INAUGURAL FLIGHTS, THE GLITZ AND GLAMOUR AND THE REALITY BEHIND IT
RwandAirs 13th destination was being launched with pomp and glamour, not only to prove the proverbial bad luck number 13 wrong but mainly because the new route leads to Lagos / Nigeria, Africas economic powerhouse and the continents most populous nation. Why Nigeria one might ask, and not say Kinshasa, or Cairo or Lusaka or Addis. Well, the answer is already partly given over the economic status of Nigeria. Banks for instance from Nigeria have been on the prowl across Africa, seeking to buy into existing local banks or in fact buy out and take over local banks, and the same has applied to the insurance business. Both sectors have seen entries into the East African economies of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and Rwanda of course is no exception.
From the greater East Africa only two airlines had previously flown to Lagos, namely Ethiopian Airlines from Addis Ababa and Kenya Airways from Nairobi, both using wide bodied B767 and B777 on the route as a result of burgeoning demand, and RwandAir now joins as the third East African airline to connect not just the two countries but the regions at large. In doing so RwandAir jumped Precision Air of Tanzania, generally thought to be East Africa number three, and served notice of intent of yet more things to come, better things, bigger things.
With now 7 aircraft on the fleet, the latest additions being two brand new B737-800NG with Boeings revolutionary Sky Interior, it has radically changed the airlines ability to open new routes and add frequencies to others where demand has risen. One of these new birds is now being used to fly three times a week to Lagos, for the rest of the week operating to Johannesburg, and passengers love to fly with the new look aircraft to both destinations.
CEO John Mirenge, in a beaming joyful mood, probably gave away more than he would otherwise have done, when he let it on, upon a question by this correspondent on the expected upgrade of the two 50 seater CRJ200 jets into the C700 series, that it would in fact be the C900 I should come to expect, following his extensive discussions with Bombardier at the recently concluded Dubai Air Show. He also all but confirmed that the present Bombardier Dash 8-100 would be replaced by a larger turboprop but would not be drawn into the question, finally realizing that this correspondent did mean business after all, whether that aircraft, leased by ASL, would be exchanged against a Bombardier Q400 or the even larger ATR 72. This in fact is quite likely from the look of it as in particular Kamembe has seen passenger numbers skyrocket, most of them actually coming from across the common border in Congo and using RwandAir to connect well beyond the Kigali hub. That said, and before returning to the inaugural again, when the two B787 Dreamliners will be joining the RwandAir fleet somewhere in 2015 / 16, the number of aircraft needed to feed these wide body aircraft, will have to gone up too and there is already speculation, that with the planned introduction of flights to Mumbai yet more deliveries could be on the way to Kigalis Kanombe International Airport very soon.
Back to Nigeria though. During the speeches, at Lagos Murtala Muhammed International Airport as well as in the capital Abuja for the gala dinner event, it was made abundantly clear that the airline will not stop at just three flights and seek to gradually expand the service to daily just as soon as passenger numbers justify the capacity expansion and more aircraft are available to cater for the added flights.
Arriving in Lagos after the nearly 4 hour long flight across the continent from East to West, landing was as smooth as a baby bottom, perfectly executed by the companys chief pilot and when turning off the taxiway into the designated parking area two fire engines created the traditional water arc through which the aircraft drove. The anticipated officaldom was notably left in the bottom drawers for the arrival, as we were ushered into the terminal and the airconditioned environment, needed considering on the tarmac it was well over 35C and humidity was high. The official part with welcoming speeches was soon to be substituted by the party time which unfolded in two of the lounges, and we could relax while the officials signed visitor books and gave interviews to the Nigerian media who had come to the airport to capture the events live for the Lagos TV and radio stations.
The time flew by as it does at a busy airport and soon we were to re-board our flight again, but got delayed just a bit when officialdom finally showed its face and the need to get new boarding passes suddenly came into focus a challenge eventually mastered with humour and patience, the usual ingredients for seasoned travelers across Africa. Take off then took some more time as a tarmac delay before getting take off clearance took 40 minutes, leading to a late arrival of the aircraft and its occupants in Abuja, delaying the evenings gala dinner by a good hour and a half in the end.
Undeterred though did the 100 plus original passengers on board the flight, on which they were joined by a number of invited guests from Lagos for the evening, get through immigration, customs and into the waiting busses, officialdom on arrival in Abuja again kept to a minimum, and much appreciated, having travelled since morning.
Nigerians are intrepid and enthusiastic travelers and in return generally quite hospitable people welcoming visitors from the continent and further abroad, were it not for the costly Visa requirements in advance and a range of other issues like the outdated use of currency declaration forms, which have long been abandoned across Eastern Africa and where Nigeria still has to catch up with global trends.
Visa in particular are almost a curse, as the Nigerian High Commission in Uganda also attends to Rwanda, so travelers have to get their Visa processed in Kampala, making it another bureaucratic hurdle. Travel by Africans across Africa should be easy, to promote business and leisure travel in the spirit of the African Unions constant verbal commitments to bringing the continent closer to each other. Now, that more airlines like RwandAir show the spirit and determination to connect East with West, this should be facilitated by easing Visa requirements, and for visitors passes to be obtained on arrival, rather than requiring letters of invitation and a litany of answers from wannabe visitors. Reality however seems to be that many African countries still look with suspicion upon their fellow Africans from other countries, putting in place hurdles to almost prevent travel rather than promote travel in itself a potentially huge economic factor, recognized in East Africa and well worth, and timely, to consider in West Africa too.
RwandAirs choice of GSA for Nigeria in the meantime was well done, with Olufemi Adefopes SkyLogistics, an established aviation representation company being arguably the best on the market. Femi is no stranger in fact to East Africa, having attended a number of Skal functions in Kampala in the past, and at last being able to welcome some of his friends from East Africa to his own home patch. His companys expertise in the market will be of paramount importance to make the RwandAir flights a success and sooner rather than later increase frequencies.
The big function of the day was in Abuja, where the travel agents, the business community, diplomats and government officials graced the gala dinner occasion to celebrate RwandAirs first flight ever to Nigeria. The airline had befittingly brought Rwandas best drummers and dance troupe along to perform and their display drove the participants to wild applause, appreciating the cultural variety the African continent can offer.
Departure experience apart, there officialdom again showed it is still a force to reckon with and delayed the aircraft by some hour and a half, the inaugural flight to Lagos and Abuja was a success story to be told and has taken RwandAir to the next level. And that all said and done, expect more major announcements in coming months from Rwandas national airline, which as the saying goes is on the prowl. Happy Landings.