fleet,” said Bennahi, who formerly headed up SOMAGAZ, Mauritania’s state-owned gas company. “The 737-500s will be withdrawn from the fleet. Not necessarily with the arrival of the 737 MAX – they can still fly for a while – but our strategy is to get them out of the fleet. And we would like to strengthen our fleet further. We are thinking about other types of aircraft. We need aircraft adapted to our needs.”
He confirmed that Brazzaville flights could be re-launched as soon as this year, along with a brand new route to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.
Paris may also return to the network, strengthened by the improved performance of the MAX and greater connectivity through the Nouakchott hub. “We believe that conditions have changed and, by relying on our network in Africa, we think it can be re-opened under better conditions,” Bennahi said of the suspended route.
Mauritania Airlines International presently accounts for 55% of flight frequencies and 40% of seating capacity across all markets in the country, making it the largest operator by both metrics. When looking at available seat kilometres (ASKs), however, it falls into third place behind Turkish Airlines and Air France. That reflects the relatively lengthy flight times on the Nouakchott-Istanbul and Nouakchott-Paris routes, as well as Air France’s deployment of wide-bodies.
Asked what would make the latest incarnation of Mauritania’s flag-carrier more successful than its forebears, Bennahi emphasised the importance of fleet optimisation and the need to “trust partners and passengers”.
“These two main axes will help the company improve itself while seeking efficiency,” he said, acknowledging strong competitive headwinds from both Africa and Europe.
“I can confirm that the company’s financial situation has improved compared to last year. We are approaching break-even. And this improvement has been achieved through two things: firstly, through the efforts we are making concerning our operation, which means that we have more passengers. Second, through the fall in oil prices.”
The opening of Nouakchott-Oumtounsy International Airport last June should also help things along. The new gateway, located to the north of the capital, is capable of handling two million passengers a year. It comprises two runways, four jetways, a 320,000sqft passenger terminal, a freight terminal, and a VIP reception area.
“The airport offers more prospects at several levels, especially in working conditions,” Bennahi said, acknowledging the poor state of the now-decommissioned gateway. “We believe that other destinations will develop, bringing more activity to the company.”
Bilateral restrictions pose little obstacle for Mauritania Airlines International, he continued, owing to widespread compliance with the principles of the 1999 Yamoussoukro Decision (YD) in west Africa. “This is not difficult given the agreements that exist with the states,” Bennahi insisted, referring to the multinational treaty that was designed to liberalise cross-border flying on the continent. “Traditionally, Mauritanian airlines have operated in these countries, so access is not that difficult.”
His remarks concord with the upbeat assessment of René Decurey, the chief executive of Air Côte d'Ivoire, who recently told African Aerospace that “all the governments stick to” YD in the sub-region.
However, other airlines have complained that the liberalisation agreement exists on paper only.
In late 2014, for example, Habiba Laklalech, deputy chief executive of Royal Air Maroc, accused the Mauritania Government of deliberately curtailing access to the country. “We used to have [a weekly allocation of] 14 flights,” she said of the Casablanca-Nouakchott route. “Then the state reduced them to 11, to nine, to seven and now five.”
Royal Air Maroc has, subsequently, been allowed to deploy freighters once weekly on the city pair. But its dwindling presence in the passenger market comes as Mauritania Airlines International ramps up activity, now serving Casablanca three times weekly from the capital and twice weekly from Nouadhibou. Outbound services were also previously operated from Zouérat.
While concerns about protectionism will do little to boost confidence in the flag-carrier, the problem is far from unique to Mauritania. Indeed, Royal Air Maroc has itself been accused of restrictive practices, reportedly lobbying the Rabat government not to grant Air Arabia Maroc access to west African destinations.
After just six years of operations, it is too early to know whether Mauritania’s third attempt at a flag-carrier will secure a better legacy than its predecessors.
However, whereas Mauritania Airways was dependent on Tunisian investors, and Air Mauritanie spent its final years courting a Moroccan bailout, the new flag-carrier is going it alone as a locally funded entity. For better or for worse, success now hinges on the dedication and resourcefulness of home-grown Mauritanian expertise.
 

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