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The cost of airline delays

Thursday December 19 2019

By BITANGE NDEMO
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Sunday evening, I sat pensively watching an English Premier League match at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA).

As you can imagine, I did not deliberately set out to go a watch a football match at an airport lounge.

I found myself in this situation because Kenya Airways did not honour its promise to fly me to Kigali on time.

At 7.30pm, some customers became anxious to the point of shouting at the airline staff, demanding to know what was going on. 

Scared, clueless staff at one time disappeared from the scene, only to reappear later to announce that our flight was delayed.

She did not bother to estimate for how long the delay would be. We had been scheduled to depart at 6.30pm.

Eventually we departed at 8.30pm. The pilot profusely apologised for the delay, explaining that it was caused by a technical problem that was not solved in time. As such they had to wait for another plane. Personally, I accepted the explanation.

ANOTHER DELAY

I was supposed to return on Monday using the same airline.  I was on a 7.30pm flight.

Once again, I was at the airport on time. After going through the meticulous security checks, I embarked on writing an article on my laptop. A voice came through the sound system that the KQ flight would be late.

We eventually departed at 9.30pm, arriving in Nairobi well past midnight.

As the aircraft taxied to park, it stopped on the main taxiway and the pilot asked us to be patient since there was no apron space.

After the aircraft moved to its apron, we were further delayed by several minutes waiting for the airplane ladder to be fixed. By the time we were disembarking, we had spent 45 minutes since we landed.

Outside the plane, it was clear that the pilot had lied to us that there was no apron space.

This, however, was not the end of our drama. Inside the airport some passengers ran to see if they could catch up with their onward flights. Others hurried to get out of the airport.

TRAINING

Suddenly a young man shouts, “Ebola check, Ebola check.” I calmed him down to understand what he wanted us to do. “Fill the forms,” he announced. “No one goes past here,” he declared. 

Where are the forms? I asked him. There, pointing to a table two meters away.

The young man wore dirty checked brown coat and brown trousers and was perhaps a health worker. I quickly filled my form and handed it to him.

“In the box,” he directed. I ask him where the box is. He pointed to a square mark on the floor. I obeyed. “Look up,” he directed.  It is when I saw the screening equipment.

He never asked for my passport to validate what I had written but nevertheless he gave me permission to come into Kenya.

The airline should have given the forms and explained to its customers that it is a requirement.

And since it is the image of the country and the airline, such staff should be uniformed taught some public relations. 

In my view, the young man had no training in handling passengers. He did what he could and perhaps was given the job he wasn’t fit for.

A reflection of the Kenya we live in where nepotism takes precedence over national interest as highly trained health workers move from door to door in search of employment.

"SIMPLY ANNOYING"

Earlier in the week, I had taken another KQ flight to Mombasa. The early morning one was on time as usual but the flight from Mombasa to Nairobi was delayed by one hour.

The previous week in another flight, we were asked to disembark and walk 100 meters to a bus while it was raining.

Logic would have dictated that we disembark into any of the several covered ramps that were empty.

It doesn’t take too much to be agile and creative to make customers happy and loyal but this virtue evades us all the time.

Kenya Airways, or KQ as we fondly refer it to, is my choice airline. Its brand is likeable but instead of working to grow it, their operational team as well as the Kenya Airport Authority (KAA) are doing the opposite.

The airline is simply annoying its customers at a time of its worst crisis. Out of four flights I took in the past week, only one was on time.

Such flight delays and cancellations can be very expensive not just to the customers but the airline itself.

Although I am an ardent supporter of KQ, a week’s experience has tested my loyalty scale and I am sure emerging airlines like Rwanda Airlines (60 per cent owned by Qatar Airlines) and the more established Ethiopian, are chipping off the market share from KQ’s inadequacies.

PRODUCTIVITY LOSSES

Research has shown that time lost as a result of delays often leads to productivity losses, both to the customer and the airline.

There is urgent need to upgrade the airport infrastructure and human resource to effectively manage air traffic as a strategy to lower the cost of flight delays. 

Delays on the taxiways and in disembarking are caused by negligent airport workers. 

In my view, there have been too many delays, cancellations as a result of airline and airport management authorities to raise regulatory concerns.

In spite the fact that organisations spend lots of resources on consultancies, set key performance indices and even travelled to benchmark elsewhere, behaviour change is hard.

We have the potential to build a great airline operating from a great airport, with wonderful people and a proud country.

This can only happen if each one of us takes the responsibility of realising that potential.

The writer is a professor of entrepreneurship at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.