In early March, Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam told an aviation conference in Addis Ababa the coronavirus pandemic was “a temporary problem” — comparable to a natural disaster or a spike in oil prices.
Several weeks later Africa’s largest carrier is locked in what Tewolde describes as “a struggle that we’re performing for survival”, ramping up cargo operations while seeking to defer lease payments on aircraft.
“To be honest with you, I had never thought that it would reach this stage,” Tewolde told AFP in an interview this week.
“I had never thought that it would spread like this at this speed, and also in this magnitude. It is just too fast and too expansive and it’s beyond imagination.”
Ethiopian Airlines, the state-owned jewel of the national economy and a vital source of foreign currency, says it is facing a revenue loss of $550 million from January to April alone.
“If you put yourself in my shoes, the only way for Ethiopian Airlines is to expand or refocus its resources, energy and time on businesses which are not affected by coronavirus,” Tewolde said.
Yet even as the airline moves to assume a central role in Africa’s pandemic response — ferrying badly needed medical equipment across the continent — it may last no more than three months before seeking outside financial help, Tewolde said.
“Will we be able to sustain with only 15 percent of our revenue?” he said, referring to the amount typically brought in by cargo.
“For a short period of time, yes. But for how long? Very difficult to predict.”
In the early days of the pandemic, Ethiopian Airlines was criticised domestically for refusing to follow competitors like Kenya Airways by suspending flights to China, where the coronavirus originated late last year.