January 14, 2010 / 12:04 PM / 8 years ago

INTERVIEW-Ethiopian Airlines eyes China/India profit boost

* Forecasts net profits of $150 million for 2009/10

* Wants to fly to Shanghai, Bangalore

* Plans to add four new Africa destinations a year

By Barry Malone

ADDIS ABABA, Jan 14 (Reuters) - Ethiopian Airlines hopes to boost profits this year by taking advantage of growing ties between Africa and China and India, adding new routes to the Asian powers, Chief Executive Girma Wake said on Thursday.

China and India have displaced many western countries as the major investors in Africa, where they have invested billions of dollars in recent years.

“Because we are also flying to more destinations in Africa than any other airline, we can connect a lot of African traffic to China and India,” Girma told Reuters in Addis Ababa.

“We are seeing a significant increase in our traffic to China and India and we are planning to launch more flights to different cities in both countries.”

Ethiopian Airlines operates 14 flights a week to Beijing and Guangzhou and 12 flights a week to New Delhi and Mumbai. Girma said the airline was planning to add flights to Shanghai in China and Chennai and Bangalore in India.

The state-owned carrier flies to 35 African destinations and has remained profitable despite a downturn in the aviation industry.

Its full-year net profit more than doubled to 1.3 billion birr ($128.6 million) in 2008/09 due to an aggressive international marketing campaign and a cost-cutting drive.

“If fuel prices do not go up, we can expect about $150 million net in 2009/10,” Girma said. “If fuel goes up, we think we’ll stick at about $128 million.”

Ethiopian Airlines is one of a trio of African carriers along with South African Airways and Kenya Airways (KQNA.NR), spearheading change in Africa’s fast-growing airline industry with more modern planes. “The major engine of our growth will always be Africa,” Girma said. “And China and India are now important destinations because of the interest that a lot of Africa has in these countries. But we will expand in Africa, too.”

Air travel is more expensive in Africa than in other parts of the world and some Africans say they are priced out of travelling around the continent.

Girma said that open-skies policies operating in many African countries would bring in more airlines and ultimately reduce costs.

Ethiopian will begin to add four new African routes a year.

“We will expand until we are operating to every major Africa city,” Girma said. “We can be operating to every major sub Saharan Africa destination within 2 to 3 years. And probably every North African destination within 7 or 8 years.”

Girma said the airline planned to exploit China and India’s burgeoning middle classes by marketing Ethiopia as a tourist destination and building a hotel.

Just under 400,000 holidaymakers visited the Horn of Africa nation in 2008, and the tourism ministry expects that to increase to half a million this year. The government target is to attract one million foreign visitors within five years. (Editing by Helen Nyambura-Mwaura and Jon Loades-Carter)

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