Ghana has joined South Africa as only the second sub-Saharan African country to secure category one status from the US Federal Aviation Administration. The rapid process of the country's application could help diffuse criticism over the FAA's tough safety oversight policy, particularly towards South America.

The approval paved the way for Ghana Airways to launch its own Accra-New York flights in mid-October. The carrier launched a weekly US service last October with a DC-10-30 wet-leased from Skyjet using the lessor's registration and added a second frequency in June. It plans to convert the deal to a dry lease.

Rex Lezard, the airline's chief executive, says the certification process started in February and cost the carrier around US$500,000. 'We literally had to rebuild the engineering base ... and examine every phase of our operations department,' he says.

Lezard was appointed last year after Speedwing, British Airways' consulting arm, won a two-year contract to manage the carrier, expiring in July 1997. He says it will be ready for sale by the end of 1998.

Lezard aims to turn the airline's Accra base into a regional hub for western Africa with two widebodies and three narrowbody aircraft. The carrier owns a second DC-10-30 and one DC-9-50 and is close to acquiring a second. Strong cargo traffic has made a MD-11 Combi a contender.

'The success of Kenya Airways has proven that an African airline can make it provided it is run on a commercial basis,' says Lezard. The carrier has concentrated on improving its product and customer service and is targeting west African ethnic traffic to Europe, the US and South Africa as well as a share of the lucrative business traffic to Europe. The carrier already operates to London, Düsseldorf and Rome (where Alitalia maintains the DC-10s).

Lezard declines to comment on potential friction with Air Afrique, but he says the airlines do cooperate. However, the francophile countries of west Africa remain the one part of the region which the carrier has not penetrated.

With over 1,000 staff Lezard concedes the airline remains overstaffed and while cuts are politically sensitive the carrier is focusing on improving customer orientation. 'We have to demonstrate that we can deliver a product on a consistent basis,' he says. 'We're not even trying to reach the level of a European carrier but we are seeking an exemplary level in business class, but at a lower price.'

The carrier made a small profit in 1995 and is forecast to make a US$2 million surplus in 1996 on a 10.9 per cent rise in sales to CD112.5 billion ($89 million), with traffic of 300,000 passengers.

Ghana Airways has not operated domestically but following deregulation this year it plans an alliance with startup Fan Air to 'make a sort of Ghana Express,' says Lezard.

Doug Cameron

Source: Airline Business