The tense standoff at Air Afrique between management and unions has finally led to the sacking of chief executive Yves Rolland-Billecart, who has failed to reverse the decline at the multinational African carrier since his appointment in 1989.

The unions' demand for the sacking of the entire management team was fulfilled in part after an April summit of the ministers of transport of the carrier's 11 owner nations. Billecart, a French national, was sacked only two years into his second tenure which was scheduled to run to 1999. Reports suggest, however, that Billecart will stay on until the end of the year, assisted by an African managing director, who should be named by the end of July.

Air Afrique needs fresh equity of some CFA Fr200 billion ($400 million) only two years after the last recapitalisation. The carrier's debt load was a key reason given for Billecart's dismissal, highlighting the failure to turn the airline around. Debt levels are currently running at CFA Fr180 billion and the carrier is having difficulty meeting its payments on its five A310s.

Billecart had upset the unions over a number of years with his confrontational style which allowed the African staff no room to express themselves and contribute to the growth of the airline. At the start of his tenure, Billecart sacked 1,600 staff and brought in French employees to assist him. 'That action caused mistrust,' says a source in Air Afrique.

However, Billecart argues the airline's financial troubles worsened because of the economic environment in the owner states due largely to the 50 per cent devaluation of the CFA franc against its French counterpart two years ago, and the African Development Bank's refusal to put up $16 million as part of the carrier's financial restructuring in 1994, which has proved inadequate. Observers sympathetic to Billecart identify political instability in Air Afrique's owner states and compulsory services on unprofitable routes as reasons for the poor financial performance of the flag, which may post a $19 million loss for 1995 - the third consecutive year of red ink.

But an Air Afrique source says these factors are not the cause for the poor financial performance and questions Billecart's management style. The source alleges that Billecart's 'unsuitable' leasing policies were responsible for the West African carrier's debt. 'He decided to sell the DC-10 which had been fully paid for to lease the A300-600 for reasons not clear.'

There have also been some allegations that many of Billecart's policies were aimed at helping Air France. For example, he dropped the once a week Air Afrique flight between Lagos and Paris, while network and fleet planning left passengers irritated by the number of aircraft changes and stopovers.

Simon Tumba

Source: Airline Business