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Who is really behind Kenya Airways’ troubles?

Any minute now, Kenya Airways — known as KQ — could breathe its last. The Pride of Africa is on her knees. Teetering on the brink of death — a long, painful fatality. Yet all the mandarins who should know — executives, board members, and ministry officials — have gone AWOL. Or simply wring their hands and helplessly feign powerlessness. They are all a futile impotent lot. Like others, I have watched in agony as the national carrier staggers to its certain demise. It’s clear former CEO Titus Naikuni — whom I had lauded once as a miracle worker — left behind a hulking carcass. As soon as he exited, KQ collapsed in a heap. Which begs the question — who, or what, is killing KQ?

Kenyans take a lot of pride in 254, the country code. KQ was a good projection of that pride. Let me tell an anecdote.

For Kenyans like me who live in North America, KQ has for decades been a visible sign of Kenya’s vitality. Even in the dark days of the single party, KQ stirred our hearts. It was at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, the European air transport hub, where we would connect with KQ on the last leg of our flight “home.” You would see the eager faces of Kenyans and other East Africans ready to board for Nairobi. There were no delays or cancellations. Even well-heeled American and European tourists were very happy with KQ. Now that’s changed.

On a recent jaunt to Nairobi, I approached a KLM agent at Schiphol for customer service. The Dutch agent’s — KLM handles KQ’s needs at Schiphol — spoken and unspoken responses said it all. Once I mentioned I was a KQ — and not KLM — passenger her demeanour completely changed. It was as though I had become a leper to be shunned and scorned. Without listening to my request, she dismissively said she couldn’t help me. I remonstrated with her for being unprofessional.

The thought she was a racist even crossed my mind. She patronising smiled at me and said she couldn’t help with any KQ request no matter what it was. I was stunned and flabbergasted. I asked for her manager.

The manager was slightly better — but only slightly. She apologised for her colleague.

Now, I must say I find the Dutch at Schiphol friendly and professional. So, this was unusual. But the manager explained to me that KQ was in a shambles and unreliable.

She said KQ blocks seats and then doesn’t sell them, or is simply unresponsive even to KLM agents who handle its business. I was deeply embarrassed.

The manager made it sound as though KQ’s incompetence and corrupt behaviour was Kenya’s national disease. I got angrier as she recounted her exasperation with KQ. Then I realised I wasn’t actually angry at her but at KQ. It was KQ which had put me in this mess.

I have several questions for KQ. I am no expert in the aviation industry. But as a frequent flier, I know a thing or two about the business. First, KQ doesn’t have that many indigenous competitors on the African continent. Only two other national carriers — South African Airways and Ethiopian Airlines — run viable flight services.

Why can’t KQ thrive with so little competition? The routes to West Africa alone should be a boon. Not to mention the whole of East Africa. Kenya is a top tourist destination. Why can’t KQ harvest all the tourist passengers? And why does Kenya keep on giving low-cost carriers landing rights in Nairobi to kill KQ? Who benefits if KQ goes to the morgue?

I heard some KQ executive say that Ebola was a death blow. What a lame excuse. It seems to me there’s either a conspiracy to kill KQ, or there’s unfathomable incompetence and corruption at the management level. At a time when we should be celebrating Captain Koki Mutungi of KQ — the first female African pilot of the Dreamliner — we are instead mired in talk of the collapse of the airline. What boggles my mind is the end game.

Does someone want KQ dead so they can buy its assets on the cheap? Or is it being killed to make way for private carriers? If the question is simple incompetence, why can’t the whole lot be sent home and replaced?

This is my advice to executives and the board of KQ. Please fire yourselves. Don’t report to work tomorrow. Just go away and don’t come back.

I saw that former Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph was invited to the board. I wouldn’t accept the appointment if I was Mr Joseph. What can a single board member do to change a culture of futility and mediocrity? I think Mr Joseph should be given full fiat to run the entire shop. Let him clean up the mess.

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Kenya Airways KQ