Is National Government takeover only saviour for beleaguered national carrier?

BY DAVID OJILI 

The national carrier, has steadily made losses in the last decade and entangled in court battles with its staff at the same time. 

Project Mawingu, that was at once fronted by the executives as a visionary ten-year plan to propel the carrier to greater hights failed miserably. In it, they had envisioned KQ having a fleet of 100 plus aircraft and going to more than 100 routes globally. Nothing materialized.

Every time that the name KQ is mentioned, it is always in bad light. From disappointed passengers complaining of flight delays to pilots threatening to go on strike not to mention their financial year reports that continue to sink in losses. 

The carrier’s passenger numbers sank by 56% to 1.1million in the first six months of 2020. Yes, there was the coronavirus pandemic affecting global aviation and one that saw all her planes grounded until mid July, but KQ is no longer competitive.

To get a clear picture of the woes at KQ, current MD, Allan Kilavuka believes that their current fleet of 37 airplanes according to the company’s website is far too many. He has reduced that number to around 20 to eliminate maintenance costs and proposed pay-cuts for staff. Besides, he has also proposed to convert some of their passenger planes, mostly the Dreamliner 787 into freighters, cut down on some of their networks and above all, return some of their planes to their lessors. 

All this while carriers like Ethiopian Airlines have embarked on Vision 2035 that includes but not limited to increasing their fleet to more than 200 aircraft from the current 121.

Mr. Kilavuka believes that this shrinkage during the pandemic times will enable the carrier to emerge leaner and better. But, is the pandemic solely to blame for the problems at the carrier? 

For the longest time, inefficiency in service delivery, bad managerial decisions like the well-documented fuel hedging they embarked on have been the cornerstone of KQ’s woes.

Take the purchase of the Embraer planes as an example of bad management decisions. The Embraer is a single aisle plane with a small load capacity. This means that it transports fewer passengers and less cargo during flights. Why did KQ purchase them and assign some of them to the lucrative Asian market? Compare this to ET that purchased the double aisle Airbus A350 and the modern Boeing 737 Max jets on such routes. How can we even compete such a carrier when our airplanes on similar routes do not offer more cargo space and the cabin configuration does not afford space and comfort?

A planned full takeover by the National Government through the National Aviation Management Bill could be the only saviour of the KQ ill-fated journey. The Bill will see KQ and the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) come under a single entity controlled by the Government.

This proposal has been met by stiff opposition from several quarters. The Law Society of Kenya (LSK), in a paid notice in the local Kenyan dailies in September raised objections on the proposed take over by the Government. They sought clarity on the entire process and highlighted that it was not overboard and had not gone through rigorous public participation. They also raised concern on the efficiency of KQ once in the hands of the Government. 

The LSK also sought to know whether employees would have better and competitive terms of employment. Similar concerns have been raised by aviation experts. Many believe that the problems the national carrier faces are majorly with the management appointed not on merit but as cronies of politicians who have no idea about the aviation industry.

KQ continues to fly into turbulence, and many continue to watch with bated breadth as the once Pride of Africa sinks in debt, poor management and loses its luster to the likes of Ethiopian Airways. 

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