Kenya Airways at 40: Veteran staff recall best and worst times

Sunday January 22 2017

From left: Pauline Kamau and Peter Kinyanzui,

From left: Pauline Kamau and Peter Kinyanzui, two KQ staff who have been at the airline since its founding in 1977 take us back in time. PHOTOS |  

By VINCENT ACHUKA
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Forty years ago today, a leased Boeing 707-320 from the British Midland Airways in a black, red, green and white livery that resembles the Kenyan flag left London for Nairobi to a crowd of anxious Kenyans waiting for it at the Embakasi Airport.

The stakes were high. The East African Community (EAC) had broken and each country in the union was desperate to make a political and economic statement.

A few days before this, Kenya had pulled the plug on financing the East African Airways (EAA), an airline jointly owned by Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in the spirit of running common transport infrastructure but was saddled with massive debts.

Uganda and Tanzania had reneged on paying their debts owed to the airline and they were both planning to launch their own airlines as it became apparent that the regional bloc was breaking up after just 10 years.

Kenya, however, managed to pull a fast one by launching its own airline a few days after the collapse of the EAC using a DC 8, a DC 9 and a Fokker F27 — all of which it had held on to at the tarmac when the community broke apart. KQ now has a total of 36 aircrafts.

Forty years ago today, a leased Boeing 707-320 from the British Midland Airways in a black, red, green and white livery that resembles the Kenyan flag left London for Nairobi to a crowd of anxious Kenyans waiting for it at the Embakasi Airport. PHOTO | FILE

Forty years ago today, a leased Boeing 707-320 from the British Midland Airways in a black, red, green and white livery that resembles the Kenyan flag left London for Nairobi to a crowd of anxious Kenyans waiting for it at the Embakasi Airport. PHOTO | FILE

So desperate was the country to launch its own airline that it “wet” leased the Boeing 707-320 which was delivered in under two weeks complete with KQ colours. Under a “wet” lease, one airline (the lessor) provides an aircraft to another complete with its own crew, insurance and maintenance which the lessee pays back according to flight hours operated.

And so the Boeing 707-320 became the first plane to fly in KQ’s colours. When the plane eventually landed in Nairobi it was like suddenly the country’s pride had been restored as a first among equals in the broken region, a position it has held ever since.

Among the hundreds of Kenyans on the tarmac at the airside of the Embakasi Airport for the famous landing was a then 22-year-old Peter Kinyanzui, a young avionics engineer and 19-year-old Pauline Kamau who was a ground stewardess.

The two who are currently the airline’s longest serving employees as it turns 40 still remember the day like it was yesterday. Captain Kinyanzui was hired in 1975 for the defunct EAA as a trainee technician while Mrs Kamau was hired three months before the regional airline collapsed.

“I don’t have words to describe it,” Mr Kinyanzui recalls. “The EAC had broken up and there was total despair, families had broken apart and people’s careers had gone down the drain but that one landing changed it all.”

FROM THE GROUND UP

Two pictures show Mrs Pauline Kamau in her youthful days as a Kenya Airways employee. She witnessed the first landing of an aircraft with the colours of the Kenyan flag on January 22, 1977. PHOTO | COURTESY

Two pictures show Mrs Pauline Kamau in her youthful days as a Kenya Airways employee. She witnessed the first landing of an aircraft with the colours of the Kenyan flag on January 22, 1977. PHOTO | COURTESY

Today, the captain with over 25,000 flight hours is expected to take charge of flight KQ762 which leaves the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) for Johannesburg, South Africa, at 1pm. It will be a commemorative flight to mark the airline’s 40 year anniversary and there would be no better way to celebrate it than the longest serving pilot to fly it himself.

Mrs Kamau, who is now the Manager Load Control Services, after rising through the ranks working in the departure lounge, ramp services, back office, as a clerk, on the customer care desk and then as an outstation manager in Bangkok and Dubai cannot still get over the excitement four decades on.

“It was a Saturday I will never forget,” she says.

“EAA had collapsed and we were only 15 people apart from the top management who had been left on the ground to start the new airline and when the plane finally came it was like Kenya was starting again,” she says.

From just a leased plane and four others that Kenya held on to during a scramble for assets that followed the collapse of the EAC, the “Pride of Africa” would rise and fall a number of times but still maintain being the only national airline in the region that has been stable.

Uganda Airlines, which began shortly after Kenya Airways, was liquidated in 2001 after attempts to privatise it failed to materialise due to mismanagement and a huge debt load.

Air Tanzania despite being relaunched in 2007 after its partnership with South African Airways (SAA) collapsed was grounded in 2011 after its sole remaining operational aircraft, a Bombardier Q300 was taken in for maintenance.

Both airlines have never fully recovered leaving Kenya Airways as the only regional public airline that has been consistent in its operations despite facing its fair share of challenges that have left it fighting to regain its lost glory.

Last year, the airline recorded a Sh26 billion loss and is in the middle of a change in management after an ambitious 10-year expansion plan dubbed Project Mawingu left it saddled in debt. But despite this, the airline has maintained a largely clean safety record registering only two fatal crashes in its four decades of existence.

On January 30, 2000, an Airbus A310 flight number KQ431 destined for Nairobi from Abidjan plunged into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after take-off, killing 169 people on board. Only 10 people survived.

Seven years later a Boeing 737 flight number KQ507 from Cameroon to Nairobi crushed into a mangrove swamp shortly after take-off in Douala International Airport killing all the 114 passengers on board.

Mrs Kamau was in charge of the airline’s team that went on a search and rescue mission and what she saw made it her worst moment in all the years she has been at Kenya Airways.

“It was our first crash. I saw just the tail of the aircraft in the water and I cried. It was an airbus and a lot of my colleagues were in the flight; people I knew closely,” she says of the Abidjan crash.

“We landed there with another Airbus. When I looked at it on the runway standing there looking so good and then I compared it with the pieces of a similar plane in the water, that picture has never left my mind,” she told Lifestyle. “I asked myself, you mean this huge thing can be shredded to pieces. It was my worst day.”

Nevertheless, both Mrs Kamau and Captain Kinyanzui believe the airline’s worst years are behind it despite its current challenges. The long-serving staff say things can only get better.

Mrs Pauline Kamau in her office at the JKIA during the interview. She has been at Kenya Airways for 40 years. PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA

Mrs Pauline Kamau in her office at the JKIA during the interview. She has been at Kenya Airways for 40 years. PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA

“Everyone here takes KQ as their home and we are professionals. We know what needs to be done and how it needs to be done,” says Mrs Kamau.

Over the course of the four decades they have worked at the airline, the two have seen Kenya Airways from the inside during its best and worst times. They have also experienced the technological changes that have taken place at the aviation industry which have changed the way people fly.

AUTOMATION AGE

For Captain Kinyanzui, it is the privatisation of the airline in 1996 which he terms as the best moment the airline has ever had as it turned around a collapsing parastatal weighed down by debt. This was the first-ever privatisation of an African airline. 

As expected, the process, which took two years to complete, was a highly charged political event and from the outset the press and the public speculated on how it would fail and who would benefit from that failure. 

In the end the government sold off 30 per cent of its shareholding but still maintains 29.8 per cent, Dutch Airline KLM took up 26 per cent while the rest are being traded at the Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Kampala stock exchanges.

“It brought in a new corporate culture in the airline and other changes which come with it,” says the captain.

“Fleet modernisation followed and the drastic technological advances cutting down direct operating costs and improvement of safety levels and standards,” he says.

When Captain Kinyanzui started flying as a flight engineer on a Boeing 707 in 1979, a flight had six crew members which he says have been reduced to just two pilots because of advancements in technology.

On the ground Mrs Kamau says everything was manual.

Captain Peter Kinyanzui started out as an avionics engineer in 1977 aged 19. Captain Kinyanzui (standing far right) with his workmates in the early years of Kenya Airways. PHOTO | COURTESY

Captain Peter Kinyanzui started out as an avionics engineer in 1977 aged 19. Captain Kinyanzui (standing far right) with his workmates in the early years of Kenya Airways. PHOTO | COURTESY

“Before 1990 we used to have a list with all passengers and when a passenger comes you check out their names. So long as the name is OK, you accept the person on the flight,” she says.

“We are now very automated and in fact you don’t have to think because machines think for you. Back then, if a passenger asked you the estimated time they would arrive at their destination you had to do a manual calculation using the distance, speed of the plane while factoring in the time zone differences,” she recalls.

Mrs Kamau says she joined the airline by sheer luck by being absorbed while she was still in Form Four at Machakos Girls but Captain Kinyanzui believes he was destined to be a pilot and nothing was going to stop him.

Mrs Kamau was born in Mbooni, Machakos, as the fifth born in a family of nine while Captain Kinyanzui was born in Makueni as the second born in a family of eight. All of their parents were peasant farmers.

During Mrs Kamau’s last year in high school, the mother to one of her friends was the chief stewardess at the East African Airways and she gave career talks at the school a number of times.

“She was Ugandan. One day while giving her usual talks she said EAA was hiring ground stewardesses and I applied. By the time I left school a job was waiting for me,” she says.

Captain Peter Kinyanzui started out as an avionics engineer in 1977 aged 19. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE

Captain Peter Kinyanzui started out as an avionics engineer in 1977 aged 19. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE

For the captain, a trip to the Nairobi Show when he was a student at the Machakos Technical School (presently Machakos University) and a downpour as an EAA plane was flying over their home gave him the resolve to be a pilot no matter what it took.

“During the trip to the showground, we saw a fly past and we joked that we were being mesmerised by what the children of the rich do because in our minds we knew aviation and medicine are careers only those with wealthy backgrounds can pursue,” he says.

Then one day after Form Four as he was waiting to join Mombasa Polytechnic to study engineering something funny happened. “Nobody in their family had a watch and the only way we knew it was 4pm was through an EAA flight from Nairobi to Mombasa that used to pass overhead.

“One day it started drizzling as the plane was passing and my mum remarked that it was the rich people passing overhead who were urinating on us. My father had died years before and there and then I told my mum I would be a pilot no matter what it takes,” he says.

While at the Mombasa Polytechnic in 1975 where he was studying Electrical Engineering Technician Course funded by the United Nations Development Programme, EAA plucked him from the college and asked him to join them.

Both aviation veterans who will be feted today are married and have children. Captain Kinyanzui has four children while Mrs Kamau has three.