Executive Insights: Dawit Temesgen Alemu Ethiopian Airlines Q&A

Dawit Temesgen Alemu talks to Global Finance about how Ethiopian Airlines Group adapted its fleet and operations to deliver critical support to local communities and to other airlines all across its regional footprint.

Global Finance: To prevent the spread of Covid-19, many countries closed borders, which had ripple effects on the airline industry and caused many to seek government assistance and furlough workers. Even so, Ethiopian Airlines operated over 360 chartered cargo flights and over 470 repatriation flights for 63,000 citizens without any government assis-tance. Why did you decide to take actions to help the community?

Dawit Temesgen Alemu: We are a socially responsible airline striving to improve lives and alleviate societal challenges. We believe in giving back to the communities in which we operate and sharing our business successes. That is why we established the Ethiopian Foundation, with dedicated offices and manpower to better facilitate and coordinate our social responsibility initiatives.

Our foundation serves the airline family and focuses on a range of CSR initiatives and social responsibilities that include airlifting humanitarian shipments, sponsoring food programs, charity do-nations and providing free air tickets to support organizations and individuals.

During the pandemic, besides transporting life-saving medical supplies around the world to over 80 countries, we donated 3 million Ethiopian birr [over $79,000] to the Ministry of Health along-side the airline employee’s Primary Basic Trade Union to help contain the spread of Covid-19 in Ethiopia. We conducted food programs, and our employees, including uniformed flight crew, participated and extended their signature service and hospitality to the community.

GF: What were the deciding factors to pivot your business strategy to cargo versus passen-ger flights during the pandemic?

Alemu: Our cargo terminal has an annual capacity of one million tons of cargo plus a state-of-the-art Parma Wing and dedicated cargo fleet, and we are able to provide air cargo service with a global reach. Accordingly, Addis Ababa has been designated as a Humanitarian Air Hub by the World Food Programme and World Health Organization to distribute essential supplies across Africa.

To satisfy the increased demand for air cargo services, we reconfigured 25 passenger airplanes for cargo-only flights. Now that the world is preparing to welcome a potential Covid-19 vaccine, we are also ready to deploy all our cargo capabilities for the distribution of the vaccine across the world.

GF: How did you shift your strategy?

Alemu: Ethiopian Airlines accumulated experience from our decades in the aviation business. Our aviation group is an amalgamation of multiple business units, each generating its own revenue stream in line with our diversified business model. Agility is also a key competency we developed to swiftly respond to emerging situations and tweak our business strategy accordingly.

With dropping passenger-service demand and booming cargo-service demand in the wake of the pandemic, we saw an opportunity to leverage our well-established cargo capability and serve the world better to navigate the storm. Accordingly, we shifted manpower, fleet and other resources to increase our cargo operations so we could contribute our share to people’s well-being.

GF: Will you shift your strategy again once the pandemic is over and travel restrictions are lifted?

Alemu: The redeployment of resources to our cargo division is a temporary move necessitated by the current situation. We continuously monitor the business dynamics on the ground to adjust the mix of our cargo and passenger flights.

Once the crisis is over and the expected vaccine is successfully distributed worldwide, we will redeploy resources from our cargo division to our passenger operations as needed. We already resumed passenger flights—with extra biosecurity measures—to destinations where we previously paused services due to flight restrictions.

As a socially responsible airline, Ethiopian will always live up to its noble mission of connecting people and giving back to society. That is what we have been doing for nearly 75 years and what we will continue doing going forward.