Korongo Airlines has plans to expand its network outside of the Democratic Republic of Congo and could introduce flights to other markets across Central and East Africa to add to its existing domestic activities and three times weekly link to Johannesburg, South Africa. In an exclusive interview with The HUB at Routes Africa in Kampala, Uganda earlier this week, Ward Bonduel, Chief Commercial Officer, Korongo Airlines, confirmed that discussions are at an advanced stage and new routes could commence as soon as additional fleet capacity is available.
Korongo Airlines was formed in 2009 as a joint venture between Belgian national carrier Brussels Airlines, the Forrest Group and local Congolese investors but it did not receive its operational licence until January 2012. It finally received the rights to commence operations a few months later launching scheduled flights linking its headquarters in the south eastern city Lubumbashi with the capital Kinshasa and Johannesburg in South Africa in April 2012.
The airline initially started operations using a single BAe 146-200 and single Boeing 737-300 wet-leased from shareholder Brussels Airlines. A second BAe 146-200 joined the fleet in August 2012 but both examples were retired from the service during the first quarter of this year. It has now also added the domestic city of Mbuji Mayi to its network, a market it has been serving since October 2012.
With a year of operational experience Korongo is now preparing for growth and according to Bonduel is looking to add a second 737-300 to its fleet and introduce a 50-seat turboprop, likely to be either an ATR 42 or Fokker 50. The second 737-300 will be based in Kinshasha and will serve domestic routes and introduce regional international services, including a link to Entebbe, Uganda, via Kisangani, the third largest urbanised city in the country.
The airline’s fleet selection has been a major dilemma after its shareholder retired the 737 from its own fleet in favour of using Airbus short-haul equipment. “We are depending upon the support of Brussels Airlines so we considered a switch to the Airbus, but we had to look at the realities of flying in Africa and particularly the Democratic Republic of Congo,” explained Bonduel.
“We are in a very strong position with our 737-300 as it is one of the few of that variant fitted with winglets, while it has its own built-in airstair that reduces dependency on ground equipment at the airports we serve, something that is an issue within the country. The aircraft is also relatively low to the ground so we don’t require a belt loader for luggage which is useful when serving smaller airports across the country,” he added.
Airport infrastructure is a major issue for the carrier. “Now we are flying to all the airports we can fly too,” said Bonduel. “There are many other airports in the Democratic Republic of Congo but many are not up to the international standards that are being imposed by Belgian aviation regulators.”
Bonduel acknowledged that it has been a tough first year for the business in what is a challenging marketplace. “The Democratic Republic of Congo is not the easiest place to operate an airline. It is an ever changing environment,” he said. Although the carrier operates under an ACMI contract with Brussels Airlines to approved IOSA standards it is still included in European Commission’s blacklist due to the blanket ban on airlines from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“We try to push the fact that we exceed international quality compliance levels and that is important in an environment like the Democratic Republic of Congo where you have a really bad history with regards to air safety,” said Bonduel. “We want to be a reliable partner and reach out to corporate, organisations and Non-Government Organisations to fly with us but we are automatically included on the EU blacklist due to having a local licence.”
The carrier is currently working to try and find a way it can be exempted from this blanket ban and is being supported by the Belgian Government to try and see if it can be removed. “It is not really up to us to do this and should be the task of Democratic Republic of Congo Government but we feel we are not getting the full support of them,” said Bonduel. The inclusion on this blacklist means that the carrier is not able to take advantage of lucrative United Nations work, a major business opportunity in this region.
Korongo Airlines is also looking at opportunities to work with other global airlines to enhance connectivity into the Democratic Republic of Congo. It already has an arrangement with Brussels Airlines, but according to Bonduel deals could be reached with others in the future. “The Democratic Republic of Congo is an extremely difficult market to penetrate, especially the more remote airports across the country. We are talking to big airline partners like Ethiopian Airlines, Lufthansa and South African Airways (SAA), all of who are interested in interline partnerships,” he said.
In terms of traffic levels, things are looking positive for Korongo Airlines. Numbers are “going in the right direction,” according to Bunduel and transit traffic is also showing growth. “On the peak days sometimes more than half the passengers on the flights from Kinshasha are transfer passengers from the Brussels Airlines service,” he said. “We are also reinforcing our position on the Johannesburg market due to the demand from corporates for safe travel to Lubumbashi, the mining capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and home for many of the country's biggest businesses in this sector.”