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Silver lining shines through the fog of war

Posted 12 June 2020 · Add Comment

Like all Libyan carriers, Afriqiyah Airways is in a seemingly endless fight for survival. But chairman, Mustafa Maatug, tells Martin Rivers he’s full of hope for the future.

Mitiga Airport, Tripoli’s only functioning gateway, resumed operations in December after it was closed for three months due to airstrikes by Khalifa Haftar, the country’s most powerful warlord.

The disruption was just the latest blow for Libya’s long-suffering airlines – their previous hub, Tripoli International Airport, was destroyed in 2014 – yet Mustafa Maatug, the chairman of Afriqiyah Airways, one of Libya’s state-owned flag-carriers, is quick to find a silver lining.

“This sort of problem is happening very rarely,” he said. “It happens from time to time, but these problems will not stop us from operating.”

The reality is that Afriqiyah, its fellow flag-carrier Libyan Airlines, and a handful of private operators are used to such crises.

Libya began its slide into civil war in 2011 amid the Arab Spring uprisings that engulfed the region. Hopes were high that the oil-rich nation would embrace democracy after the overthrow of its dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. But the militias who toppled him fell back on to tribal loyalties and continued battling amongst themselves.

Power soon coalesced around two centres: a western government in Tripoli, which is backed by the United Nations; and an eastern government in Tobruk, which is allied to Haftar’s troops and supported by Egypt and the UAE.

Fractured in this way, Libya’s state-owned entities have found it difficult to stay impartial. The two national airlines are particularly exposed due to their operational presence in both Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi.

For Afriqiyah, these competing interests gave rise to “split administrations” in the east and the west, according to The Libya Herald, with rival managers steering the airline in two different directions. Once again, however, Maatug downplayed the problem and insisted that the leadership speaks with one voice.

“Afriqiyah is one company and there is no split between the east and the west,” he said. “This rumour that you heard is not true. We did have some administration problems before, but now we have only one board and we are all together now. There is no split at Afriqiyah at all.”

The chairman stressed that the Tripoli-based carrier has encountered “no problems” at its Benghazi station and that “aviation in Libya has nothing to do with the political side”.

Although management have succeeded in keeping the airline alive, Afriqiyah’s network is a shadow of its former self. Just seven overseas markets are operated on a scheduled basis: Tunis and Sfax in Tunisia; Istanbul in Turkey; Amman in Jordan; Alexandria in Egypt; Khartoum in Sudan; and Niamey in Niger.

Charter flights are also operated to Accra, Ghana.

The domestic network links Tripoli and Benghazi with Sabha and Kufra in the south, and Zintan and Misrata in the west. Misrata Airport, located 200km east of Tripoli, served as the capital’s temporary hub during the closure of Mitiga Airport.

Lagos, Nigeria and Cotonou, Benin are among the markets being evaluated for future expansion – but the size of the fleet poses a challenge.

Afriqiyah currently deploys nine aircraft: five Airbus A320s, two A319s, one A330-300 and one A300 freighter. A second A330-300 has been leased to Turkish Airlines, while four or five planes are inoperable due to damage sustained in the war.

Talks are now under way with Airbus about replacing Afriqiyah’s historic commitment for 10 wide-body A350s with a mixed order that would lift the fleet to 20 units, likely including A321neos.

“We’re a very good customer for Airbus,” Maatug said, predicting an announcement in the near future.

However, deliveries are unlikely until the company receives assurances that it can return to Europe. All Libyan carriers have been banned from the continent since 2012, when Brussels voiced “serious concerns” about the oversight capabilities of the Libyan Civil Aviation Authority. On that front, too, Maatug is full of optimism.

“Shortly, Libya is going back to its normal position, so don’t you worry,” he affirmed. “We are very close to Europe. Shortly this embargo will be lifted... When they lift the embargo, we are ready to go.”
 

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