Somalia’s Somewhat Friendly Skies

Courtesy of the New York Times, an interesting look at the nascent Somali airline industry:

Aden Abdulle International Airport, Mogadishu, September 2011.

One recent morning at the start of the Kenyan rainy season, I boarded a shuttle bus at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. At a distant corner of the tarmac, we stopped before an aging Boeing 737. The logo of Jubba Airways, the unofficial national carrier of Somalia, was painted on the fuselage: three horizontal stripes, each a different shade of blue, and the slogan: THE HAPPY WAY TO FLY.

In its early days, 15 years ago, the Jubba Airways fleet consisted entirely of battered relics from the former Soviet Union: Ilyushin-18 twin-engine turboprops. “They were not the best quality, but nobody other than Ilyushin operators were willing to go to Somalia at that time,” said Abdullahi Warsame, Jubba’s managing director, who was accompanying me on this flight to Mogadishu. Since then, those planes have been replaced by four Boeing 737s, all but one manufactured before 1988, and three Antonov AN-24s, Soviet-era, 44-seat propeller planes whose engines are mounted high on the wings to avoid the stones and other debris that can ricochet off poorly maintained runways. Because Jubba has little capital to invest, it leases all the planes in its fleet. A used Boeing 737 from the 1980s sells for $3 million; by contrast, it costs Jubba about $400,000 a month to lease a Boeing 737, and $80,000 to lease an Antonov. Jubba uses its four Boeings (leased from a Danish operator) on its international routes; it flies the Antonovs (leased from a Armenian company) domestically. “They are very tough planes,” Warsame said. “And you know, the airports in Somalia are kind of rough, and those aircraft from Russia can endure.”

A 40-something Somali who immigrated to Canada 25 years ago, Warsame now lives in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where Jubba has offices. But he travels back to Mogadishu every month or two. The Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group Al Shabaab, which once controlled much of Somalia’s territory, has been in retreat, and Jubba is expanding its domestic routes.

Female flight attendants, from Kenya, served orange juice before takeoff. Because Jubba is registered in Kenya, the airline is obliged by law to hire, with a few exceptions, Kenyan citizens for maintenance staff and its in-flight crews on international flights. As the plane taxied down the runway, an Islamic prayer for travelers played over the intercom system.

Across the aisle from us sat two Somali émigrés, Hussein Abdullahi, 43, the branch manager of a Midwestern bank, and his friend, Jibril Mohamed, a Dubai-based entrepreneur. Abdullahi was making his first trip back to Mogadishu since he fled in 1988. Peering nervously out the window as we ascended over Nairobi, he explained that his friend Mohamed had recently founded a commercial bank in newly independent South Sudan. “Jibril said we should try the same thing in Mogadishu,” Abdullahi said, as his friend, a man with a husky physique, nodded. “I told him, ‘You want me to go to Mogadishu? You’re crazy.’ He said, ‘Come with me, you’ll see it and then make a decision.’ ”

Abdullahi considered the proposal for a weekend. “And I said to myself, if I don’t sacrifice and go home, then who’s going to do it?” Abdullahi told me that Jubba Airways’ founders had served as an inspiration for him. “These guys have courage,” he said. “They never gave up on this place.”

Two hours later, we touched down in Mogadishu without incident on the airport’s single runway. Until late 2011, Al Shabaab controlled 9 of 16 districts in Mogadishu, some within firing range of Aden Abdulle International Airport. Pilots were instructed to ascend and descend rapidly over the ocean, and to avoid flying at low altitudes over the warrens of the city. The rebels have since been mostly driven out, but pilots still perform the same maneuver.

Last year, the Washington-based nonprofit organization Fund for Peace ranked Somalia No. 1 on its Failed States Index for the fifth consecutive year, ahead of Congo, Sudan and Zimbabwe. The group cited “widespread lawlessness, ineffective government, terrorism, insurgency, crime and well-publicized pirate attacks against foreign vessels.” More than two decades of civil war and anarchy have left the country of 10 million with little functioning infrastructure. Somalia has only a handful of passable roads — and most of those are patrolled by bandits and militias. The country lacks water purification, sewers and electricity. Last fall, when a Norwegian aid organization switched on a four-mile stretch of solar-powered lamps along Mecca Mukarama Street, Mogadishu’s main commercial avenue, it was the first time in a generation that the Somali capital had streetlights after dark.

But Somalia does have airlines. In 1991, when its government dissolved, Somali Airlines, the state-owned carrier, collapsed with it. The country fell into a civil war between clans that dragged in both United Nations peacekeepers and U.S. forces. Eighteen American troops died in the infamous “Black Hawk Down” battle in October 1993. The U.S. and U.N. forces soon pulled out, and Somali warlords battled for control, then eventually gave way to Al Shabaab militants.

During those anarchic 20 years, at least 15 private commercial carriers, many of them Somali-owned, have tried to take over pieces of the defunct airline’s market. They range from short-lived ventures like Gallad Air, which flew for two years before shutting down in 2005, to African Express Airways, which has operated in the region for more than two decades.

“Road insecurity is bad for Somalia, but it’s good for airlines,” says Abirahman Aden Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister. Ibrahim estimated that at least 60 planes owned or leased by Somali carriers are currently flying.

Jubba Airways may be the most ambitious, and fastest-growing, of those carriers. Since its beginnings in 1998, Jubba has served as a lifeline for Somali businessmen with interests abroad, pilgrims on the hajj in Saudi Arabia and — increasingly — returning members of the Somali diaspora. The airline flies to some of the world’s most unstable destinations, including Galkayo, a town that straddles the self-declared independent republics of Puntland and Galmudug, both notorious sanctuaries for pirates. “Jubba passed through a tough period, but they can now be seen as our national airline,” said Ali Mohamoud Ibrahim, general manager of the Somali Civil Aviation and Meteorology Authority, whose duties were taken over by the International Civil Aviation Organization after the government collapsed in the early 1990s. “Without their activities in Somalia, the connection with the world would have been very bad.”

Jubba’s quality is hit or miss. In a blog post, one passenger described one of Jubba’s Antonovs as a piece of “Soviet dereliction” in which a family of five sat piled into three seats. “We had to board an old Russian plane. In total darkness,” an online reviewer wrote of his “flight from hell” to Hargeisa, the capital of the self-declared republic of Somaliland. “The seats had no seat belts, there are luggage and 20 boxes on back seats, not secured. . . . Avoid by all costs.”

Warsame insists that all his planes have seat belts now. “I’m thinking this must have been written by one of our Somali competitors,” he said.

In April 2012, a Jubba pilot pulled up his Antonov AN-24 at the last second to avoid crashing into a goat that had strayed across the runway in Galkayo. The Antonov flipped on its side and lost a wing. Remarkably, nobody was killed. Warsame blames the near-tragedy on the lack of fencing around Galkayo airport, but the pilot, he says, is not flying for Jubba anymore.

Jubba also has to contend with the draconian security measures imposed on its international flights. Fearful of infiltrations by Al Shabaab militants — who have carried out grenade attacks in Nairobi and Mombasa — the Kenyan Civil Aviation Authority requires that all planes bound for Nairobi from Mogadishu land first in Wajir, a desert outpost just across the Somali border. Security teams unload and scan all the baggage and submit passengers to searches and rigorous immigration procedures. When flights are full, the process can take hours.

Responding to a dearth of reliable air transport to and from Somalia, five businessmen founded Jubba Airways in 1998. The company took its name from a river that flows through southern Somalia. The five raised $800,000 from a dozen Somali investors, rented an office in Sharjah, the emirate just northeast of Dubai, hired a staff and chartered a pair of Ilyushin-18 turboprops. Sharjah had become a haven for aircraft companies from Kazahkistan, Tajikistan, Georgia and other states of the former Soviet Union. These operators took advantage of Sharjah’s absence of regulations to lease old Soviet planes to small and struggling airlines, most of which were based in war zones and former war zones.

On May 28, 1998, Jubba Airways made its inaugural flight from Sharjah to Mogadishu. At the time Mogadishu’s airport was closed and Jubba was forced to land on an airstrip a dozen miles from the capital. The company soon inaugurated a three-times-weekly service between Sharjah and Mogadishu. Later passengers flew into Baledogle, a former military base 60 miles from Mogadishu, then were bused past a series of checkpoints controlled by feuding militias.

Sharjah tightened its regulations after 9/11, expelling Eastern European charter companies and putting an end to Jubba’s flights to Mogadishu. Warsame joined the company in 2003, and he made two critical decisions. First, he began signing long-term leases for dedicated aircraft rather than chartering planes on a flight-by-flight basis. This allowed Jubba to develop a reliable flight schedule. He also registered Jubba in Kenya, a difficult two-year licensing process that gave the airline international legitimacy. (Before, Jubba had been registered in Somalia. But Somalia’s Civil Aviation Authority collapsed in 1991, and aircraft registered there can’t officially land anywhere else in the world.) Somalia was then, in 2006, enjoying a brief period of stability under the Islamic Courts Union, a militant group financed by Somali businessmen. Mogadishu’s airport reopened for the first time in several years, and Jubba began to grow. Warsame says the gunmen have mostly left Jubba alone. “They knew we are not involved in politics, we are working for the people,” he told me. “We have stayed neutral.”

Some of Jubba’s pilots are close to the ends of their careers. “I was near retirement, and I didn’t want to end up in Baghdad,” says Zaccheus Akighi, 63, a former Nigeria Airways pilot who flew in Afghanistan and Iraq for Eastok Avia before taking a Nairobi-based job for Jubba last year. Younger pilots like Jubba’s fast career track. Robert Sifuna, a 32-year-old Kenyan, jumped from Kenya Airways to Jubba last year because, he says, “it would have taken me five years to become a captain at Kenya Airways.” (War-same’s explanation: “Kenya Airways has been around for a long time. If you’re a co-pilot, you can only become a pilot when the old ones retire.”) Jubba also has a team of Ukrainian and other Russian-speaking pilots who fly its Antonovs on domestic runs inside Somalia. Although the capital has been relatively calm for the past year and a half, Jubba still offers incentives and imposes rules on its pilots. “Whenever we fly to Mogadishu, we give them combat pay,” Warsame said. “And they never stay. They land and leave as fast as they can.” Jubba pays the captain, co-pilot and flight attendants “around $100 extra” for each landing they make in Mogadishu; the bonus goes up after they make the trip several dozen times.

Raising funds to expand the airline has been a challenge. “When banks see that you are operating in Somalia, they become afraid,” Warsame said. “It is impossible to get a loan.” Instead, Jubba has depended on periodic cash infusions from the company’s original investors. During the high summer season, when Somali expatriates pour into the country, the airline charges between $150 and $165 for its domestic flights, $196 for its Mogadishu-Nairobi run and $340 for its flights between Mogadishu and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; fares drop during the low season. The airline has to fill 70 percent of its seats to break even. “We have lost money some years,” Warsame admits, but the company has turned the business around through aggressive marketing, close relationships with European, Somali and U.A.E. travel agencies and an upsurge of business from Somali expatriates. Jubba’s planes are now 85 percent full, and the company is making a modest profit.

Although the airline business is traditionally tough, and Somalia remains volatile, Jubba’s investors perceived early on that the potential rewards outweighed the risks. “At the beginning, so few airlines were willing to operate, it gave us practically a monopoly,” Warsame said. Several more players are in the business now, but Jubba’s infrastructure, reputation and strong network of travel agents give the company a clear advantage should the situation settle down. “We are well positioned to make a lot of money,” Warsame said.

Others, too, have also begun to see Somalia as an enticing investment opportunity. Dozens of companies attended a May 2013 investment conference in Nairobi, lured by the possibility of a decisive defeat of Al Shabaab and the strengthening of the central government. Several European, American and Middle Eastern companies have explored making major investments in Mogadishu’s port. “We welcome them, but we say we are still building the legal framework [for foreign investors],” President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who survived an assassination attempt last fall, told me. “It is still too early.”

On my last morning in Mogadishu, I ran into Hussein Abdullahi, the bank manager from my Jubba flight, in the courtyard of the Jazeera Hotel. Wearing a black business suit in the wilting heat, he seemed upbeat, ready to invest in Somalia’s future. “I’ll be back again before too long,” he told me.

It appeared that he would have more options to choose from than Jubba Airways. The country’s long-isolated airline industry is slowly integrating with the rest of the world. It is working with the International Civil Aviation Organization, and more carriers have begun flying to Aden Abdulle Airport. Turkish Airlines inaugurated three flights a week between Mogadishu and Istanbul, via Djibouti. Warsame said Emirates Airline and Egypt Air have expressed interest in resuming flights. Ali Mohamoud Ibrahim, the civil aviation chief, told me that the government was even talking about restarting Somali Airlines. “Competition is good for everybody,” Warsame insisted, as we waited for our Jubba flight back to Nairobi in a spartan V.I.P. lounge.

Jubba itself is in the midst of a new expansion. Warsame visited Addis Ababa and Kampala recently, keen on initiating direct flights between those East African capitals and Mogadishu. He has also “started inquiries” about purchasing Jubba’s first plane, and has his eyes on either a Boeing 737-800, one of the newer versions of the 737 aircraft, or an Airbus A320. Domestically, Jubba has inaugurated Antonov flights to Baidoa, a central Somalian town known as “the City of Death” during the devastating famine of the early 1990s; and Kismayu, a strategic southern port held by Al Shabaab until last November, when Kenyan AMISOM troops drove out the militiamen. Kismayu is still unstable, with two clans feuding violently for control of the port’s lucrative charcoal trade. But Warsame said that the demand for access to the city was so high that Jubba decided to take the risk. “It is impossible for people to travel there by road, because of explosive devices and ambushes,” he told me. “So many people said, ‘We need a flight to Kismayu.’ We sent in some staff, they inspected the runway, they talked to the local people and they said it was O.K.”

Still, there are periodic reminders that Al Shabaab fighters lurk in Mogadishu, capable of shattering this facade of normality. Hours after Warsame and I landed in Nairobi, a car bomb detonated on a busy street in Mogadishu, killing 10 people. And one month after that, in a coordinated attack, six Al Shabaab militants wearing bomb-packed vests blew themselves up inside Mogadishu’s courts complex. Minutes later, a car bomb went off on the airport road just yards from the Jazeera Hotel, killing several African Union and Somali troops. More than 20 people died in the two attacks, the worst in a year and a half. I reached Warsame at his office in Dubai and asked him whether he was discouraged by the rising violence. “It is a setback, it hurts for the moment,” he told me. “But something like this has to be expected. Those people are still out there. I still think the future is bright.”

This entry was posted on Friday, July 12th, 2013 at 10:19 am and is filed under Somalia.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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