The apron at Nouakchott-Oumtounsy International Airport is growing steadily more busy as Mauritania Airlines ramps up the number of destinations it serves in west and central Africa.
Mauritania’s national carrier was set up in 2010 after two previous airlines carrying the country’s flag had collapsed in the previous decade.
In the past year, Brazzaville, Dakar, Cotonou, Freetown and Libreville are among the destinations that have started to appear on the destination boards at the recently completed Nouakchott-Oumtounsy.
More African cities are destined to join the network in the next few years, the airline’s director-general, Mohammed Radhy Bennahi, said, but one location to which his airline would like to operate – Paris Charles De Gaulle – “is still under study and negotiations”.
The Paris route was previously served, but suspended in 2015 for commercial reasons. With Mauritania being a Francophone nation, it is a natural one for the airline to wish to restore.
Part of the problem behind the delay is that Bennahi is aware that the Mauritanian capital does not, by itself, generate sufficient traffic to make a Paris flight viable. For that reason, he envisages using Nouakchott as a hub, gathering passengers there from elsewhere on the company’s route network, before setting off on a connecting flight to the French capital.
Also on the route ‘wish list’ is Jeddah, for Moslem passengers heading to the Saudi Arabian city on Haj and Umrah pilgrimages.
Bennahi envisages the Jeddah route being a scheduled, but seasonal, service. As with Paris, he believes that Nouakchott could serve as a concentration point for passengers from other west African originating points.
To handle the growing route network, the airline is going through modest additions to its fleet. The company is largely a Boeing 737 operator; until recently, it flew two 737-500s, plus single examples of the -700 and -800. A single Embraer ERJ-145 regional jet completed the inventory.
Over the past year, however, the two 737-500s have been retired and more new aircraft are expected imminently. “We’ve already ordered two Embraer E175s that will be joining the fleet by the end of March 2019,” said Bennahi.
The Embraers will mainly operate on domestic and short-haul international routes, such as Las Palmas in the Canary Islands.
Domestically, the airline operates to Nouadhibou and Zouérate; other domestic destinations such as Kiffa and Néma are being considered for services.
The most significant addition to the fleet came in December 2017 with the arrival of a Boeing 737 MAX 8 – the first of the latest generation of the Boeing twinjet to be delivered to Africa and a matter of some pride for the airline. It operates with a two-class configuration, 16 business-class and 144 economy-class seats. The company is in talks with Boeing over the acquisition of a second MAX 8.
The Gulf carriers and Turkish, which are all making hefty inroads into the African market, are not direct competitors, but regional rivals include Air Ivoire, Royal Air Maroc and the Ethiopian Airlines-backed Asky Airlines.
Despite this, Mauritania’s passenger numbers and load factors are increasing, said Bennahi. Its best-performing route is not an obvious one, namely Nouakchott – Tunis. This, explained the director-general, was due to medical tourism bound for the Tunisian capital.
Profitability continued to be elusive, “but we’re almost at break-even”, said Bennahi. If it was not for the substantial increase in fuel prices over the past 18 months, profitability might already have been achieved. The cost of fuel is likely to remain one of the company’s greatest challenges in 2019.
Another challenge is the remoteness of Mauritania, which also makes maintenance problematical: “It’s not so easy to bring in spares in an aircraft on ground (AOG) case,” said Bennahi.
However, the company is proud of the fact that, in 2018, it once again passed the International Air Transport Association operational safety audit (IOSA). Those companies that have IOSA certification have a markedly better safety record than those that do not.
Profits may not yet have been achieved but continuing to operate in one of the world’s most remote regions, with a tiny domestic passenger base, is no small achievement in itself.
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