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AIR TRANSPORT NATIONAL CARRIERS

Three years after taking on the top job at Tunisair, Ilyes Mnakbi tells
Martin Rivers the flag-carrier is still struggling to turn the corner.
years – explaining the airline’s reputation for delays,
cancellations and poor on-board product.
Ilyes Mnakbi:
“We will make our Last October, Transport Minister Hichem Ben Ahmed
own plan – not the admitted that only 22 of the 27 aircraft were operational.
government’s plan As well as undermining flight schedules, the ageing fleet
– for restructuring has exacted a heavy financial toll by pushing up
the company.” maintenance costs and forcing management to rely on wet
leases. Last summer, the flag-carrier sub-contracted two
aircraft from newly resurrected Syphax Airlines, which is
based in Sfax, Tunisia’s second city.
According to its 2017 financial statements – the most
recent on record – the state-owned firm has now
accumulated losses of 898 million dinars ($308m).
A bloated workforce is, perhaps, the biggest factor
affecting performance. In January, Mnakbi announced his
intention to remove 4,800 of the company’s 7,800
employees.
But his ability to push through the crucial reform is in
doubt. Earlier efforts to downsize the company by 1,200
employees were blocked by Tunisia’s powerful trade
unions.
Expansion across Africa is another longstanding
priority that has not yet borne fruit. Tunisair currently
serves eight overseas points in west Africa and five in
north Africa – a fraction of its western European footprint.

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Management have been trying to pivot towards their home


continent since 2017, when Tunisia finalised an open-skies
agreement in principle with the European Union.
Triple targets as Khartoum in Sudan, Douala in Cameroon, and
N’Djamena in Chad were eyed for route launches two

Tunisair turns to plan B years ago, but none of the services got under way.
Asked for an update on the strategy, Mnakbi would only
say that “about another six destinations” in Africa are
unisair is working on a new restructuring plan after under review.

T its government owner walked away from a


proposed overhaul that would have cost $1.3
billion Tunisian dinar ($457 million).
Whatever the macroeconomic benefits of open skies,
there is little doubt that Tunisair would struggle to hold its
own against Europe’s budget airlines. Opposition by the
“We will use another plan that doesn’t need for us this flag-carrier has so far stopped the government from
quantity [of money],” Ilyes Mnakbi, the airline’s chief setting a date for the ratification of the treaty. When that
executive, said on the sidelines of an industry conference eventually happens, Tunis, the country’s main hub, will be
in Kuwait. exempt for a period of five years.
“We will make our own plan – not the government’s The popular resorts of Djerba and Monastir will have no
plan – for restructuring the company. It will be less money such reprieve, however, so Mnakbi is also evaluating plans
than the other one. The government doesn’t give us this for a low-cost subsidiary to defend market share in the
amount.” leisure segment.
Mnakbi provided few details about the revised plan, “We don’t approve it until now, but we are thinking to
insisting that management were still weighing up several make a new strategy for low-cost, for the open skies,” he
options. But he reiterated his support for three strategic confirmed. “We are waiting for the agreement of the
priorities: fleet renewal; rationalisation of the workforce; European Union as, until now, they didn’t give us this
and an increased focus on Africa. agreement.”
Tunisair has signed a sale-and-leaseback agreement for The low-cost venture would initially take the form of
five Airbus A320neos, the chief executive confirmed, with 737-600s borrowed from the flag-carrier and placed with
deliveries expected by early 2021. It also plans to dry lease Tunisair Express, the group’s regional operation.
six more current-generation A320s this year. Tunisair Express currently deploys four ATR 72s,
The existing fleet of 15 A320s, four A319s, two A330s including two brand new 72-600s that were delivered late
and six Boeing 737-600s, has an average aircraft age of 17 last year. A third 72-600 is expected shortly. ■

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