Meet Mr Niche Guy

Armed with a new leader, plans for more regional services and the introduction of cargo aircraft, Nile Air is seeking its niche in a tightly-regulated market.

Richard Tan

Experienced air transport executive Richard Tan has been brought it to put Nile Air on a consistent growth path. Photo: Mark Pilling

Egypt’s Nile Air is hoping it will be granted more traffic rights to continue its post-pandemic recovery, explained its newly appointed Chief Executive Richard Tan to Arabian Aerospace at the 56th Arab Air Carriers’ Organisation in Riyadh in late October.

The Nile Air role is Tan’s first as an airline CEO. The Singaporean is an aviation veteran with a CV that has seen him hold a variety of C-suite positions in aviation at businesses as diverse as Emirates In-flight catering, Hong Kong Airlines, SATS and Singapore Airlines.

He arrived in September 2023 at Nile Air with the carrier engaged with Egypt’s CAA about gaining more route rights, especially to European destinations, which is not an easy task, and one that the airline has been grappling with for years.

“We have given them our [route] wish list and explained why it will be good for Egypt to allow us to grow,” said Tan, including the all-important feat of bringing visitors and foreign currency to the country. The hope is that new rights will be granted for fresh destinations to be served in 2024.

The carrier’s may be the country’s largest private airline, but it is a small player carrying just 110,000 passengers a month on its fleet of four leased Airbus A320ceos and two A321ceos. This enables it to capture a tiny 3% share of the country’s passenger market, said Tan. The point is that Nile Air is hardly a threat to flag carrier EgyptAir.

Nile Air has gradually built up a modest scheduled network, with just two routes to Europe. A service from Cairo to Stockholm began in early 2022 while a connection to Cologne in Germany started in October 2023. Both are served twice weekly.

The carrier’s most extensive scheduled network is from Cairo to Saudi Arabia, where it operates to 12 cities and generates around 30% of its traffic, said Tan. This is mostly origin and destination traffic today, but the addition of European services is aimed at developing a connecting product to the Kingdom.

Nile Air is also targeting routes to north and east Africa, as well as central Asia, said Tan.

Nile Air began operating in 2011 but has found consistent growth difficult operating a limited scheduled network due to the difficulty of gaining traffic rights and facing setbacks such as currency devaluations in Egypt and the impact of the pandemic.

Tan was appointed in August by Nile Air’s majority shareholder and prominent Saudi businessman Dr Nasser Al Tayyar with a mission to revive the carrier following tough times of the pandemic.

With scheduled routes tough to launch, Nile Air has diversified into leisure operations working with the large European tour firms and is looking to acquire two A320 PTF aircraft to develop short-haul air cargo activities, said Tan.

The airline is scouring the lease market to find the A320PTFs to arrive in H1 2024 in addition to another two passenger A320s in the second half of 2024, he said.

Nile Air is aiming to carry 1.4 million passengers in 2023, said Tan, with traffic mainly unaffected to date by the war between Israel and Hamas. The main impact so far has been a reduction in bookings from European leisure customers.

“I have been brought in to bring stability and confidence back to the airline. We were battered by the pandemic and are now in a rebuilding situation,” he said.

“As a non-Egyptian leading the transformation of the company, my management style and approach is to build trust and focus on teamwork rather than individual efforts,” explained Tan.

“As is often the case, many organizations rely on individuals’ responsibilities to achieve their goals but in many cases, the lack of accountability makes the difference between a good and an excellent outcome,” he added. “So, I try to instill a culture of accountability while also encouraging the development of critical thinking skills.”

Financially the airline is recovering, and it returned to the black in 2023 despite the impact of high fuel prices, said Tan.

If Nile Air is successful in gaining for traffic rights the plan is to increase its fleet up to 10 aircraft by 2027.

Mark Pilling

Mark Pilling

Mark is a consulting editor to Arabian and African Aerospace.