Africa-Press – Rwanda. In a few weeks, business managers, boards, and auditors will sum up 2020, and the bottom line is pretty predictable. Covid-19 has affected every business and sector throughout the world, with entire industries having to deal with one of the most difficult and challenging years in recent history. But, as always, there are two sides to every coin and while many executives had to focus on the difficulties and challenges that came with the pandemic, others managed to focus on the opportunities presented.
To find the best example of such a management turnover, look at the sector that has been hit the hardest: civil aviation. With the skies closed for months, a sharp drop in passenger numbers (a 90% drop during the second quarter of 2020) and a massive decrease in revenues and profits, even the world’s leading and largest airlines went through significant difficulties, having to lay off tens of thousands of employees and drastically cut expenses. In some cases, giant companies chose to turn to their investors, banks, and even governments, asking to provide the capital they need to survive, while senior executives repeatedly addressed the sector as “the main economic victim” of the plague.
But there is another way. With brave leadership and creative thinking, there are also companies that have managed to do the impossible, and find tremendous opportunities even during the biggest crisis the aviation sector has known since the invention of commercial flights. To find these examples, we don’t have to look west (to the United States) or to Europe; instead, we should look east – to the United Arab Emirates.
Aviation power house
In recent years, the United Arab Emirates has become a leading global hub of civil aviation, and the Dubai Airport was named the “busiest airport in the world” (for international flights), with over 83 million yearly passengers passing through its gates – 9 times the country’s population (!). Despite being a small country (with a population of 9.5 million people), the UAE is home to two of the world’s largest and leading airlines: Etihad Airways and Emirates, both employing tens of thousands of workers and flying tens of millions of passengers around the world.
The United Arab Emirates has every reason to feel like a “victim” of the circumstances, after years of investments and efforts to become a global leading aviation hub. Instead, local executives decided to wait for opportunities to present themselves and went through major preparations to be in the best possible shape for new endeavours. Therefore, it is not surprising that now, when the opportunities come knocking, UAE airlines are in an excellent starting point, and are likely to arise from the Covid ashes much faster then other international airlines.
When opportunity comes knocking
These opportunities start with the world’s leading pharmaceutical manufacturers; in recent weeks, some pharma giants published positive and promising results on Covid vaccines. But while senior executives around the world are already celebrating the moment when we can all get back to life (and business) as we know it, UAE airlines realized that there is still a long way to go. This path is likely to bring a great challenge, and for the aviation sector, a tremendous opportunity for unprecedented impact.
Despite the unparalleled scientific achievement, with various companies developing effective vaccines in under a year (it took over 20 years to develop a Polio vaccine), this is just the beginning of a very meticulous battle. Now, it is time for the logistics to demand their place, which some might say could be an even greater challenge than the scientific one. The reason for this lies in the conditions required for the transport of vaccines: from zero degrees Celsius at best, to minus 70 at worst, making transporting billions of vaccines somewhat inconceivable.
This is where the creative and long-term thinking of UAE airlines comes into play. Has the number of passengers been significantly reduced? Hundreds of planes await empty? No problem: instead of focusing on difficulty and asking for help, they decided to change direction, at least for the foreseeable future, and instead of flying humans, they will be flying vaccines.
As mentioned, this is a particularly challenging move, which requires a lot of work and adjustments, turning the company’s planes into “flying refrigerators” that can carry vaccines at extremely low temperatures. Local airlines faced the challenge head on and started a collaboration with Pfizer (the first manufacturer submitting a vaccine approval application to the FDA) to adjust aircrafts for the mission.
In addition, the UAE’s leadership has invested considerable effort and resources to provide the logistical envelope needed for the move, announcing the establishment of a huge logistics center that will allow dealing with billions of vaccines, freeze storage, constant temperature monitoring and shipment to countries throughout the Middle East and Africa.
The logistical challenge is unprecedented. If the Emirate airlines succeed they will be able to impact hundreds of millions of people worldwide, while significantly improving their business outcomes. A real win-win situation.
The UAE aviation sector provides an important and significant lesson, one that we all need to learn from. As executives, business leaders, investors, or government officials, it is our responsibility to constantly change perspectives, find creative ways to turn crisis into an opportunity, and do everything we can to maximize readiness and chances of success. By doing so, we will be able to lead sectors and companies to a more sustainable future, create large-scale impact, and ensure that the summary meetings of 2021 will be much more positive.
The writer is an entrepreneur and investor, leading sustainability-driven companies in Africa.