BMI is joining forces with the Sierra Leone government to run a trade mission to the West African country aimed at reviving tourism.
The airline said it would take part in the mission as it confirmed its commitment to the Heathrow-Freetown route, which it will have been running for a year next month.
Chief executive Nigel Turner said the mix of business and VFR (visiting friends and relations) traffic had generated enough demand for the Airbus A321 used on the route to be replaced by a larger Boeing 757 in May. Load factors have averaged between 60% and 70% since then, which Turner said was lower than hoped. BMI competes with British Airways on the route.
Turner said the timing of the Freetown departure would change from 02.00 to 23.50 from October, making it more attractive as an overnight flight.
The trade mission will run later this year or early in 2009 and is aimed at convincing UK businesses that the country is ready for development six years after the end of a civil war.
Sierra Leone has some of the best beaches in the world, but has little tourism infrastructure and is hampered by poor transport links.
High commissioner Melvin Humpah Chalobah, who joined Turner for a briefing in London, said the new government had made tourism a priority.
It plans to build a bridge to connect the main airport to Freetown. Transfers are now by ferry, hovercraft, helicopter or lengthy car journey.
Turner said tourism development would take “some time” but the beauty of the country meant it could compete with any African destination.
Meanwhile BMI is set to make a small reduction in capacity this winter to help control costs – but plans to continue its long-term mid-haul expansion. The airline said it would continue to “fully utilise” its slots at Heathrow, but would be offering slightly fewer seats. Domestic frequencies would be cut although no routes would be scrapped Chief executive Nigel Turner said there would be some adjustment to its international programme but its plans to expand its network remained. Turner said new mid-haul destinations could include new airports in Saudi Arabia next summer.
It also plans to increase frequencies to Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam in Saudi Arabia.