By Kaleyesus Bekele
Trans Nation Airways (TNA) , a private charter flight operator based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is aiming higher to become the preferred charter operator in East Africa region.
Established in 2004 TNA operates two Dash8 aircraft and recently acquired a new King Air360 from Textron Beech Aircraft Company. The parent company of TNA ,MIDROC , the largest investment group in Ethiopia, had an aviation wing called MIDROC Aviation that used to provide flight services to the executive management team of MIDROC and transports gold produced by MIDROC Gold Mining Plc, one of the subsidiaries of the investment group. MIDROC Aviation used to manage aircraft owned by Sheik Mohammed Hussein Ali Alamoudi, chairman of MIDROC Investment Group.
Later the management of MIDROC decided to transform MIDROC Aviation into an airline that provides charter flight services. Consequently, TNA was born in 2004 operating two Dash 8 aircraft acquired from MIDROC Aviation.
According to Amir Abdulwahab, general manager, TNA was tasked primarily to provide flight service to the executive management of MIDROC Investment Group which has around 50 sister companies employing 80,000 Ethiopians and ferrying gold produced by MIDRIC Gold Mining from the Lega Dembi Gold mine in South West Ethiopia to the capital city Addis Ababa and sometimes to Europe where the gold is sold. The company was also tasked to provide charter flight service to third party customers.
Back then TNA was not a profitable company. It was subsidized by MIDROC Gold. “As long as it transports gold and the management and experts of MIDROC the former management of TNA didn’t worry much about profitability. They didn’t try hard to access other markets,” Amir who assumed his current position in August 2020 said.
TNA at once had tried to operate scheduled domestic flight service with the two Dash 8 aircraft but it didn’t work out. “Scheduled flight operation requires a lot of things. You need to have the infrastructure, sales offices or agents. You have to connect your flights with other operators otherwise you can’t operate from point A to B like the low cost carriers. Competing with the national carrier Ethiopian Airlines with two aircraft was an impossible task. It was not properly studied,” Amir said.
The problem came when MIDROC Gold suspended operation in 2018 due to a nationwide public protest that brought about a political reform in Ethiopia. The panicked management of TNA dry leased the two Dash-8 aircraft to operators in Kenya. The then management of TNA has even proposed to liquidate the airline as it was not sustainable.
That was when the new manager who had served Ethiopian Airlines for 14 years at different positions jumped in and asked to be given a chance to turn around the small private airline. “I asked the CEO of MIDROC Investment Group Jemal Ahmed to give me six month to look at the airline if it can be managed and turn towards profitability or shut it down,” Amir said.
“We had a fierce battle to return the two leased aircraft from Kenya. One of them had a technical challenge and it is still in Kenya. But we managed to bring back the second one which is Dash8-200-a 35 seater aircraft.”
When diplomatic feud broke out between the governments of Kenya and Somalia in 2020 Somalia banned all flights coming from Kenya. All those flights that used to transport Khat, a mild stimulant leaves, from Kenya to Somalia were banned. This has opened a golden opportunity for Ethiopian Khat exporters.
TNA was one of the first private airlines that started ferrying Khat from Dire Dawa town, eastern part of Ethiopia known for Khat Trade to Mogadishu, Somalia. As Abdulwahab himself came from eastern Ethiopia it didn’t take him long to get to know the Khat traders and work with them harmoniously. The Khat transport became a lucrative business for the small private airlines as well as the national carrier Ethiopian Airlines which deployed two Bombardier Q400s.
TNA leased another Dash8 for the “Khat” transport as business boomed. In 2021 TNA for the first time in its 17 years history made profit. It made a 100 percent salary increment to its employees and a three month bonus payment.
“We now have proved that the company can be profitably run. So we want to grow the operation,” the manager said.
It is true that the “Khat” business has enabled the new management to turn around the company to profitability but they don’t want to depend on the wind fall business. “We might bring in another Dash8 converted cargo aircraft if the “Khat” business is sustainable.”
The other good news for TNA came last year that heralded MIROC Gold resumed operation. So, TNA has started transporting gold from the gold mine to Addis Ababa with the Dash8-200 aircraft.
TNA is now striving to expand its charter flight operation. “There is a growing demand for charter flight service in Ethiopia,” Amir said. “We have corporate customers and individual affluent people who fly with us. They want to visit their investment projects in remote areas and fly back to Addis Ababa the same day.”
Accordingly, TNA has acquired a new King Air 360 from Textron Company in January 2022 for 6.5 million USD. The fuel efficient aircraft can fly nonstop up to 5000 km and it can cruise at an altitude of more than 30,000 feet with a maximum speed of 561 km\hr. It has a nine VIP seat configuration but it can be reconfigured with 13 regular passenger seats. With its own patient stretcher it can also be used for an air ambulance service or the seats can be removed to operate cargo flights.
The management of TNA is now looking for a helicopter that provides charter flights to its customers. “We are looking at twin engine helicopters that have 7-8 seats that can perform well at the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport which is a high altitude airport,” Amir said.
In addition to the VIP flights, TNA is planning to launch an air ambulance service with the King Air 360 aircraft. “In case of emergencies we can fly patients from remote areas to Addis Ababa or from Addis Ababa to overseas. The King Air 360 extra range can fly 6-7 hours nonstop. So we can cover Middle East, South Africa and West Africa for an air ambulance and VIP flights,” Amir said.
TNA in collaboration with its sister companies which run hotels and car rental companies is contemplating to organize package tours for tourists. It is also eyeing UN contracts. “Currently, we are looking for aviation company management software. Once we deploy the software and acquire a helicopter we will go for UN contracts. We will be audited and certified by the UN then we will be eligible for UN tenders,” he added.
Amir said he has no intention of transforming TNA into a commercial airline. “We aspire to become the best charter flight operator in Ethiopia and competent and preferred operator in East Africa. We want to provide a full-fledged service- VIP, air ambulance, and tour services in the region. The demand for charter flights in Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti is huge.”
To cater this demand TNA needs more fleet. “We may need an additional helicopter and a business jet. My plan is to make TNA a preferred charter flight operator in the region,” he concluded.