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Kenya faces catch-22 situation as airlines push for open skies

Qatar Airline plane lands at JKIA. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Qatar Airlines is looking to reintroduce direct flights to Mombasa, adding to the push by the industry to allow international carriers to fly directly to the coastal city.

The carrier is eyeing direct flights between Hamad International Airport, its hub in Doha, to the Moi International Airport Mombasa.

It used to operate direct flights to Mombasa in late 2018 but stopped following the outbreak of Covid-19.

The airline currently operates two daily flights in and out of Nairobi’s  Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) but said it plans to increase these to three as the travel industry shakes off the Covid-19 pandemic blues. 

Tourism and travel industry players have in the recent past reignited debate on whether Kenyan authorities should open up the county’s skies and allow international airlines to operate scheduled flights directly to Mombasa and other areas with international airports, including Eldoret and Kisumu.

The Mombasa airport has in the past enjoyed numerous charter flights, but these have been few and far between.

Without the charter flights, players say, the coastal economy has suffered, and it is time that the government allows direct flights.

“If there is an opportunity to start flights to Mombasa, there is a great opportunity for us there,” said Qatar Airways Vice President for Africa Hendrik Du Preez.

He added that opening up the skies, not just Kenya’s but Africa’s as a whole, would be good for consumers as it would translate into more competitive pricing and service offering.

“Competition is good. The winners at the end of the day are usually consumers. When there is competition, it makes it more affordable for people to travel,” he said in an interview.

“For Kenya, a big part of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is due to tourism, and competition can help to grow such industries further when there are more international airlines.”

While Mr Du Preez noted that there may not have been adequate time to develop the route, especially considering Mombasa is largely a holiday destination where travellers book months in advance, he believes there is an opportunity.

“We had not gotten time to develop the route, but I think there is an opportunity to bring people into Mombasa,” he said.

There have been fears that allowing international carriers to operate such routes might overrun other airlines, including the many low-cost carriers that operate local and regional flights.

Major carriers

Players have argued that in Kenya’s case, major carriers should fly to JKIA and then feed the other carriers that offer the last mile service into other local airports.

Mr Du Preez said Qatar Airways is open to working with local airlines, noting that there are many places in Kenya and East Africa where it might not be able to fly.

“We work with local carriers all over Africa. Have agreements with over 30 carriers in Africa. This could be through codeshare agreements as some of the airlines fly to areas where we might not fly to,” he said.

“If there is an opportunity to partner, we are open.”

The carrier currently flies in and out of JKIA twice daily. This is compared to three times daily before the Covid-19 pandemic. Mr Du Preez said the airline is considering increasing frequencies as post-pandemic travel increases.

Travel is estimated to have recovered but is still 30 per cent below pre-Covid levels.

“We would like to get back to that pre-pandemic level again, we plan to introduce a third flight to Kenya,” he said.

“In East Africa and Kenya, things are getting better. We are ramping up businesses as quickly as possible. The last six months have been good for us. A lot of people are coming for safaris and holidays.”

Mr Du Preez said high fuel prices remain a challenge for the airline industry even as it continues to recover from the lockdowns that economies had imposed following the outbreak of Covid-19.

“Fuel is a challenge for all airlines across the world. Around June and July, fuel reached its peak for the last two years. That has a massive impact on any airline. Your fuel costs can make up anything between 30 and 35 per cent of your total costs, so if you have an increase in fuel cost of, for example, 20 per cent, it has a big impact on the bottom of an airline,” he said.