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New Mali Airline Struggles to Take off

Against a backdrop of financial difficulties and suspect security in Africa's aviation industry, one of the world's poorest countries, Mali, has a new airline company. But there have been disruptions, as the company tries to take off.

Malian authorities refused journalists any access to the airport to film or record planes or passengers.

Mali's airline company, known by its French name, "Compagnie Aerienne du Mali," or CAM, has had its own share of problems with authorities in Bamako.

Since it is 20 percent owned by the government, the company's decisions are sometimes blocked.

When a new route began to Paris last year, the service was immediately cancelled, because the company's Airbus plane bore the name of Celestair, rather than CAM.

Celestair is actually a partnership between new private airlines from West Africa.

The company's service to France finally resumed last month, without any logo of Celestair or CAM, and with the partnership intact.

The man dealing with such headaches and running Mali's new airline is a Frenchman, Bertrand Rivet. He says unlike previous failed attempts at aviation companies in West and Central Africa, like Air Afrique, which were run by governments, a mostly private regional partnership makes sense.

"The goal is to be profitable. We are in a private mindset," Rivet says. "But, we use local human resources. And, each company also keeps its identity. It is Air Burkina, Air Ivoire, it is the CAM, it is Air Senegal, so the identity of each country is still present as well."

He says everywhere in the world, airlines are teaming up. He says it keeps planes full when several airlines run regional and international flights together.

Mali's CAM also runs internal flights, with a small 37-seat Dash 8 plane. Infrastructure is always a challenge. One airport, Kayes, has no refueling, so the plane uses valuable cargo space hauling its own fuel.

He says unlike in other cases in Africa, his company refuse to make any compromises on security.

"It must be a secure, safe and quality service," Rivet says. "In Africa, after Air Afrique disappeared, a lot has happened. Some operators went looking for money,offering what they thought was airline travel, and exploited in very unconventional ways, planes, without much regulation. What happened is you have planes from Eastern Europe brought in and we now find a lot of these stuck on the ground not being able to fly anymore. They also left a few dead bodies behind. That is not at all what we do. It is maybe a little costlier but, what we want is to go bed at night without worrying too much, and know that we have security on our side."

Mali's new airline is also innovative in that it offers consumers the possibility to pay with cash online.

"This is a big first in Africa, and maybe in the world," Rivet says. "I am very proud of it. When you do not have a credit card or any checks, you can pay cash, even though you are online. It is not exactly putting your bills directly into your computer's screen, but we work with a banking partner, which specializes in cash, which takes your order, your ticket is reserved, and once the cash is received, the reservation becomes equivalent to a ticket. Once you get to the airport, we know we can fly you securely, both financially and in the air."

In addition to the government share, Mali's airline is owned 51 percent by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development and 29 percent by private investors.

One of these is Mamadou Seydou Thiam. He has long worked with the main investor, Karim Aga Khan, a French national of Pakistani origin who was born in Africa.

Thiam says he is proud to help finance Mali's new airline, even if it may take time to see a return on his investment.

He says it is not easy and that, when the plane takes off, there have to be zero problems. He says security is more important than profit.

Thiam says Mali needed an airline company and that Prince Aga Khan needed an airline in his goal to help develop hospitals, infrastructure, tourist sites as well as renovating mosques and museums in Mali.

Thiam feels Air Afrique was not such a bad company, because it never had a fatal accident. But he says, financially, it was not solvent, and that it showed professionals need to manage airlines.

In Mali, Air Afrique was succeeded by Air Mali, which also went bust.

Thiam even worries about what Rivet described as a breakthrough, namely the online cash payment.

Thiam says there must be security here, as well and that funding for it cannot turn into what he calls "monkey's money. " He says it is not because others now have the possibility to easily pay for a relative's plane ticket, that they will be able to afford anything else during their travel.

He says, besides those doing the pilgrimage to the Mecca for the Muslim Hajj, air travel remains the privilege of the upper class in Africa.

Both Thiam and Rivet welcomed a new European list that recently banned more than 80 airline companies from Africa because of poor safety standards, including 50 from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

They say they take their responsibilities of managing an airline company seriously, even if others have previously given the continent's aviation industry a bad name and a dangerous precedent, both in business terms and safety.