SEATTLE — Morocco’s 59-year-old flag carrier, Royal Air Maroc (RAM), has taken delivery of its fifth Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner at the manufacturer’s Delivery Center located in Paine Field, Everett.
This Dreamliner is now joining a prolific fleet of 37 Boeing 737s (-300/-700/-800), four 767-300s, four Embraer E-190s, one 747-400, and four other 787-8s. The addition of these planes will allow the Casablanca-based carrier to continue a planned expansion that’s currently being fine-tuned at the airline’s headquarters.
During the two-day celebrations that were held in Seattle, hosted by RAM and Boeing, Airways was treated to a behind-the-scenes presentation of the airline’s ambitious expansion project that will improve Casablanca’s connectivity with key markets, and perhaps, new US destinations that are to be announced soon in the coming months.
Flying high again
Royal Air Maroc’s Senior Vice President for Customer Experience, Othmane Bekkari, told Airways that after the world’s economic recession, the Low Cost Carrier (LCC) incursion into the Moroccan market, and the overall toughness of the airline industry in the region, RAM was forced to enter into a deep restructuring process, which was backed by the State of Morocco.
“This restructuring has allowed us to strengthen our financial structure,” said Bekkari. “In the 2012-13 period, we began experiencing a growth that’s currently helping us improve our financial performance. We expect this trend to continue in the near and long-term future.”
The executive revealed that the key ingredient for its good performance is RAM’s never-ending presence in the African market. “We, as an African airline, must remain African and make sure that we’re always present,” he said. “Even during the toughest geopolitical times, RAM has been the first to arrive and the last one to leave. We’ve flown to destinations during the ebola outbreak, while others didn’t.”
Serving the African Diaspora
And analyzing the airline’s current route structure, Othmane Bekkari explained that passenger flows are predominantly connecting in Casablanca on a North to South flow. “We cater to the large African diaspora that’s spread throughout Europe. They fly into Casablanca and then connect to our vast network within the continent.”
According to Bekkari, African people living in Europe visit their homeland more than once a year. “They’re extremely loyal to their roots. They love visiting their countries and we, as an African carrier, are there to take them.”
Morocco is perhaps one of the largest generators of diaspora in Europe. In fact, Spain has one of the largest Moroccan populations anywhere in the world, with people willing to travel to their neighboring country as much as every weekend. “We know their behaviors and we leverage out of that market,” said Bekkari.
On the long-haul end, RAM is continuously expanding as more Boeing 787s join the fleet. This year alone, the airline has received three Dreamliners, completing an order that was originally placed in 2005.
The Dreamliner: “A Market Opener”
“This airplane has been a winner for us,” enthused Bekkari. “It has allowed us to open up new routes, like to São Paulo, which is currently experiencing a very high load factors thanks to our connecting hub in Casablanca.”
And not only São Paulo is performing well. Its routes to the Americas, including New York (JFK), Washington DC (IAD), and Montreal (YUL) are also bringing in positive results.
“New York is doing so well that we’re even thinking about the possibility of opening a second daily flight,” said the airline’s US General Manager, Asmaa Hassouni.
“This year we opened Washington DC. And although new routes take time to become profitable, we remain optimist,” she said. “This is a very expensive route to operate, but load factors have been consistent and we’re certain that our wish to link both capitals will bring the results we expected.”
According to the airline’s Chief Pilot and VP for Flight Operations, Captain Rafass, the Boeing 787 has allowed RAM to open up new routes that the airline couldn’t operate with its aging 767s. “The Dreamliner is an excellent airplane. It operates at levels that we never imagined, we’re very happy with it,” he enthused.
And on top of allowing RAM to open up new markets, the arrival of the Dreamliner landed a strong cooperation between the Moroccan carrier and Qatar Airways (QR). “Our partnership with them [QR] allows our passengers to benefit from their global network, especially routes to the Middle East, Asia, and Australia,” said Hassouni.
Meanwhile, in Morocco, Qatar Airways’ CEO Akbar Al Baker celebrated the first anniversary of this cooperation, expressing his satisfaction with RAM’s good performance and the possibility that QR passengers now have to reach African destinations through its Casablanca hub.
“The growing frequency of flights between Doha, Casablanca, and Marrakech will provide our passengers with more travel options, which means more conveniences for international passengers,” Al Baker said in a statement.
Both airlines now enjoy a 4-star rating from SkyTrax, offering to its passengers a more seamless transition between flights and a top-class service both on the ground and in the air.
Relying on Casablanca
According to Bekkari, 65% of RAM’s business will be connecting traffic in the next 20 years. “We believe Casablanca needs to be structured as a strong hub,” he said. “We’re currently working with the Moroccan government to revamp our terminals to allow our operation to become efficient and on-time.”
Royal Air Maroc currently has 55 airplanes in its fleet, transporting over 6.5 million passengers with a turnover of US$1.3 billion.
Bekkari said that upon their return to Casablanca with the new Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, a roadmap for the next 15 years will be drawn, in conjunction with the Moroccan State.
“We have big ambitions,” he admits. “Our goal is to multiply our business at least four to five times.”
The continuous growth of African diaspora in Europe, the poorly served North-to-South traffic in the African continent by the competition, and the excellent geographical location of Morocco, may very well play together to make RAM a key player in the airline industry.
“We’re getting back to our basics,” admits Bekkari. “We’ll become a consumer-centric airline and make our passengers feel at home when they fly with us.”
Asked about the thriving LCC industry and it’s constant incursion into Moroccan territory, Bekkari remains motivated. According to him, LCCs offer point-to-point service, whereas RAM will rely on a strong connecting operation which will take passengers further.
“We’re aware of their [LCCs] overwhelming presence. That’s why we’re creating new fare categories to compete against LCC traffic,” he said. “We’re analyzing a subscription-based product for the diaspora that travels to Morocco frequently.”
And talking about Casablanca Airport’s expansion, Bekkari revealed that they’re working hand-to-hand with the government of Morocco to develop this hub.
“The way we’re looking at it, scheduling wise, we need to make sure the consumer is comfortable with the many choices we’ll offer,” he said. “Currently, we have one big schedule based on mid-day departures and arrivals. We’re looking into splitting this into two or three time frames [banks] to make connections more attainable.”
North America on the watch
According to the airline’s executives, North America is on the watch for new routes with the addition of more Dreamliners.
“Our American strategy will be developed through partnerships with local carriers,” said Asmaa Hassouni.
Currently, JetBlue is RAM’s main partner in New York, which is feeding as much as 30% of the total capacity at that destination. “JetBlue has been a great partner. They’re feeding us over 50 passengers per flight. We couldn’t ask for more,” said Hassouni.
And given this excellent relationship with the American carrier, it’d be a wise prediction to see RAM flying to JetBlue hubs in the near future. Ft. Lauderdale, with its recent international hype, might be an attractive destination for the Moroccan carrier and JetBlue’s strong operation there.
Taking delivery of a Dreamliner
On the second day of December, the rainy Washington state was host to a small event where the airline’s top executives, Boeing representatives, and a very small delegation of media witnessed the delivery ceremony of Royal Air Maroc’s fifth Dreamliner at Boeing’s Delivery Center in Paine Field, Everett.
“Next year, Royal Air Maroc will be celebrating its 60th anniversary,” said Jeff Klemann, Vice President Boeing Delivery Center. “It is an honor to hand over yet another Boeing 787-8.”
After a few remarks, Othmane Bekkari and Jeff Klemann signed the delivery papers and posed for photos.
Secondly, an award was given to Royal Air Maroc’s chief of engineering for being the first Dreamliner operator to attain a 99.32% dispatch reliability—an absolute record for worldwide 787 operators.
At last, the ribbon-cutting moment arrived, with the airline’s chief pilot joining in. A round of applause followed and the Boeing 787-8 was opened for its first unveiling.
The aircraft features a three-row Business Class section, configured on a 2-2-2 layout. According to Hassouni, passengers are happy to book window seats on this Business Class, as these are configured to be slightly higher than its neighbor seat, giving better window views than in any other 787 product.
Then, an all-Economy Class section is laid out on a traditional 3-3-3 configuration, adorned with typical Moroccan colors, with a hint of gray throughout the cabin. Each seat is fitted with the latest Thales In-Flight Entertainment system, which at the time of our tour was being loaded with the airline’s chosen programming.
The impeccable airliner was also being catered for its 10-hour flight to Casablanca, carrying the two Pilots and the mechanical crew. The empty Dreamliner climbed to 43,000ft past midnight and reached the Moroccan Capital the following morning where a water cannon salute marked the end of a much awaited adventure. According to the airline’s officials, only the Pilots, one Flight Attendant, and a couple mechanics were on board the aircraft on its delivery flight to Morocco.
As the airline strives to strengthen its network and provide its passengers a world-class service, they will rely heavily on Morocco’s government and the potential developments at Casablanca Airport. For them to reach high levels of reliability and operational performance, its hub must excel and deliver a year-round service that will permit RAM to become the number-one airline in Africa.