ANALYSIS: Gambia Bird pins hopes on Nigerian progress

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Gambia Bird is close to completing the first phase of its route roll-out, chief executive Thomas Wazinski tells Flightglobal, though the delay in launching Lagos flights has resulted in lower-than-expected average load factors on intra-African routes. While the fleet is unlikely to expand beyond two Airbus A319s in the near-term, he says neighbouring states have already approached the airline about possible alliances.

West Africa's newest flag carrier launched services on 22 October, initially connecting the Gambian capital Banjul with Dakar, Freetown, Conakry, Accra and Monrovia. Intercontinental services to London Gatwick and Barcelona followed shortly after, but flights to Lagos have been postponed for unspecified political reasons.

"We intended to have Lagos right from the beginning, but we've been fighting for more than six months to get the traffic rights," Wazinski says, noting that the Banjul Accord Group assures the necessary bilateral agreements. "Hopefully by the end of the year we will have the route. Lagos is one of our top destinations in the west African sub-region...and especially for Accra and Monrovia there is strong demand to connect these with Lagos."

Gambia Bird took delivery of its second wet-leased A319 from majority stakeholder Germania in late November. Following an initial focus on charter flying, the second unit will gradually be introduced to scheduled operations. By mid-January, the third phase of the route-network will see new services to Bamako, Ouagadougou, Abidjan and Douala - though the latter is again contingent on access to Lagos.

Wazinski says passenger load factors on intra-African routes are improving daily, with the current average of 30-35% expected to reach 50% by the start of the third phase. On intercontinental services, the twice weekly London flight and once weekly Barcelona link are already averaging "better-than-expected" load factors of 65-70%.

Responding to customer feedback, the airline will reconfigure its dual-cabin fleet prior to the launch of summer services on 1 April 2013, removing one row and extending economy seat pitches to 31 inches. This will bring down the number of economy seats from 126 to 120, while leaving the premium cabin unchanged with 12 seats configured in a 34-inch seat pitch. The work will take place during the first C-checks for the 2011-vintage aircraft, to be carried out by Germania Technik Brandenburg in Berlin.

The cabin reconfiguration underscores how Gambia Bird is "definitely not" adopting the low-cost carrier model, separating its product from the likes of pan-African carrier Fastjet and Kenya Airways' upcoming Jambo Jet subsidiary. Wazinski is mindful of the changing competitive landscape, but he insists: "Competition is good for the business. We are aware of Fastjet, but we do not fear them. We have to offer a better product. We have to be punctual and reliable."

Whereas Fastjet has four air operator's certificates across east and west Africa - targeting a gradual scaling up of its point-to-point model - Gambia Bird is instead developing Banjul as a regional hub, focusing on multi-sector routes linking neighbouring countries in a chain.

"For the time being we are concentrating on fifth-freedom rights [flying between two foreign countries as part of a connecting service]. But we have already been approached by other west African countries in order to advise and consult about establishing something similar. Based on the initial talks, maybe there will be a chance to build up an alliance. But right now we are focussing on our hub in Banjul, and fifth-freedom rights operating out of other countries."

While regional alliances remain a distant prospect, the airline will consider leasing one of Germania's upcoming pair of A321s - due to arrive in April and May next year - if sufficient European demand materialises. "Of course flying with an A319 from west Africa to European destinations is quite a challenge," Wazinski says. "But fleet variety in the beginning doesn't make sense. If the business is going well, then we will have an A321 in our fleet as well."

Insisting that future expansion will occur on a level playing field, he notes that Gambia Bird does not benefit from a fuel subsidy and is subject to standard passenger taxes. However, the flag carrier does enjoy tax exemptions for "most of the things we import" - ranging from catering to spare parts.

Another advantage stems from the airline's ties to Germania, which owns a 90% stake in the flag carrier and has permanently based two engineers at its line station in Banjul. Highlighting the benefit of Gambia Bird's 12-month rolling wet leases with Germania, Wazinski says: "We have rights based on the fact that we are operating behind Germania Express - which is a fully certified EASA operator - so there are no restrictions flying to any location in Europe."

EASA certification is particularly useful for the charter market, he adds, explaining: "We have had enquiries from the east coast of Africa for flying to Europe...The charm is that Gambia Bird has no restrictions flying into the EU, whereas for other African carriers this might be a problem." The flag carrier has also received "a lot of" charter enquiries from west and central Africa for South African flights, while governmental requests have come in from several states, including Cameroon.

West Africa's urgent need for improved connectivity doubtless bodes well for Gambia Bird, but Wazinski stresses that the carrier must first consolidate its existing network. To this end he returns to the airline's main bugbear, warning that any expansion "depends on how quickly we can get traffic rights into Nigeria".

Further down the road, the chief executive says Gambia Bird will consider any number of partnership models. "As a young operator, it's too early to say that we are negotiating with major players," he admits. "But behind the scenes there are already initial talks, and if there is a chance to interline and codeshare with other partners, then we will. Of course we would like to distribute passengers from international carriers flying into the hubs in west Africa."