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Ailing airline industry

By Njoki Chege | October 18th 2012

Traveling by air is supposed to be an enjoyable and pleasurable experience. The whole idea is to save time and travel in comfort. That is why travelers pay dearly for it. But that is not always the case, writes NJOKI CHEGE

In May this year we took the   9:30pm flight set to arrive in Nairobi at 10:30pm from Mombasa. This, on our part, was strategic thinking, so as to avoid the maddening Nairobi evening traffic. We hoped to be home by 11pm.

But that, unfortunately, was not the case because at 11:15 pm, we were still in the aeroplane, in spite the fact that we had arrived shortly before 10:30pm. Nobody explained why it took us so long to leave the plane.

We finally disembarked the plane some minutes to 11:30pm — almost an hour later. We kept our tired mumbles and complaints to ourselves, walked quite a distance from the plane to the waiting bay, struggling with our hand luggage, not to mention what a long evening most of us had experienced.

Bitter experience

Any frequent client of our local airlines and airports has at least one bitter experience about a delayed or cancelled flight or inconveniencies. The most recent was in June this year, when the runway at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport(JKIA)was closed following a plane mishap that blocked the runway. This resulted in the suspension of flight services for a record nine hours.

Critical appointments and meetings were missed, several businesses and passengers made untold losses, important flights were cancelled, among several other inconveniences.

James Opiyo, a frequent traveller, notes that JKIA lacks some basic aspects of an international airport that one would find in other airports- say Heathrow, Amsterdam, or closer home, Bole International Airport in Ethiopia, commonly referred to as the gateway to Africa.

“One thing that bothers me is the customer service. A fight will delay, and nobody will tell you the truth behind the delay. Secondly, I am bothered by the fact that arriving and departing passengers get a chance to mingle- who knows what could be exchanged in the process?” poses Opiyo.

In July this year, Minister for Medical Services Prof Anyang Nyongo wrote a challenging piece in Standard on Sunday, about a bitter experience he had at Kisumu International Airport.

Apparently, a flight that was due to leave Kisumu International Airport at 7:20pm was delayed severally till 11:30pm  — and this was after passengers lodged torrents of complaints.

 The worst bit was that the airport has to close mandatorily at 9pm— because there are not enough passengers/business to warrant the airport to operate 24 hours.

Five hours later- after much noise, complaints, pushing and exchange of words, the flight was allowed to leave the airport shortly after 11pm. So much for an

Questionable credibility

Just last week, JKIA won the prestigious Routes Airport Marketing Award, African category. The vote underscores the approval of airlines, and the voting criterion takes into account the efforts airports place on developing and maintaining positive and productive relationships with airports. This is particularly in crucial areas such as customer service, marketing and business development.

But truth be told, JKIA fails to reach the standards of the strategic airport it is. Needless to say, it is the biggest airport in East and Central Africa. The official Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) website describes JKIA as “the focal point for major aviation activity in the region. Its importance as an aviation centre makes it the pacesetter for other airports in the region”, but any frequent traveller would doubt this, questioning its credibility as the pacesetter it claims to be.

For an airport that directly contributes to 10.9 per cent of Kenya’s GDP, JKIA is doing badly with just one runway, and is way below par with other airports in the same cadre.

Take for instance the OR Tambo International Airport in South Africa-, which is ranked Africa’s leading airport as at 2012. The airport has two parallel north-south runways and a disused cross-runway. The western runway is over 4,400 metres (14,000 ft) long, making it one of the world’s longest international airport runways. A far cry from JKIA’s 4,117 Metres by 45 metre-wide only runway.

Ailing system

Aviators and passengers that use our airlines are at great risk of air accidents, with the latest helicopter accident claiming the lives of two senior government officials. Aviation experts attribute the risk to poor infrastructure such as airstrips, runways, broken down communication equipment and corruption in issuing air operators licenses.

Poor regulatory oversight at state level and crew proficiency problems, poorly trained pilots and weak operational control are also implicated in the poor quality of our airlines.

Mid this year, reports claimed that regional airlines had incurred losses to the tune of Sh 1 Billion as a result of bird strikes. An unnamed local airline spent Sh430 million to repair an aircraft when a bird accidentally entered one of its engines.

International standards

In a bid to raise Kenya’s airline industry to international standards, and in line with Kenya’s Vision 2030, the Kenya Airports Authority has embarked on an expansion project. First in line was the new unit four terminal building and multi-storey car park, which will have capacity for 20 million passengers per year with floor area of 172,000 square metres.

The completion of the new terminal, which is set to be opened mid next year, will set the stage for the launch of direct flights to the US.  The new terminal has a clear division between arriving, departing and transiting passengers.

The second project is the construction of the second runway, a project that is set to commence in January next year and be over by December 2017.

This means that we will have to do with one runway for another five years, never mind the expected passenger traffic growth, which should have doubled by then. Critics have questioned the priorities of the authority, citing that it is majoring on the minors, by giving priority to a terminal and a car park.

“The reason why we started with the terminal and parking is that they were the key concerns our stakeholders raised, as per the customer satisfaction surveys and stakeholder sessions that we undertake quarterly. Based on this needs analysis we prioritise the projects,” says Dominic Ngige, the official spokesperson of Kenya Airports Authority.

No need for new runway

According to a statement from KAA, the current runway is still only being used at 60 per cent of its capacity, thus it means that we are a long way from reaching its full capacity.

Says Ngige: “The traffic at JKIA can be accommodated comfortably with one runway. We have scheduled a new runway for the future to cater for the anticipated increased aircraft traffic, as a result of the construction of the Greenfield terminal.”

Security is a pertinent issue in airport management, and concern has been raised over arrivals and departures being able to come into contact with each other. This poses a huge security risk, as there are fears that mingling could result to exchange of illegal stuff into the airplanes.

Security threats

The separation of arriving and departing passengers is being addressed in the expansion project of JKIA, which will create a clear separation of the two.

“But in spite of this there is no security lapse with regard to passenger arrival and departure procedures. For departing passengers they go through two screening points to ensure they meet international standards of travelling,” notes Ngige.

The first is at the check in area before they go to departures, and the second is at the boarding gates. This ensures that even if they have mingled with arriving passengers they will not be able to exchange anything due to the second screening after which they are kept in a sterile area before boarding the aircraft.

In February this year, President  Kibaki officially opened the much-awaited Kisumu International Airport, in a move to expand our airline industry.

The airport is already handling regional flights as a result of the expansion project. Reports from KAA confirm that Fly540 was operating flights to Mwanza and Jetlink to Entebbe Kisumu International Airport from the airport. The airport has also been receiving frequent charters from Musoma, South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria.

Restructuring and modernisation

The Kenya Civil Aviation Authority is tasked with regulating aviation safety and security and to facilitate the growth of a vibrant civil aviation system in the country.

In a statement dated  August 31, the authority announced that it is currently implementing a restructuring programme that encompasses aligning organisational structure to its strategy.

“The expansion and development of aviation facilities is meant to provide a safe and alternative choice of transport as well as provide safe skies for our aviators and travelling public,” says  Dr Cyrus Njiru, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Transport.

Dr Njiru further adds that air navigation services have also been revamped by the acquisition of state of the art equipment to boost safety and efficiency in the management of our space.

The recent replacement of seven radars with new ones with high surveillance capabilities has enabled the authority to improve the management of air traffic and ensure safety and security of air operations.

But before all these strategies are in full gear, aviators and travelling public will continue to bear with the inconveniences and unexplained delays and consider it a miracle when they travel and arrive in one piece, without a glitch, and on time.

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