Air service between the U.S. and East Africa is on the rise, with Kenya Airways inaugurating U.S. service last week and Ethiopian Airlines having added Chicago flights over the summer. Next up could be RwandAir, which intends to begin flying from Kigali to the New York market next year. Airlines editor Robert Silk spoke with new RwandAir CEO Yvonne Manzi Makolo recently about the carrier's U.S. plans and also about the hurdles female executives face in the male-dominated airline industry.

Q: Let's start with the headliner. When do you plan to begin flying to the U.S.? And do you have the route picked out?

Yvonne Manzi Makolo
Yvonne Manzi Makolo

A: Our original timeline to start the U.S. flight was June 2019, which would require that all of the approvals be done by early January or February. I'm not sure that everything will be completed by then. We are still working around the June 2019 timeline, but it might be pushed back. It's going to be to New York, depending on which airport we get the suitable slots, but it's definitely to New York -- either JFK or Newark.

Q: You got regulatory approval to fly to the U.S. from the DOT in March. You still need FAA approval though, right?

A: Yes. They just finalized the technical review a few weeks ago, so we are waiting for all the other processes to be completed.

Q: What type of aircraft do you plan to fly to the U.S.?

A: At the moment we're looking at the A330Neo. For our widebody aircraft, we have full, flat beds for the business class. We have a premium economy class. And, of course, an economy class, as well.

Q: Who do you expect to be the market for this Kigali-New York route?

A: Tourism, No. 1, because tourism has become very big in Rwanda. It's currently the biggest foreign-exchange earner. And conference tourism is also growing very fast. Kigali is now No. 3 in Africa in hosting international conferences after Cape Town [South Africa] and Morocco. So we have leisure tourists and conference tourists. We are looking at the African diaspora, as well. Those are the key markets we are looking at.

Q: Will you be setting your schedule to facilitate connecting traffic around Africa, as well?

A: That's the plan. We are making sure the New York flight is able to connect to the East Africa region. Also, we'll be flying via Accra [Ghana], Kigali-Accra-New York, so we'll be looking at the West Africa market.

Q: Do you consider Kenya Airways and Ethiopian to be your primary competitors?

A: Absolutely. We operate pretty much the same routes. But we believe there is enough market for all of us. RwandAir is giving people an alternative in terms of the airline and the airport as well. Giving them the alternative to fly to Kigali as opposed to Nairobi or Addis Ababa.

Q: Let's shift gears. You're currently attending the International Aviation Womens Association conference in Memphis, and with your appointment atop RwandAir in April, you're in rarified air. IATA says that just 3% of airline CEOs are women and that women hold just 8% of airline CFO posts and 3% of COO posts. What is holding women back in this industry?

A: That's a very good question. There's a total of 17 female CEOs across the world, which is dismal. I think it's a number of reasons. Whether it's the fact that women are overlooked generally or that women don't get the necessary support to climb all the way to the top. Because it is a hard business. Long hours. Very tough. So women, especially in the C-suite, would require a very strong support network to manage the job plus family.

Q: From your own experience, what lesson could you offer to other women who want to work their way up in the airline industry?

A: The most important thing is for women to believe that they can do the job, because lots of people will tell them they can't along the way. And then getting the correct support system in place, having good mentors to support them and having the people at home to support them, as well. And just sticking to it. It's tough when you walk into boardrooms where you are the only woman. It's intimidating. But you walk through and keep pushing, and you find your way to the top. That's the only way to do it.

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