Exclusive interview with John Mirenge, CEO of RwandAir, who breaks news about Lusaka flights, and more


(Posted 13th December 2014)

When John Mirenge, CEO of RwandAir, a few days ago received the IOSA Certificate from IATA’s Vice President for Africa Raphael Kuuchi, he singled out the support by the government of Rwanda and the hard work and dedication of his staff as two major factors for this impressive success story.

But he lingered only a little while on what the airline, the first of ten selected by IATA for a pilot programme had accomplished while undergoing this most vigorous of audits in the aviation industry, and as is his custom straight away looked ahead to the things still to come.


Next to conquer will be a similarly extensive audit for the airline’s ground handling unit for which IATA had launched a second tier audit named ISAGO, short of IATA Safety Audit for Ground Operations, to not only assure passengers of safe operations as certified under IOSA but also assure other air operators using the handling services at Kigali’s international airport of equally high standards when it comes to ground handling.

The handover ceremony, a high flying affair with popping champagne corks and the cutting of a ceremonial cake, with all the excitement going alongside, was a crowded affair as John Mirenge was literally mobbed by the media representatives present and we wisely agreed to do a follow up interview a few days afterwards, when the sense of accomplishment was still fresh but the atmosphere calmer.

It was Friday the 12th of December that John Mirenge took time out from his busy schedule and sat down with this correspondent for an hour long chat, first on deep background and then on the record as documented in the following YouTube videos.

We are looking at a fleet of 11 aircraft and to fly to 25 destinations by 2017’ was one of the key statements made by the CEO, once again affirming that while Rwanda may be a geographically small country, there is nothing small at all about the country’s vision of where The Land of a Thousand Hills’ wants to be in a few years’ time and RwandAir clearly fits in one hundred percent into that vision of the New Rwanda, the government, together with the people of Rwanda has developed over the past years.

The airline presently operates a fleet of 5 owned and 2 leased aircraft, two ex production line B737-800NG Skyinterior, two ex production line Bombardier CRJ900NextGen and one ex production line Bombardier Q400NextGen which are joined by two leased B737-700NG’s, formerly operated by TuiFly and 5 and 6 years old respectively when they joined the fleet in Kigali last year.

While it was announced here a few weeks ago already, following the launch of destination 16, Tanzania’s lakeside city of Mwanza, that two new aircraft will join the fleet over the next 12 to 18 months, did John Mirenge affirm that indeed a second brand new Bombardier Q400NextGen will be delivered during the first couple of months of 2015, to be followed later that year or in early 2016 by a third brand new Boeing B737-800NG Skyinterior.

That will bring the number of aircraft operated to 9 and will cater for an extensive network across Eastern, Southern and Western Africa to then feed into the planned long haul operations which will be launched when in the 2017/18 financial year two Boeing B787 Dreamliners will arrive in Kigali.

Closer to that however, and that was breaking news too, not known outside the RwandAir headquarters until this moment, will Lusaka be launched within the space of weeks, after the South African Civil Aviation Authority granted, in the record time of three days after filing the application, 5th freedom rights between Lusaka and Johannesburg, making flights from Kigali to Lusaka suddenly viable by combining the routing and serving two destinations. According to John Mirenge will initially four of the daily flights to Johannesburg touch down in Lusaka and the remaining three flights, and here is some positive speculation involved, may sometime next year route via Harare, another destination eyed by RwandAir in the Southern part of the continent.

For West Africa is RwandAir committed to launch flights to Abidjan in 2015, but is also looking at Bamako, again very likely in a combined operation and hopefully with 5th freedom rights from waypoint to waypoint. Also in the cross hairs of RwandAir is Abjuja, Nigeria’s political capital after Lagos which is already served six times a week.

While not flying to any of the Ebola outbreak affected countries has RwandAir nevertheless equally suffered from the negative publicity over the epidemic and the sharp downturn of travel to not only West African countries but travel to Africa overall. Passenger numbers for 2014 will subsequently be lower than anticipated, a problem other leading African airlines are also struggling with. Putting that challenge aside however did John Mirenge continue:

The African Union is now committed to push through the implementation of the Yamoussoukro Agreement by next year and we hope that this will finally open up the airspaces for African airlines able to deliver quality services and not leave the field to the foreign carriers’ quipped John Mirenge, which when finally signed and sealed will prove to be a game changer for Africa’s leading airlines.

It is here that pending 5th freedom traffic right applications will, when approved, provide a springboard for RwandAir to finally launch flights to Mumbai, which the airline intends to serve via Dar es Salaam, combining Kigali with Tanzania’s commercial capital and then connect on to India, offering nonstop and one-stop services respectively. ‘The B737-800 and also the B737-700 have, as a result of Kigali’s elevation and high temperatures, load restrictions which would make flights unviable. Dar es Salaam is an ideal stopover point for such flights and it will of course offer Tanzanians nonstop flights to India for the first time in recent history’. On a considerably sadder note did John Mirenge make mention of pending 5th freedom right destinations right here in East Africa, a topic which was in the past repeatedly covered here in extensive detail, but clearly leaving the CEO of one of East Africa’s national carriers exasperated. On the upside though had the Heads of State of the East African Community’s Northern Corridor states, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, decided the day before that their aviation bureaucrats, and in particular those who had slammed on the brakes, to remove all pending obstacles and open the skies for a uniform aviation regulatory and economic regime, which should within weeks at the latest bring a resolution for RwandAir’s pending applications from for instance Entebbe to fly to Nairobi. With South Sudan on board for this groundbreaking agreements, will flights to and from Juba be equally included in the new deals.

John then named China and at least one European country, besides Dubai, as the main destinations for the two Boeing B787 Dreamliners when they join the fleet.

Kigali’s recently expanded and modernized international airport, which now appears literally as a new airport altogether, will be able to handle the fleet expansion and the added number of passengers, flying to and from Kigali and using Kigali as a transit hub when connecting into the airline’s growing network. But there comes a time, John Mirenge pointed out, when the Bugesera airport project will be coming on line and then provide a capacity for Rwanda’s national airline and foreign carriers of 5 plus million passengers per annum, way beyond the capacity of the present airport.

Again, as done several times during the interview, did John Mirenge attribute these milestone projects, the new airport, the new national convention centre and the growth of RwandAir, to the commitment of the government of Rwanda and in particular to President Paul Kagame, who made aviation one of the cornerstones of the country’s economic development, to support tourism, MICE events and trade with the rest of the continent and the rest of the world.

That said, did the young, dedicated if not outright driven staff of RwandAir get a big pat on the back from their CEO for their extraordinary efforts over the past years to lift the airline to the level it is now and to keep pushing the envelope to make Rwanda’s national carrier the airline of choice when flying across the continent and beyond. That indeed is a sentiment fully shared with John Mirenge by this correspondent who has developed a trusted partnership with the airline’s management team and in particular their corporate communications, marketing and PR departments, which for many years now allowed for timely and accurate reports, often of a breaking news nature, to be shared with readers.

The full 27.19 minutes of the formal interview can be accessed by clicking on the links to the YouTube uploads below.




For added information about the airline’s schedules, fares, holiday packages and their Dream Miles frequent flyer programme click on www.rwandair.com

%d bloggers like this: