KQ is our flag carrier; don't put it fully in hands of foreigners

KQ has started direct flights from Mombasa to Dubai reciprocating the 14 weekly flights that Emirates operates between Dubai and Nairobi. [Denish Ochieng, Standard] 

The Chicago Convention of 1944 is regarded as the foundation of the International Civil Aviation organisation. It is following this convention that countries started having their flags carried on aircraft liveries, giving rise to the phrase “flag carrier.”

The Cambridge dictionary defines a flag carrier as, “an airline that is or was owned by a government, often with the name of the country in its name.” Such an airline may be supported by the State through incentives, protected markets and other preferential treatment.

By most definitions, Kenya Airways (KQ) is a flag carrier. It is Kenya’s eponymous airline. It has at various times received support from the government in terms of financial assistance and ascendancy over other airlines at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA).

President William Ruto has recently launched a bid to sell the government’s entire 48.9 per cent stake in KQ. Speaking to Bloomberg News in the US, he is quoted as saying, “I am not in the business of running an airline that just has a Kenyan flag.” There is no doubt that the president means well and that divesting a percentage of the government’s shareholding may present a way out for Kenya’s financially challenged airline.

However, KQ should be seen as more than just a flag bearer. Beyond revenues from ticket sales, it is a huge driver of tourism, trade, and public relations. Data from Institute of Developing Economies shows the airline as having, “54 per cent share of scheduled capacity at JKIA and is sub-Saharan Africa’s third largest airline”.

Statistics from Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis reveal KQ as contributing close to 5 per cent of Kenya’s GDP. It further provides employment, directly or indirectly, to half a million Kenyans.

But it is the airline’s value as an extension of Kenya’s foreign policy that is yet to be fully appreciated. KQ is renowned across Africa as the continent’s carrier. Many countries that don’t have their own carriers consider KQ their “national airline”. A story is told of how KQ, at the height of the civil war in the Central African Republic, was the only airline that boarded all African passport holders when all others discriminated on the basis of nationality.

Kenya Airways has been at the forefront of Kenya’s bilateral relations. When former President Uhuru Kenyatta sought the resumption of the lucrative miraa export trade to Somalia, it was contingent on the commencement of direct flights between Nairobi and Mogadishu. KQ was the airline charged with providing the service. 

Currently, KQ has started direct flights from Mombasa to Dubai reciprocating the 14 weekly flights that Emirates operates between Dubai and Nairobi. Kenya’s blue economy is poised to grow on the backbone of these flights. Not to be forgotten is the fact that the presence of United Nations offices and many international offices headquartered in Nairobi is on account of direct flights from Nairobi to many capitals of the global North.

One understands that the disenchantment with KQ, on account of its parlous financial straits, predates the Ruto administration. But selling a controlling stake to foreigners, as has been proposed, defeats the essence of a flag carrier. An article appearing in the Sunday Times of 2006 describes flag carriers as “largely protected from takeover by a system that governs international aviation and all but forbids foreign ownership and control of national flag carriers.”

Such a sale would be at odds with regulations of licensing air services as contained in Legal Notice No 167 of the Civil Aviation Act No. 21 of 2013. These provide that an applicant for such licences should be “a citizen of Kenya or in the case of a body corporate or a partnership, at least 51 per cent of the voting rights are ultimately held by the State, a citizen of Kenya or both.”

Kenya Airways carries a lot more than a flag. It is the reflection of the essence of our nationhood!

Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst

The Standard
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