Mohamed Ghelala – new horizons for Air Burkina

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For Mohamed Ghelala, chief executive of Air Burkina since 2002, the recent development of the national carrier holds much promise for the future.

The rather unremarkable history of the airline, formed by the then Upper Volta government as Air Volta on 17 March 1967, took a decisive step forward on 21 February 2001, when, as part of a privatisation policy by the government of the renamed Burkina Faso state, the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED) acquired a 76% stake the airline. The government retained 14% of the shares, with the remainder bought by local companies.

In 1985, in line with the new national identity, Air Volta became Air Burkina. Although Burkina Faso is one of the poorest nations in Africa, the liberal attitude by the government has resulted in growing foreign investment, which has enabled a gradual expansion of the airline. “An increase in capital to CFA3.5 billion [$8 million) has also helped Air Burkina to move forward,” Ghelala says. “As has the management, training and logistics support provided by Italy’s Meridiana, another Aga Khan company. As part of the Celestair Group, Air Burkina is now a key member of a new West African hub for AKFED.” This also includes Compagnie Aérienne du Mali, soon to be renamed Air Mali, with Air Ivoire expected to join soon.

The Air Burkina network serves seven destinations in West Africa, including Bamako, Dakar, Abidjan, Accra, Lomé, Cotonou and Niamey, with a direct link from the capital Ouagadougou to Paris. A domestic connection is also provided between Ouagadougou and the country’s second city and commercial centre, Bobo-Dioulasso. Both Air Burkina and Air Mali use the former’s Airbus A319 on the Paris route, with Air Burkina offering two direct flights a week to Paris and two via Bamako in Mali. “With traffic growing on the Paris route, we are looking to replace the A319 with a larger type with at least 150, but no more than 170, seats. We hope to have this aircraft in time for the start of the 2008/2009 winter season in November.”

The domestic and West African network is being operated by two Boeing MD-87s, one of which has been operated by Air Mali since 1 December. “For technical and logistic reasons, the MD-87 is on our AOC,” says Ghelala. “We will support Air Mali for four to six months, after which the aircraft will be transferred to the Mali register. A third MD-87 will be delivered to Air Burkina in 2008. Celestair bought nine MD-87s from Iberia through a financial company, Finaircraft, which is leasing the MD-87s to us on a seven-year term.”

Air Burkina also has a single Saab 340, the lease on which expires at the end of March and will not be replaced. “The problem has been that we can only operate it with 25 seats, because of temperature limitations on take-off. It is presently being operated from Ouagadougou to Bobo-Dioulasso, but this route will be taken over by the MD-87. But because that aircraft is too large, it will continue on to Bamako twice a week. We have evaluated the Dash 8 and ATR 42 as a replacement for the Saab 340, but have decided that the time is not right to make such a commitment.”

The success of the Paris route has bolstered Air Burkina’s passenger figures, which, Ghelala says, will reach 120,000 in 2007, a 20% increase over the year before. “Our optimistic projection for 2008 is a 33% increase to around 160,000 passengers,” he adds. This increase is largely expected to come from the Paris route and possible new regional services. “For the time-being, we are not considering other routes outside Africa, but will concentrate on developing within West and Central Africa,” says Ghelala.

As to Celestair’s new East African hub established by Air Uganda, which started operating in November and could soon be joined by Rwandair Express and Precisionair of Tanzania, Ghelala says West Africa comes first. “For the moment we have to co-ordinate our operations in West Africa, and only as a second stage will we link the two networks.” Air Burkina may have had little to boast about in the past, but this could soon change.

Ghelala joined Air Burkina as its director general in 2002. In December 2007, he was elected president of the African Airlines Association (AFRAA) for 2008, having previously served on the Executive Committee.