“… not only for our company, but the entire industry,” exclaimed Sanjeev Gadhia, Founder and CEO of Kenyan air freight carrier, Astral Aviation, and Vice Chairman of TIACA at the organization’s virtual event “TakeOff Cargo 2021” held last week. What consequences the alarm call had for his 2000 incepted airline, he described in his vivid keynote speech.
“As the pandemic spread, we immediately embarked on conserving our cash. Simultaneously, we restructured processes to operate more sustainably, expanded our network rapidly as demand for flying PPEs and sanitary equipment went through the roof, and we upped our fleet going from pre-Covid 9 aircraft to meanwhile 14 freighters.” Within the next 12 months, Astral will grow its fleet further, Mr. Gadhia announced, deploying 6 additional all-cargo aircraft.
Vaccines are given highest transport priority
The manager emphasized that thanks to Astral’s partnership with UNICEF, vaccine shipments were given utmost priority. Some flights were even deliberately delayed so that extremely urgent BioNTech/Pfizer doses or vaccines stemming from other producers which happen to arrive late in Nairobi or at other airports served by Astral could still be processed and flown out to their final destinations in the quickest possible way. “It goes without saying, that we immediately informed our other customers why we had decided to hold back a flight for a couple of hours, and they always responded very understandingly,” said Mr. Gadhia.
Modern vs outdated airport concepts
Meanwhile, Africa’s largest private cargo carrier has taken on the role as lifeline to many countries in Sub-Sahara. Not to forget, he reminded, that “Africa is still the most disconnected continent in the world.” Which proved to be a hurdle, or at least a major challenge, in the intra-continental distribution of vaccines and protective materials, he added. This was partly due to the way a number of African airports interpreted their role. While some of them regard airlines as nothing but cash cows that need to be squeezed out by charging high fees for all conceivable services, others favor a different approach. They see themselves primarily as enablers of trade, i.e., they pursue a much broader, communal strategy.
The latter is true for Antananarivo in Madagascar, Sanjeev confirmed. “When we applied for landing rights there, they immediately provided us with a transparent data package that precisely listed the handling and landing fees, kerosene prices for refueling our freighters, and other cost blocks. That was exemplary. Other airports following a different strategy impose extra charges on night flights, even when urgently needed vaccines are on board a freighter,” criticized the Astral boss.
Astral continues broadening both fleet and network
He advises airports to enhance their strategy by taking a proactive approach, involving not only airlines, but also forwarders, who ultimately decide which carrier will transport their shipments and at which airport this will happen. “Some of the African airports need a mentality shift. They should come out of their comfort zone and start cooperating with all members of a supply chain, instead of just considering airlines as being their sole clients.”
While Nairobi’s Yomo Kenyatta Airport is Astral Aviation’s home base, sub-hubs are established in Lomé, Togo, and Johannesburg, South Africa. In Europe, it is Doncaster in the UK, and Liege in Belgium, while Dubai, Riyadh, and soon also Tel Aviv are Astral’s gateways in the Middle East. In the Far East, all flights are routed to Hong Kong, but “we are looking at airports in Mainland China we intend to serve,” he stated. This might already happen during the second half of this year, Sanjeev indicated.
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