Girma Wake, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Ethiopian Airlines (EAL), has 45 years of airline management experience in various capacities at the head, regional and area offices. At Ethiopian Airlines he served for 37 years in different management positions before his appointment as Chief Executive Officer in February 2004. Before he joined Gulf Air in 1993 as Cargo Manager, he served at Ethiopian as Manager of Space Control, area Manager in Ghana, Tanzania, and Germany, Director of Marketing Operations and Director of Cargo Marketing.
Under Girma’s leadership, the airline transformed into a billion dollar operation company, successfully realizing a five year strategic plan. Ethiopian is today the most profitable airline in Africa and ranked 16th among the world airlines.
During Girma’s tenure, making unprecedented purchases of 17 new aircrafts, Ethiopian placed an order including five B777-200LRs from Boeing, that are scheduled to arrive while he is still in office.
Girma also secured lately a 1.6 billion dollars loan guarantee, reviving Ethiopian’s vision to become the first operator of the Boeing Dreamliners.
Ethiopian now commands a lion share in African routes, flying in total to 60 international destinations, transporting 3 million passengers annually. When Ethiopian was accepted as future Star Alliance member carrier on September 29, in a ceremony held at the Sheraton Addis, Girma Wake talked to Capital’s Solomon Bekele on issues related to Ethiopian’s profit, the January Beirut accident and his career. Excerpts:
Capital: The Star Alliance has 28 members. Ethiopian is the third to join the alliance next to South African Airways and Egypt Air. Do you feel like the EAL is being an outsider?
Girma Wake: I don’t have that kind of feeling. I admit that South African Airways and Egypt Air are the two largest airlines in the continent. We know that the EAL has a long experience in the African market, plus it has an extensive intra-Africa network that will provide more choice for our travelers. These are the facts that helped us join the international big family of airlines. Having said this, Ethiopian is not the outsider. We are pioneers of the continent’s Airline industry.
Capital: You are now joining a larger and tougher Alliance. The South African Airways and Egypt Air are tough contenders for EAL. How do you propose to handle the tough competition that is looming?
Girma Wake: To begin with there is no threat that comes from these two airlines. We did not have market problem all through. What we are doing now is a further attempt to expand our market. For this we are creating a partnership. We are hopeful to serve the travelers in a much better way with this partnership.
Capital: What do you benefit by joining this Alliance?
Girma Wake: The benefit that we gain is enormous. We have now more than 50 international destinations across four continents. We fly to Washington D.C. in the United States of America. With the Star Alliance we will have more access to other US destinations. This is one advantage. The second is we are doing things on our own today. But when we have partners they share our duty for tomorrow. The third advantage is you learn more when you work with others.
Capital: EAL had earlier formed alliances with other airlines like Lufthansa. What is new in the current Alliance?
Girma Wake: For that matter we work with almost all airlines with harmony. But we had earlier alliances with ten Airlines. This is what we call Code Sharing Partners. The Star Alliance gives us the opportunity to work with other 28 airlines in the world closely. These are big airlines such as the Chinese Airlines, Turkish Airline, Singapore airlines, US Airways, Air Canada and Japan. This will open the market wide. There are two or three US airlines. It is now possible to work with all American destinations. There is Air Canada here. We have not been flying there until this time. But now, we will start flights. When we show interest to work with others they will also open the door for us.
Capital: It is said that the EAL will be a full member of the Alliance after 12 months. Why do you have to wait for so long?
Girma Wake: There are things that we must upgrade to their standard. Let me tell you the procedure. The procedure is first we have to apply to join the club. Second they come and evaluate or assess the EAL systems. In this they have to come to conclude that we are more or less of the same standard. Now our standard is accepted and they have confirmed that our market is wide. From this they concluded that the EAL is worthy of joining the Alliance. But there are things to be fixed within a short span of time. For instance, our IT – information technology system, must be merged with all the 28 Star Alliance member airlines. It takes some time; it also incurs cost. The IT needs to be merged with each member. It is not possible to say that we will upgrade after we join the Alliance. The standard needs to be equal before we join. For instance, people who travel time and again are given free ticket to inspire. The traveler has to be given the privilege to use this on other airlines. The schedules of each should be known. This takes some time.
So far there is no additional cost. There is minor cost like the membership fee and readjustment costs.
Capital: The EAL has done great service for African airlines in general. It offered technical training at its training centre for instance. Is this considered as criteria for the selection of the EAL to join the Star Alliance?
Girma Wake: Yes, it did. This is the airline that has the full support of the African airlines. Our contribution gave us this big name and it helped us getting a place in the Star Alliance. This is a give and take venture. With the EAL it is easier to get access to Africa. We also get wider access by joining the Alliance.
Capital: Personally, what do you feel about Ethiopian joining the Star Alliance?
Girma Wake: I am really very happy. It is a great success for me to join such a big Alliance.
Capital: If the rumor holds true you are pushed from your position. Others say that you want to leave the EAL due to the job opportunity you got in other airlines.
Girma Wake: Both are lies (with a broad smile). I tell you they are simply speculating. First of all, when I returned to the EAL I agreed to stay for five years. This was my contract. When the five-year term was completed, two years were added. I came for five years but I served for seven years. That comes to an end in February. Before that comes to an end, I told the board members that I want to retire. I want time to spend with my grand children. There are also efficient people who can take over my position. The board members have agreed with my request. That’s how I secured my retirement. I will stay up to December 31st 2010. Therefore, the rumor that says Girma is pushed out from his position is a big lie. Secondly, I do not want to be employed in any other international airline. If I wanted to work with other airlines, why would I come back to Ethiopia leaving my job in the first place? I just want rest. I have served 45 years in all. I have had enough of it.
Capital: What is the one thing that satisfies you the most as the CEO of the Ethiopian Airlines?
Girma Wake: Ethiopian has been the symbol of the country since it’s inception in 1945 (It was founded on December 21, 1945). Making profit has never been a big issue for the EAL. In fact making profit is a tradition. But at this crucial time when international crisis hit most big airlines, Ethiopian has ranked 16th among the world airlines, with USD 118 million profits. This gives me a great pleasure.
Capital: Finally the EAL faced a tragic accident in January, in Beirut. Nothing has come out concerning that accident. Is there anything new?
Girma Wake: Well, it was indeed a tragic accident for us. The investigation has never been smooth and it is not yet completed. We are hopeful that the final result will come in January.