Eritrea’s dictator Isaias Afwerki is personally supervising the negotiations to bring in Pakistani Airways to manage Eritrean Airlines. The agreement envisions a Pakistani management, which includes a General Manager, a Chief Operating Officer and a Financial manager, to take over the administration of Eritrean Airlines.
If the negotiations succeed, this will be the fourth launch for Eritrean Airlines.
The first one, “The Airline Company”, was a privately-held company owned by three Eritreans (Nussredin Ibrahim, Habib Kebire and a third silent partner) and was launched in 1992 soon after Eritrean independence, and was attempted using Romanian chartered planes and crew. The airline, which changed its name to Eritrean Airlines to comply with Eritrean Civic Aviation Authority (ACAA) requirements, had limited runs, mostly to Massawa, Asab, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. The Airline Company discontinued when, in the summer of 1994, the captain, a Romanian, flew the plane home and wouldn’t return, leaving passengers stranded
The second one, which was known as “Red Sea Airlines“, was launched after Abraha Ghermazion (since frozen) was named ECAA manager in 1995. The goal was to take over the lucrative routes of Lufthansa and Ethiopian Airlines which were carrying thousands of Eritrean passengers every year. Abraha Ghermazion was replaced by Stifanos Afwerki, who in turn was replaced by Paulos Kahsay. Red Sea Airlines ceased operations in 1998, following the ignition of the Eritrea-Ethiopia war. After a two year lull, Red Sea Airlines attempted a comeback in a venture between a wealthy Saudi banker (Bin Mahfouz) and the PFDJ’s Red Sea Trading Corporation. Aynom Mebrahtu was named director of the ill-fated venture, which shut down in 2002.
The third one, named “Queen Bee”* was launched in April of 2003. Leasing a couple of used Boeings and Airbuses, Queen Bee announced routes to Frankfurt, Rome, Milan, Nairobi, Djibouti and Dubai. The Queen Bee had an Eritrean crew—pilot, first officer and flight attendants pulled off from the Intercontinental Hotel in Asmara. Queen Bee was described as yet another example of “self-reliance.” Given the ruling regime’s poor financial management skills, and its focus on using the airline as a political vehicle to transport Eritreans during the tourist season, the airline was operating at a loss until it was shut down in 2008.
Still in 2006, Nasair, supposedly a private company, was launched to provide service between Asmara and Massawa beside limited flights to several regional airports including Jeddah and Dubai. It was shut down in the summer of 2010.
And now, the fourth attempt. Negotiations with Pakistani Airways have been underway since 2006.
If the deal goes through and the Pakistani management team’s condition is observed, it would mean that Eritrean Airlines would run as an independent private company whose management reports to a Board of Directors. The ticket office will not receive stamped order papers to issue tickets to the employees of the regime and their families. The Eritrean regime would have to buy its tickets like any other customer. But the ruling regime is not used to paying for services from providers which it owns, and it is not familiar at all with the rigors of audited financial statements or parliamentary oversight over its operations, so skepticism has been the natural reaction.
The Pakistani management team is also recommending that Eritrean Airlines cease long haul routes and instead to concentrate on routes to and from the Middle Eastern and African countries that are close to Eritrea and within a four hour flight range. This will mean replacing its fleet of Boeing 767 and a McDonnell-Douglas (MD-83) with smaller aircrafts—four small planes are expected to be purchased or leased soon. Pakistan and Qatar will provide the consultancy and financing and the Eritrean regime will campaign the Diaspora Eritreans to buy shares of the new Eritrean Airlines. The Diaspora Eritreans who consider the ruling regime an investment of sorts have been reliable when it comes to throwing good money after bad.
Meanwhile, negotiations are also underway to have Emirate Airlines and Qatar to provide connection flight to and from Asmara for travelers from the rest of the world.
* Queen Bee with its symbolism of drones and worker bees devoted to death to the protection of their queen is favorite metaphor of the ruling regime.