In November 2014, Kenya Airways announced its intention to sell its Boeing 777-200 fleet. As usual, the move was couched in glowing terms. “I am pleased that we have reached this milestone,” crowed CEO Mbuvi Ngunze. “We….will make other important announcements on fleet rationalization soon.”
At roughly the same period, Emirates, the world’s largest operator of the 777, was preparing to mark a major milestone – the delivery of its 150th Boeing 777 which it did in September last year. The Gulf carrier operates all six variants of the aircraft.
As Kenya Airways was ridding itself of the plane and sending home its pilots – the most experienced and senior most of its air crews - Sir Tim Clark, the President of Emirate’s was telling the world: “ The 777s give Emirates the range, reliability, and flexibility to efficiently serve close to 100 destinations on six continents with non-stop flights from our hub in Dubai.”
Even a layman in aviation would ask: “What does Kenya Airways, a loss-making, technically insolvent airline that is using loans to pay its workers, know that Emirates does not? If you are having shortfalls with your milk production, do you sell your high yielding Holstein-Friesian cow that gives you over 32,000 kgs in a year and retain your in-bred Boran that hides almost everything for its calf?
Few planes that ever flew are as successful as the Boeing 777. It is the trusted workhorse of all the world’s major airlines, including KQ’s competitors such as Ethiopian Airlines and those from the Gulf. And as is clear from the comments of the President of Emirates, it has everything that a serious operator would look for.
In its moment of financial distress, why did Kenya Airways zero in on its 777 fleet and leave its many economically unviable Embraers intact? It cannot be that those smart managers don’t know what they are doing.
There has to be a credible explanation for this. You cannot sell your highest earning birds, lay off your most experienced captains upon whom you depend to train the next generation of pilots and then sell – in a breathtakingly opaque way – your most lucrative landing slot and call all that a turn-around strategy.
Because Kenya Airways has long preferred to fight rather than dialogue with its AAWU and Kalpa members, because it has always preferred intimidation and sometimes mass sackings, the company is a low-morale outpost where people go to earn their keep rather than die for the place that gives them a livelihood. Amongst such people, it is easy to make sense of something that doesn’t make any.
The stories are many, and rumours, too. In their own different ways, lower level workers describe the top as an ethical and moral desert, where brilliance is used to defeat rather than advance the company good. It is from that desert that billions of shillings have evaporated. KQ is a hub of conspiracy theories. But of the many that you hear, there is a thread that weaves through them all: gate keeping for KLM.
And the final objective, it is said, is to remove the gate altogether and let KLM have it all. To achieve this, it makes sense for KQ to rid itself of its senior most pilots. The way to do this is to make them redundant by selling off what they fly – the Boeing 777. While doing that, there is no serious training programme for young pilots. This way, KLM can bring its jobless pilots to train Kenyans and progressively entrench themselves until, like the proverbial camel, they take over the tent. These are some of the conspiracy theories that abound at Kenya Airways.
When Oman Air leased the Dreamliners, it is said it wanted some KQ pilots to accompany the aircraft and operate them for a while as a wet lease. KQ declined the pilot deal.
Consequently, the pilots believe the airline is keen to make as many of them redundant to kill civil aviation in Kenya.
‘‘That is why the sale of assets is not geared to reviving the airline. If it were, they would be going for maximum profits,’’ said one former pilot.
How long is this going to last? Nobody knows.
But this much we know: whether barely visible through the windows of a terminal building in a European snowstorm, or baking in the sun during the dry West African Harmattan season, or slowly appearing and disappearing and appearing again amidst dense traffic in a Chinese airport, the high tail emblazoned with the national colours with the letter “K” walking forward to complete the “Q” out of a circle, has always symbolized the journey home for weary Kenyan travellers. Home always evokes belonging and there is no place like it. In distant lands, the sight of that tail evokes sublime sentiment.
To thousands of pilots, cabin crew, aeronautical engineers and technicians, KQ has been the apex of their careers in the aviation world. Some of them joined it as bachelors barely into their 20s and left it as grandparents.
All these people desperately want an infinite number of happy landings even as they contemplate the dark clouds hanging low over the horizon.