BusinessCompaniesEthiopian Airlines - Kenya Airways: Gap widens in East African skies


Posted on Thursday, 04 July 2013 08:46

Ethiopian Airlines - Kenya Airways: Gap widens in East African skies

By Michael Obiero in Nairobi

$1.9bn turnover in 2012 for Ethiopian Airlines and $1.3bn turnover in 2012 for Kenya AirwaysThe top two East African carriers contemplated a merger last year, but Ethiopian thinks its prospects are strong enough for it to fly solo.


From labour relations and profitability to geographical balance, Ethiopian Airlines appears to have an advantage over Kenya Airways.

"From the numbers and global ambitions, one can certainly say that Ethiopian Airlines looks more confident and ready to face the future compared to KQ [Kenya Airways]," says Eric Musau, an analyst at Standard Investment Bank.

Ethiopian Airlines became the first African carrier to start flying Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, receiving its first of 10 aircraft in August 2012 as part of a plan to boost revenue five-fold by 2025.

When Kenya Airways mooted plans for a merger with Ethiopian last November to fight off foreign carriers, Addis Ababa was dismissive of the idea.

Casual observers read Ethiopian's reactions as a cheeky shot from an arch-rival, but analysts viewed it as another sign of the growing gulf in the financial health and confidence of the two East African carriers.


Ethiopian Airlines is a well-managed state-owned company, and proud of it. "The fallacy is that whatever government owns is a failure. It is not," chief executive Tewolde Gebremariam told the Africa CEO Forum last November in Geneva.

Both carriers struggled but remained in the black during a tough few years for the African airline industry.

Ethiopian recorded net profits of $40m for the year to June 2012, a drop of 40 percent, while Kenya Airways recorded a 53 percent drop in net profits to $19.6m in the year to March 2012.

Then in November KQ issued a profit warning for the year ending March 2013, reporting a net loss of $57m for the six months to September 2012.

Analysts attribute the widening gap between the two airlines to their wage bills and labour relations, choice of destinations, geographical segmentation of their revenue and Ethiopian's government protection.

Airlines the world over have faced deteriorating labour relations, but Ethiopian has fared better than its African rivals.

Last year the airline convinced its employees to give up part of their salaries and reduce per diem rates in a cost-cutting drive to save $54m.

This was happening at a moment when KQ was locked in a vicious dispute with the Aviation and Allied Workers Union over a plan to slash 600 jobs.

The union secured a restraining order against the company. The case is still in court.

High Wages

KQ's wage bill more than doubled over the past six years to $156.3m in the year to March 2012, while the total number of staff members rose by more than 16 percent to 4,834, meaning that on average each employee pocketed $32,322 a year.

In contrast, in the year to June 2011 the 6,286 employees on the Ethiopian Airlines payroll took home $16,255 on average.

"The difference between the two markets is that Kenya has a more liberal labour market [but] with strong unions compared to Ethiopia," says Sammy Onyango, chief executive of Deloitte East Africa.

Ethiopian Airlines, with a fleet of 49 passenger planes and 70 destinations, is making faster head- way in key growth markets such as Asia. Ethiopian Airlines draws 35 percent of its revenue from Asia and the Middle East, compared with 19 percent for KQ.

"Ethiopia has a balanced geographic representation and is benefiting from its huge presence in Asia," explains Mbithe Muema, an analyst at Renaissance Capital.

Last September, Kenya Airways chief executive Titus Naikuni admitted that the company's revenue is "not growing as fast as we had anticipated".

KQ plans to spend $3.6bn over the next five years to increase its fleet and number of routes, including the purchase of 10 Embraer 190s, nine Dreamliners and one Boeing 777-300ER●

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