Tewolde GebreMariam: Revitalizing the African Aviation Industry to Deliver Inclusive Air Travel Experiences

Africa’s aviation industry will witness a significant milestone a few months down the line as Ethiopian Airlines, the continent’s leading aviation group, marks its 75th Anniversary. It will be a significant occasion which highlights the airline’s stature not just as a pioneer in Africa’s aviation but also as one of the longest-serving carriers in the world. Throughout 2021, Ethiopian will celebrate the 75th Anniversary with various activities.   

During the past 70 plus years, Ethiopian has turned into the leading, multi-award-winning aviation group in Africa with seven business units: Ethiopian International Services; Ethiopian Cargo & Logistics Services; Ethiopian MRO Services; Ethiopian Aviation Academy; Ethiopian Ground Services, Ethiopian Express Services and Ethiopian Airports Services. 

The SKYTRAX certified Four-Star Global airline commands the lion’s share of the Pan-African passenger and cargo network. It also operates ultra-modern and youngest fleet with an average age of five years, including Airbus A350, Boeing 787-8, Boeing 787-9, Boeing 777-300ER, Boeing 777-200LR, Boeing 777-200 Freighter, and Bombardier Q-400 double cabin. 

Ethiopian serves 127 international passenger and cargo destinations across five continents, along with 22 domestic destinations. In 2019, the Ethiopian’s hub, Addis Ababa, became the number one gateway to Africa by overtaking Dubai in the number of passengers transiting through it from the rest of the world. 

A Diligent Leader Strengthening Business Niche 

Tewolde GebreMariam is the Group CEO of Ethiopian Airlines since January 2011. He began his career with the company in 1985 as Transportation Agent and held numerous senior leadership positions in different divisions in the airline, including Ethiopian Cargo, International sales as Head of Sales and Operations in Saudi Arabia and India, and then Head of the Americas. Afterward, Tewolde served as Executive Officer Marketing and later as COO at the Head Office of Ethiopian Airlines. 

As a CEO, Tewolde has received multiple awards including African CEO of the Year, Best African Business Leader, The Airline Strategy Award for Regional Leadership, The Most Gender Focused CEO Award and Airline Executive of the Year Award. He attributes these awards to the collective effort of his team and a recognition of the company’s success. 

Tewolde also is a member of the High-Level Advisory Group on Sustainable Transport with the United Nations, Chief Executive Board member of Star Alliance, Board member of International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Airlink Advisory Council. In addition to these, he is an Executive Committee member of the African Airlines Association (AFRAA), and a member of the Board of Directors of Africa Travel Association (ATA) as well as the Ethiopian Tourism Organization (ETO). 

Tewolde holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from Addis Ababa University and earned his Master’s in Business Administration from Open University in the United Kingdom. He is also the recipient of the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters Honoris Causa from Addis Ababa University in July 2019. 

Leading the Industry by Connecting the World 

Ethiopian Airlines is a prominent player in the airline industry affairs and associations, especially with regards to the environment and sustainability. The company plays an active role in promoting tourism in Africa and beyond. The airline greatly contributes to the economy of the country and the continent by transporting tourists and business travelers. As the largest pan-African carrier, Ethiopian Airlines also supports other African airlines and strives to make African skies dominated by the continent’s own airlines. The airline is contributing to the global aviation industry by carrying more than 12 million passengers across the globe annually, with to 127 destinations in five continents. 

Driving Innovation Culture with Technology 

Tewolde perceives that new technological developments, along with the growth of receptive millennials, have expedited innovation. It requires leaders to encourage and inspire employees in order to win their hearts and minds. They must become flexible and adaptive to emerging technologies. Additionally, today’s leaders should prepare themselves for the fast-changing technological growth owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and technological advancements. 

Visionary Leadership Attributes 

Tewolde believes that innovative leaders need to create more innovative teams that accomplish organizational goals. They should vividly describe their vision for the future and design an excellent strategic ambition, including how to realize it.  

Innovative leaders often project optimism and are always open to new ideas. They are candid in their communication, and they should avoid sacrificing the future for the success of today, regardless of how difficult current challenges may seem.   

Growing Through Challenges 

Tewolde discerns that the larger the airline became, the more difficult it was to maintain the culture and environment in the beginning. It was tough, but Ethiopian Airlines was able to maintain a good environment by inspiring and keeping all its employees on board. As the company spreads the culture to the new hires at all levels, it was able to maintain its reputation as it grew. Ethiopian Airlines also inspired its employees to embody the company’s values and reflect it in everything they do. 

Further, elucidating his journey of what he is today, Tewolde says that working in various positions in the vast aviation business has helped him broaden his knowledge in the business and grow to be a successful leader. “Our organizational culture has been key in shaping my leadership skills,” he adds. 

Visualizing the Future of African Aviation Market 

Tewolde observes that there is a massive untapped potential for collaboration and synergy creation among African Airlines. The African Aviation market is huge and untapped. Ethiopian Airlines has spent more than half a century to develop the continent’s aviation market. Nevertheless, the share of African Airlines is still low, which means there is still a very big room for growth. 

The huge potential of the African Aviation market will continue to attract more players into it. Additionally, the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) initiative is expected to open more markets, thereby encouraging more investments in the industry across the continent.    

He firmly believes that Ethiopian Airlines will emerge stronger from the current crisis caused by COVID-19. IATA’s latest passenger forecast indicates the global passenger traffic to return to pre-COVID-19 levels by 2024. 

Pragmatic Exposure for the Betterment of the Industry 

According to Tewolde, during the past decades, Ethiopian Airlines has made substantial investments in information technology solutions. These solutions extend throughout the airline’s environment and contribute to improved operational efficiency, safety, and customer satisfaction. Securing these investments and protecting the information that these systems manage requires knowledge, leadership, and an effective cybersecurity strategy.  

Ethiopian Airlines has deployed advanced e-enabled airplanes that provide an increased level of operational efficiency. However, this means increased interaction with various information systems that are outside the traditionally defined airline security perimeter. Therefore, having and following a well-defined cybersecurity strategy is essential to safeguard customer information, protect digital assets, and enable the accuracy of information exchanged within the aviation framework.  

Tewolde emphasizes that cybersecurity is a critical issue for airlines as a successful cyber-attack on an airline could paralyze operations and result in passengers’ disappointment. Thus, to stay secure in the modern connected world, airlines must focus on an effective cybersecurity strategy developed in collaboration with stakeholders and the government.