Why our national carrier must keep on flying

A few years ago, I was flying on Egypt Air from Cairo to Dubai and by coincidence found myself sitting next to its General Manager.

Immediately I went into a litany of complaints against the airline, beginning with the service, food, lounge and finally to the crew.

He told me “please don’t fly Egypt Air. Look around you, most of these people in First Class have been given free tickets as government officials. We, Egyptians are used to being abused”.

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“It is people like you who expect service that end up giving us a bad name. Be good to yourself, please fly Emirates or Gulf Air. Leave us Egyptians to fly Egypt Air!” Ten years later, here I am sitting in the Kenya Airways (KQ) lounge, waiting for a flight delayed for four hours with oil soaked samosas for company and I realise that we Kenyans are also used to being abused. We suffer in silence as our airline gives us third rate service. Despite all this, we must keep our national airline flying, not for patriotic reasons, but because it makes sense for Kenya Inc.

KQ has an identity crisis. It can't decide whether it is a matatu airline like Ethiopian or a premier airline like Emirates.

Ethiopian has no such issues. It is a matatu airline and will take you from point A to point B with no frills at the cheapest rate as long as you don’t mind transiting via Addis Ababa. Ethiopian is frequently the cheapest fare on Expedia and other cheap ticket websites. Emirates will give you all the frills and champagnes and will charge you extra and many pay willingly. Yet KQ is often the most expensive fare and offers you matatu services.

On arrival

Compare the prices on many competitive routes and you will see KQ is often higher. KQ’s home base has the worst airport experience with airport gangways that don’t work, or you disembark on a gangway only to be transferred to buses. In the terminals we have porters who disappear on arrival. Somebody please put them on commission. Some argue that this is the responsibility of the Kenya Airport Authority. But the thing is, KQ’s clients are being mishandled.

I know that KQ staff are disgruntled, overworked and underpaid, and that’s why we send the GSU to sort them out when they go on strike.

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Fortunately, most KQ staff in high heels can still outrun the GSU.  So how do I deal with KQ when I get fed up being mistreated?I fly another airline. Yet we have the latest Dream Liner jets. What does it take to turn around KQ? Some of the fixes are internal and easier. However, this is not the real challenge that KQ faces on its road to profitability. Airlines are a cyclical business. British Airways often goes to the verge of bankruptcy and like Lazarus,  comes back from the dead. The same applies to the American Airlines. Profitability is not an end to itself. There are other issues to consider.

Shiekh Ahmed, the Chairman of Emirates Airlines was asked; “is Emirates profitable?’’ He replied “does anyone care if the hotel shuttle bus is profitable as long as the hotel is making money? Dubai is making money’’. Emirates is a facilitator rather than an ends to itself. Last year, 89 million passengers passed through Dubai.

Cluster approach

Atlanta gets 100 million and is the busiest airport in the world. Last year Dubai had 27 million tourists. Every year this keeps increasing consistently. Think about it. Kenya’s tourists in 2016 were 1.3 million and we are still dreaming of when we will get to 3 million. This is Emirates biggest role – bringing people to Dubai.

KQ is the answer to our tourism problems. Tourism is extremely important to our country. Tourism must be approached from a Cluster approach – airline, visas, hotels, attractions,entertainment, local transport and marketing. We have to make the trans-Africa transiting passengers stop over in Nairobi. Why should a Nigerian traveling on KQ stop over in Nairobi? Make it easy to come to Kenya and give them a reason for stopping here. The focus should be on entertainment and shopping.

There are two types of shopping, personal and commercial.  I doubt whether Nigerians and other Africans want to come and see our animals since they have theirs. They want entertainment and shopping. We need  to promote our malls and our shopping areas like Gikomba and River Road. Today Kenyans are going shopping in Dar and Uganda.

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For the business people we need to refocus on promoting existing and new Special Economic Zones to sell cars and other duty free goods – That’s why I keep harping about Dongo Kundu  and the setting up of Special Economic Zones. These are not fixes that can be done overnight. They must be part of a bigger plan. This may take years but its something that must be done in a focused manner. This  strategy requires a resurgent KQ to bring in the buyers.

KQ is thus an integral part of promoting Kenya and advancing our economy. We cannot afford to close it down. I was there when Emirates started in 1985 with a single leased plane and I have seen what it has done for the economy of Dubai. We need to take a ten year perspective and get to work. KQ must keep flying.

Mr Shahbal is Chairman of Gulf Group of Companies. [email protected]

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