The Washington Diplomat / October 2009
By Larry Luxne
One million passengers will have flown Afriqiyah Airways this year, but few know the meaning behind the 9.9.99 logo painted boldly on the tail of every Afriqiyah jet.
It's really no mystery at all. Ten years ago this month — on Sept. 9, 1999 — the Sirte Declaration was approved in Col. Muammar Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte, marking the formation of the 53-member African Union.
As such, Afriqiyah hopes to become Africa's favorite airline, as spelled out in the corporate mission that appears on its website: "to link the African countries directly with one another, without the need to suffer through the long connecting flights from Africa to Europe and then back to Africa again."
The airline's chief executive officer, Rammah Ettir, says that to a large extent, Afriqiyah has succeeded.
"We have made Tripoli a gateway to and from Africa, shortening routes from Europe and then developing the network to cover a considerable number of African destinations, which will be further extended to Asia and North America," he told the Washington Diplomat.
Afriqiyah, which means "African" in Arabic, was established in 2001 and is 100 percent state-owned. So is Libya's other major airline, Libyan Airlines. At present, it flies once a day between Tripoli and Benghazi, and has no plans on increasing its domestic routes.
However, Afriqiyah's international network is expanding constantly. It began with five African capital cities: Khartoum, Sudan; N'djamena, Chad; Niamey, Niger; Bamako, Mali, and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
The airline has since added eight more African capitals to its route map, from Brazzaville to Bangui, and will soon begin flying to the South African cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg as well.
Internationally, Afriqiyah has direct flights between Tripoli and seven European cities. It also flies to Cairo, Dubai and Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), and plans to launch direct service to Beijing and Guangzhou in the near future.
"China is a very important destination for us, since it's developing quite rapidly for African travelers, merchants and businessmen," said Ettir, noting that worldwide, 650,000 passengers flew Afriqiyah last year, rising to a projected one million for 2009.
This year, Ettir expects his airline to see revenues of 200 million Libyan dinars ($170 million), a 20 percent increase over 2008 sales.
"The company has established its name in the market," Ettir explained. "We're much better known than before. Also, we are now using our own aircraft, which were delivered in 2007 and 2008. That has made a great impact on our product offering, and they're much better than what we previously had."
The airline started off with Boeing 737-400 aircraft, but in 2003 introduced all Airbus equipment. In 2006, it signed a $1.7 billion deal with the European aircraft giant to acquire six Airbus A320s and three Airbus A319s, plus an option on five, as well as three Airbus A330-200s, plus three options. The first A319 was delivered exactly one year ago.
"We started operations while Libya was still under the U.S.-led United Nations sanctions. This limited our chances of acquiring our own fleet, so operations were carried out using wet-leased aircraft from other operators," Ettir told The Diplomat. "We had approached both Boeing and Airbus and were in deep discussions and negotiations with them, but finally Airbus won the deal because they were able to offer much closer delivery dates than Boeing."
Ettir added: "We are committeed to [buying] 23 aircraft from Airbus, and this will take us to 2017, so unless there's a major change, I don't think there will be room for other aircraft manufacturers."
Afriqiyah's CEO estimates that 70 percent of the airline's business consists of passengers transiting Tripoli on their way between Europe and various African capitals; the remaining 30 percent of traffic either originates or terminates in Libya.
Only 15 to 20 percent of Afriqiyah's passengers are bona fide tourists, though Ettir says tourism will be "of great importance" to the airline in the near future. The most heavily traveled routes for business right now are between Tripoli and Paris, Accra, London and Dubai.
"Our fares are on the lower side, though we are not a low-cost carrier," he commented, adding that Afriqiyah and Libyan Airlines don't compete each other but rather depend on transit traffic.
Ettir said his airline, which has 1,200 employees, said he'd like to extend Afriqiyah's route map to the United States — particularly to New York JFK and to Houston, the headquarters of many U.S. oil companies.
"Both destinations are in our plans, and we've approached our own civil aviation authorities for getting the needed approvals and permissions. We have already assigned a general sales agent in North America, and will soon get in contact with U.S. authorities for their approvals to operate either route," Ettir said.
But he added that "due to tougher regulations, I think it won't be possible for any Libyan carrier to start direct operations there unless the new airport is completely finished."
To that end, the Libyan government will spend one billion euro ($1.4 billion) on a new airport for Tripoli that would be able to welcome 20 million passengers a year — up from the current three million.
The work is being carried out by a consortium of six companies including Vinci of France, Brazil's Odebrecht and Turkey's Tepe Akfen Ventures. The 1,165-hectare site will have two new 360,000-square-meter terminals and be able to handle up to 100 planes, with parking facilities for some 4,400 vehicles.
French company Aéroports de Paris has been contracted to produce master plans for the project, as well as a new $500 million airport being constructed in Benghazi by Canada's SNC-Lavalin Nexacor and a $253 million airport for Sebha, 1,000 kilometers south of Tripoli in the Sahara Desert.
"Afriqiyah's growth was to a large extent limited by Tripoli's airport facilities," he said. "As soon as the new airport opens and we receive the long-haul wide-body aircraft on order, we will be in a better and stronger position in the market, and we expect to double our passenger volumes within the first year."
Ettir declined to comment on persistent rumors that Afriqiyah and Libyan Airlines may be merged. Asked about possible privatization of Afriqiyah, he simply said "we are not there yet."
"In fact, we are state-owned through different shareholders, so we are not directly sponsored by the government, even though our shareholders are government entities. Privatization means selling shares to the public, which is not the case yet. I don't think it will be for the next two or three years at least."