We live in an interconnected world. Random events occurring in far off countries may have ramifications in other parts of the world.
Recent events in Europe show just how linked we are. Apropos of the Russia-Ukraine war, global travel has begun to suffer disruptions. This is because both Russia and Ukraine are major suppliers of titanium, a metal crucial in aircraft assembly. The war has led to supply chain constraints affecting the return to service of planes undergoing routine maintenance worldwide.
Kenya Airways’ operations have been affected. A statement from the airline acknowledges these disruptions saying they, “are as a result of getting our aircraft, which are undergoing scheduled maintenance, back into operations due to global challenges with the supply of some aircraft components.”
But to hear some Kenyans go hammer and tongs at KQ, one would be forgiven for thinking these disruptions are a preserve of the airline; that the organisation’s proactiveness in managing its customers’ expectations is borne of artifice on the part of its management. For far too long, Kenya Airways has been the object of derision. No doubt past mishaps, inadvertent or deliberate, have contributed to its current financial morass.
But what is galling is the effort to paint the carrier as a monument of national shame; an interminable money pit that is beyond redemption with the Government’s attempts to bail it out seen as a case of throwing good money after bad.
The worst cases of confirmation bias are those that harp on every perceived failure; that treat every incident, report, or statement on the airline as an acknowledgment of either State capture or managerial incompetence. Yet the truth couldn’t be further. KQ’s travails are not unique to it. The unprecedented cessation of flights during the Covid-19 pandemic affected all airlines. Further, current flight disruptions, arising from shortages of service parts due to supply chain kinks, are certainly being felt across the globe.
Perhaps a dose of patriotic fervour and an appreciation of the strategic importance of the airline is needful. For starters, Kenyans should start seeing its value beyond immediate financial returns. They should realise that KQ is one of the country’s major foreign exchange consolidators. The airline makes Sh120 billion dollars annually.
Second, KQ is a facilitator of soft power diplomacy. An example of this is seen in the resumption of the lucrative miraa export trade between Kenya and Somalia. This was contingent on an intergovernmental agreement on direct flights between Nairobi and Mogadishu. KQ is the enabler of these flights. Kenya Airways is not alone in this approach. According to Tim ClarK, CEO Emirates, “the government of Qatar obviously believes that Qatar Airways is part of the country’s soft power outreach.” It is instructive that Qatar Airways made profit for the first time in 2021.
Airline travel is an integral part of global connectivity. Africa is home to 17 per cent of the global population but contributes a paltry three per cent of air travel. Development of air travel presents huge opportunities for intra-African trade and aligns with the aspirations of the African Continental Free Trade Area. Kenya Airways is among the top ten biggest African airlines by passengers carried. Its strategy of developing underserved routes and those with potential has seen it grow over the years. JKIA has become an important travel hub and 65 per cent of Kenya Airports Authority revenues are contributed by the National carrier.
From the foregoing, airlines make most sense as strategic national assets. Which is why it is asinine to entertain rumours of powerful families as corruptly being behind the lease of aircraft to KQ. Because airlines operate on margins of up to five per cent, it would be one heck of a dumb decision for individuals to invest billions of shillings on a thin margins business that is susceptible to demand shocks.
The writer is a Public Policy Analyst