Wednesday, 24 December 2014

African Roundup- October November 2014

African Roundup     October – November 2014                    

There was a time when South African Airways was all powerful in its southern African domains and could seemingly do no wrong. From the late 1940s it was a dominant player on routes to Europe, usually flew superior equipment compared with its competitors ( DC 4s against Yorks and flying boats, DC7Bs against Constellations, Boeing  707s v Comet 4s). It expanded its reach to the USA and Far East and even in the days of sanctions its levels or service and reliability and the relative ease of use of its Johannesburg hub enabled it to dominate central and southern Africa. Its management was conservative but hard headed and expansionist. Its fleet acquisition policies sound and relatively risk averse. The company tended to stick with what it, its crews, engineers and ground staff knew and what worked and did it very well. Its engineering was world class. All a bit boring maybe but its customers didn’t mind that and many made the detour via Johannesburg just to fly with them.

Then came the new world, both in South African politics and management fashions. Expensive outsiders, with no past baggage or long term interests arrived to ring the changes. In came shoals of Airbuses, including the A340, and out went the Boeings on which several generations of expertise had been built up. The deals looked good but carried immense new learning curves and the associated costs of those. Politically the new South Africa brought the challenge of achieving essential and immense changes in the work force, something requiring time, wisdom and commitment.

At the same time the new South Africa, free of trade sanctions, meant unprecedented waves of new and shiny competition. SAA’s two competitors in Africa, Ethiopian and Kenya Airways have grown out of all recognition and Kenya in particular reinvented itself if a little precariously. They offer much of the continent a plethora of intra-African and intercontinental high frequency connections without time consuming back tracking. Next, to add to the pain, just at the moment when SAA must have thought the brave new world belonged to them, along came the new generation Gulf airlines and now Turkish. With them came the redefinition of networks, hubs and every aspect of customer service and care. Even the American and European legacy carriers look on with open mouths as today’s benchmarks suddenly become last year’s model. Just when you thought you were getting somewhere….

Against this tsunami-like background it is no surprise that SAA repeatedly seems fated to a life of difficulty and turmoil. This is partly the result of its poor geographical position being glaringly exposed and partly due to a plethora of self inflicted woes.

Of the first, being stuck in a cul-de-sac at the very bottom of Africa would always be a problem for an aspiring hub carrier. Inevitably SAA’s network lies very largely to the north plus a bit out along the arms to Australasia, Asia and the Americas. Historically the airline’s reach for connecting long haul traffic has been limited to a 2 hour arc embracing Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and (just) Angola with a lot it it driven by a preference for transiting Johannesburg airport rather than Nairobi in particular. Kenya’s ability to lose transfer baggage and the attitude of some of its officials, including security operatives on the lookout for money were much talked about. Now with the Johannesburg passenger and baggage experience deteriorating , Addis and Nairobi improving and the glitzy Gulf airports being another world entirely ,Ethiopian, Kenya Airways, the Gulf carriers and Turkish make a back haul via Johannesburg just unattractive.
 Of  SAA’s self inflicted wounds, the long-running Board turmoil is a fine example. The net result is a carrier with ever deepening debts and its auditors declaring it “not a going concern” . In short  it’s bankrupt.  The declared operating loss for 2012-3 is US$92million. The 20-year Transition Plan, including a request for US$600milion support, presented to Government in April last year has made no visible progress, to the growing frustration of sole shareholder, the Government, in particular new Public Enterprises Minister, Lynne Brown.

Last month 6 members of the SAA Board were replaced en-masse. A few days later the Chairman suspended the CEO who remains ‘on leave of absence’ despite the Public Enterprise Minister directing his re-instatement.  Nico Bezuidenhout, CEO of SAA subsidiary Mango, has now been appointed interim CEO returning to the role he filled last year following the ousting of a previous CEO.  In that first appointment he presented the 20-year Transition Plan to Government with the memorable quote that each of the previous 9 such plans was triggered because 60% of recommendations of its predecessors were never implemented.

Bezuidenhout has moved quickly with the presentation of a draft 90-day recovery plan focusing on a reduction of loss-making routes (all long-haul services are loss-making) and a re-negotiation of aircraft leases, in particular the A340-600s. US$118million annual saving is mentioned.  Fleet renewal with possible A350 and B787 types is a pressing need.  Meanwhile Government has yet to offer cash and other guarantees to enable the business simply to continue trading.  Assuming this is eventually forthcoming the target for the Board and CEO in tandem is to better the historic 60% implementation failure rate. To quote Bezuidenhout “It is challenging”.

Historically the continent’s airlines had a single business model, – That of a national carrier owned by a Government.  Most eventually folded, the pace usually being linked to the degree of Government meddling in commercial decisions and appointments and the rate at which losses were accumulated. Local private operators did spring up but cash difficulties relentlessly  took their toll. Today’s picture has echoes of the past, eg, limping Air Tanzania, but new models are evolving, eg low cost carriers, with Fastjet potentially being the biggest game-changer. The  big gap to be filled is that left by a failed national carrier such as Air Afrique, Nigeria Airways, Ghana Airways and Zambia Airways. The initial hue and cry is always for them to be replaced like for like (and disastrously with the same people and their cohorts, hangers on and the rest who brought them to their knees in the first place). Fortunately the market eventually makes the decision and somebody puts the black cap on. Air Afrique with its 11 individual Government shareholders could never be replaced. Eleven governments agreeing and keeping their hands off decision-making? No chance. Nigeria Airways has the look-alike privately owned Arik but has been denied ‘national airline’ status by Government. Despite some aspirations and even attempts, Ghana and Zambia are without replacements although small privately owned domestic carriers have evolved.  Of most interest, the Zambian Government has granted 5th Freedom rights to both African and foreign operators to get all the regional connectivity it can at no cost to itself.  Six carriers now operate between Lusaka and Harare. The Ugandan Government has so far followed the same path following the demise last month of Air Uganda by granting regional rights to Ethiopian Airlines and to Fastjet thereby giving Entebbe 4 new regional routes. Governments who fear isolation without a ‘national carrier’ should sleep more easily.


Air Uganda As previously reported, the Board has decided to disband the company citing “irreparable damage to the company’s image” caused by the prolonged UCAA delay in renewing its controversially cancelled AOC plus the granting of 5th freedom Entebbe-Juba rights to regional competitors Ethiopian and Rwandair.

Eritrean Airlines is wet-leasing an A320-200 to add to its single B767-300.

Ethiopian Airlines continues its expansion with plans to open a route to Los Angeles via Dublin in mid-2015.  Useful 5th freedom rights between Dublin and Los Angeles are included. This builds further on its Toronto and Washington routes.

 Receiving AFRAA’s Airline of the Year award CEO Tewolde Gebremariam , long time advocate of Africa making the best possible use of its own home grown resources, when receiving AFRAA’s Airline of the Year award urged member carriers to recognise and use skills and services available on the continent, notably in engineering and training, and pressed governments to urgently to free-up reciprocal route rights and frequencies for regional carriers. 

Meanwhile the carrier may be linked with the proposed new South Sudan (niche) carrier.

Fastjet Following an interview with CEO Ed Winter, CCO Richard Bodin and CFO Nick Caine, we will cover this always interesting carrier in a separate post. Suffice it to say they are undaunted by the scale of their task and determined to stay the course.

Interstate Airways (S Sudan) has wet-leased 2 CRJ100 for Juba based operations.

Jambojet (Kenya) Kenya Airways LCC subsidiary plans the replacement of its 3 strong B737-300 fleet with B737-700s, presumably also from its parent, Kenya Airways. There are no signs yet to expand beyond the April 2013 start-up network of Nairobi-Kisumu, Eldoret and Mombasa. This seems to indicate that conceptually it has for the moment at least hit the same buffers as its predecessor, Flamingo, constrained by the parent and an uncertainty about exactly what it is meant to do at least until any competing low cost carrier, notably Fastjet, challenges it in Kenyan cross-border markets.

Kenya Airways. CEO Titus Naikuni retired after 11 years on 31st October. He has had a good innings. He inherited the airline in fundamentally good shape. It had successfully navigated the September 11th global downturn, ordered the 777-200s, was about to open up to the Far East, modernised its branding, realistically replaced its regional F class with J class, converted its B 767 J seats to flat beds and embarked on an outward looking programme. His personal presence, well used political and business network and charisma were welcome additions to the role and the profits achieved since privatisation continued.

His successor, Mbuvi Ngunze faces a tougher proposition. Not quite a hospital pass but more a nudge towards the first aid tent maybe, this is certainly not an easy moment to take over after eighteen months as COO .The West African routes are affected by the ebola outbreak, Kenyan beach tourism in particular has been hit by images of insecurity along the coast, the terminal fire destroyed the Nairobi arrivals area and disrupted the hub operation and the Westgate shopping mall shootings frightened many away from the country. Black ink has turned to red. The upsides for him though include the replacement of the mixed bag of 767-300s by new 787-8s with 6 delivered and 3 more to come (time to firm up on a few more?),and  the opening of the airline’s dedicated departure and transfers terminal at Nairobi. Maybe there will be some downturn- driven realism from its unions too?

Network-wise , Delhi has been dropped. As we have mentioned before,- a 7 hour sector in a narrowbody 737-800 may just not be saleable to a market which has other choices.

Precision Air remains determined to solve its own problems. One measure on offer is US$40m in exchange for an equity stake. It is also considering the sale and leaseback of 5 ATRs which could raise up to US$80m.
Rwandair has ordered an additional Q400 and another Boeing 737-800NG added Mwanza on Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania, to its network with a thrice weekly Q400 frequency.
SAX Tanzania .This projected low cost carrier is anticipating an end of year start-up with a single Q400.  The majority shareholder is said to be Don Smith of Fly540 Kenya.

Air Congo (Rep of Congo) is to benefit (?) from an order placed by Government for 3 new Comac ARJ21s to add to its existing fleet of MA60s. So far as we know this aircraft is new to Africa which means that manufacturer support is likely to be needed for some time.

Air Zimbabwe has reached an agreement with SAA Technics for the release of its 2 A320s so enabling them to return to service.
Congo Airways (DRC) In April Govt announced the creation of new national carrier to replace insolvent LAC, Lignes Aeriennes Congolaises, due for liquidation. An unspecified ‘technical partner’ is to be a shareholder alongside Govt and local citizens. Air France Consulting has now presented a business plan. (Zimbabwe) Regulatory problems with CAA Zimbabwe caused the first flight to be delayed from of 23 July until to 3rd November. They plan to operate thrice weekly between Victoria Falls and Johannesburg with a B737-500 and then start domestic flights from Harare to Bulawayo and Victoria Falls by the end of this year. (Namibia), allied to the above, is aiming to startup in March 2015, first linking Windhoek and Johannesburg in joint venture with Nomad Aviation of Namibia. Flyafrica Ltd, is a Mauritius-based private equity aviation investment group whose aims may not be dissimilar to Fastjet’s.

FlySafair (S Africa) Having met regulatory ownership restructuring requirements this low cost carrier launched B737-400 services from Cape Town to Johannesburg on 16th October and quickly expanded its network to include Port Elizabeth and George .
Kulula (S Africa) This lively low cost subsidiary of Comair has agreed a codeshare arrangement with Air France. A similar agreement was signed with Kenya Airways earlier this year. There is no indication of what Comair’s franchisor,BA, thinks of these arrangements.

LAC (DRC) This company is now believed to be non-operational and in the process of liquidation  by its sole shareholder, DRC Govt, which has back from maintenance the sole aircraft, a B737-200.  Air France Consulting has presented a business plan for a new national carrier, Congo Airways.

Malawian Airlines launched twice weekly Lilongwe – Beira Q400 services on 12th November. This adds to current Mozambique flights to Tete and Nampula.
Mango SAA’s Low Cost subsidiary is claiming a 2013-14 profit  of US$3.6mn based on a 42% revenue growth.  It anticipates receiving 2 additional B737-800s from SAA and some domestic route growth.  Fleet renewal is slated to start in 2021.
SAA Further to our headline item here are some further details of goings on in and around the airline. First up, Public Enterprise Minister Lynne Brown created an ‘interim board’ removing 6 members and appointing 2 new ones.  Chairperson Ms Duduzile Myeni continues in her role. The future of CEO Monwabisi Kalawe is uncertain. Minister Brown has endorsed the 2013 ‘Turnround Strategy’ but is frustrated with the lack of progress due to limited capital and board in-fighting.
 Meanwhile the Board Chairwoman Dudu Myeni suspended CEO Monwabisi Kalawe and then refused to reinstate him as instructed by Public Enterprises Minister, Lynne Brown. The SAA Board and ‘the shareholder’ then appointed Nico Bezuidenhout as interim CEO. Brown subsequently agreed that ‘due process’ will be followed around Kalawe’s continued suspension. She also directed the airline to appoint turnaround specialists to return the company to profitability restating that Government has no money for bail-outs. Cost effective turnaround specialists with a robust proven track record are thin on the ground. In any case they are seldom a real substitute for a management up to its tasks.
 To round it all off, Interim CEO Nico Bezuidenhout has presented a 90-day Recovery Plan focused on withdrawal from loss-making routes and re-negotiation of A340-600 leases. US$118m potential annual saving is mentioned. “It is a challenge”, he said. Do we hear a sigh? 
Finally, the airline has 2 unused frequencies under the Nigeria Air Services Agreement and talks of using them to launch Abuja as a new destination.
Seychelles Airlines proposed, private, B767 carrier has withdrawn its AOC application pending legal clarification on its use of the word ‘Seychelles’.
TAAG (Angola) Government has signed a 10yr Management Concession Agreement for Emirates to run TAAG. Emirates will have 4 seats on the 9 man Board, including the CEO, but no equity holding. Hopefully the Emirates team will be given a free hand to redesign and run the airline. 


Air Côte d’Ivoire lifted ebola-related suspensions and re-started flights to Conakry, Freetown and Monrovia from 26th October. Meanwhile the carrier has received two new Q400s. It has options for 2 more.
 CEO Rene Decurey has stated that “Airbus will renew and expand our fleet” starting in 2015 and building up to 10 aircraft by 2017
Air Taraba (Nigeria) has applied for an AOC . They are not alone. 16 other aspirant new carriers have also made applications.

Ceiba (Eq Guinea) has recovered its B777-200LR which was impounded at Madrid in a legal dispute between an unpaid UK road construction company and the Equatorial Guinea government.

Cronos Airlines (Eq Guinea) is awaiting the delivery of an E135. The company operates domestic services between Malabo and Bata and regionally to Cotonou, Douala and Port Harcourt.

Gambia Bird has indefinitely delayed the re-start of its Gatwick-Freetown route due to the ebola outbreak. Flights between Gatwick, Banjul and Dakar continue.

Niger Airlines (Niger) has received a wet-leased B737-200 from Iraq. It has also a wet-leased F50 from Palestine.  The company operates between Niamey and Ouagadougou, Bamako and Dakar.

Senegal Airlines has taken delivery of a Q400 on a 12 month wet lease to add to its single leased CRJ100. The company also wet-leases a A330-200 short term for Hajj operations.

Starbow (Ghana) was temporarily grounded by the Ghana CAA following an HS146 emergency landing. The operating certificate of the remaining 2 HS146 was withdrawn pending airworthiness checks subsequently completed satisfactorily. Nevertheless these 3 aircraft have been put up for sale.

TACV (Cape Verde) has completed the sale and lease-back of two ATR72s. The Government aims to privatise it in 2015.


Air Algerie The Minister of Transport has announced route expansion plans to including Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia, Chad and Djibouti by 2017. 3 more A330-200s are now on order.  The current fleet totals 44 including 6 A330-200s and 22 B737s, mainly -800s. 

Afriqiyah/Libyan Airlines reports indicate that 13 of their 19 aircraft caught at Tripoli Airport during the July militia fighting will not fly again. That total includes the 3 Afriqiyah A330s. Two new Libyan Airlines A330s remain at Toulouse pending delivery. The Afriqiyah order for 2 new A330s is live. Tripoli terminal is all but destroyed and commercial flights have ceased.
Royal Air Maroc is to launch B787 services to Paris and New York in January/February 2015. 4 B787-8s on order and new routes to Nairobi and Dar es Salaam are being planned.

 The airline intends to renew its fleet and expand from 47 to 105 aircraft by 2025.  An A380 might replace the single B747.  B737Max and A320neos are likely to vie for narrow-body orders with SSJ100 and Emb190s contesting the 100 seat orders. Initial RFPs are expected in 2015. For now the airline has taken delivery of the first of 4 leased EMB190s

Syphax (Tunisia) The current fleet, 2 A319s and a single A330, is to grow to 15 aircraft by 2018 including a second A330 in 2015 plus incremental A320s. New York services are planned for 2015 alongside the existing ones to Montreal .Abidjan, Libreville and Lagos head perceived West African opportunities. 


Air France reinforced its almost unchallengeable superiority on the Paris-Abijan route by replacing B777s with A380 on three of its seven times weekly flights.

Alitalia is hinting at withdrawing its three weekly Lagos/Accra services in mid-2015.

Emirates. Over the next 10 yrs CEO Tim Clark says that the company plans to add 10 new African routes to its existing 22 and to increase frequencies.
Currently the airline is tussling with the South African Department of Transport over its new 4th daily Johannesburg flight.  The Air Service Agreement allows for the addition but the Department has objected. In the meantime Dar es Salaam frequencies have increased from daily to 12 per week.
Hainan Airlines (China) is seeking to launch Nairobi services in 2015. Hainan is also a joint venture partner in Africa World Airlines of Ghana

Korean Air is suspending its Seoul-Nairobi services for six months from month suspension of  from December 2014 to June 2015.

Qatar Airways launched its A320 Doha- Djibouti route on 27th Oct. Asmara is to follow.

TAP The Sierra Leone ebola outbreak has forced a delay to the launch of its thrice weekly flights to Guinea-Bissau.
Turkish Airlines has re-launched its route from Istanbul to Misrata, Libya but cancelled its November start to Luanda. Once again Angola’s extremely difficult and protectionist authorities have made life difficult. A further ten African destinations are however planned within the next year.
British Airways is reducing its daily 777 frequency between London and Nairobi to six a week. It is not clear whether this is a temporary measure in response to a perceived insecurity-driven downturn in the market or whether it is likely to be permanent. Kenya Airways’ response to the market conditions by downsizing from a B777-200 to a 787 looks the better strategic option. The business market in particular does not like blank days.

AFRAA says its Joint Fuel Buying Agreement has saved members US$3m over the past 3 years.

Ghana CAA is considering limiting aircraft age for its airlines following an emergency landing by a Starbow 25yr old HS146.  Nigeria does this at 18 years.

Guinea Bissau’s government has announced its intention to create a new national carrier to resume and stabilize the route to Lisbon.

Kenya’s Mombasa Airport is to be upgraded with a new runway and terminal building. Unlike most current major Kenyan infrastructure projects this is to be done with 85% French funding and 15% World Bank. The financing have been signed. The very optimistic timescale for completion is given as 2 years.

Malawi Blantyre’s Chileka Airport terminal upgrade has ground to a halt awaiting Government payment for work so far completed. The major funding is Chinese major. The 2013 Presidential announcement of a new airport to be built slips to being an aspiration and certainly current traffic levels, and even those achieved before Lilongwe’s “new” airport opened in 1977 do not warrant it.

Malawi’s Govt has yet to find buyers for the ex-Air Malawi ATR42 and 737-300, both 23 yrs old. The newer 737-500 is also stored.

Nigeria will start privatization of federal airports “soon” says the DG, Bureau of Public Enterprises.  The stated aim is to “boost efficiency”.

Uganda’s government has again mentioned re-launching failed Uganda Airlines. This one just bubbles and bubbles. Substantial government funding would be required and unless it were created lean and mean with a minimum level of staff and no wasted expenditure it is unlikely to be more successful than its predecessor.

Regarding traffic rights, the aeronautical authorities are looking to increase 5th freedom rights for a number of foreign carriers to replace the network of Air Uganda which ceased flying in June.

Plus …

From the archives …… 50 years ago, on 18 December 1964, Ghana Airways took delivery of the first of an intended three improved Standard VC10s, the first overseas sales success for the type. With a flight crew of 4 including a navigator and flight engineer, initially one and for 22 months a second served the Accra-London route. This second , delivered in June 1965 was leased to MEA from April 1967 and, along with most of the airline’s fleet, was blown up at Beirut Airport by Israeli forces on 28th December 1968. The third was never delivered and instead diverted to British United Airways. Government-owned Ghana Airways was born out of West African Airways following independence, but rising debts and inefficiencies loomed large once the airline was infected by President Nkrumah’s grandiose and profligate plans pushed it beyond its original appropriate and manageable fleet of 2 long haul Bristol Britannias backed by 2 Viscounts plus DC3s and Herons on domestic and regional services. 8 turboprop Il-18s acquired at Government behest from new friend Russia had little to do other than fly a low demand route to Moscow whose main purpose was to rotate the aircraft through there for maintainance. The company never shook off the resultant accumulated debt. The last straw was when the unwise 2004 operation of an AOC-expired DC10 into the USA resulted in a ban from US airspace and the loss of a block of almost guaranteed revenue.  There was no way back.  The airline was liquidated in June 2005.

John Williams
30 November 2014

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

UK Air Traffic Control Nonsense.

Last Friday, UK's Swanwick centre ,which covers southern England ,experienced a relatively short computer failure.

Fallback procedures were immediately implimented and worked perfectly. Flow rates were restricted and departures from the London area ,particularly Heathrow, were held back. At all times safety was paramount and nobody was in any danger. The position of each and every aircraft was on the screens as normal.  A glitch had occurred and was dealt with a high degree of professionalism, calmness and efficiency and efficiently by people on the ground and in the air. Once the system was back up and running the backlogs were progressed and by the end of the day there was a near normal programme. Even BA ,which tends to reply to disruptions with extensive domestic and short haul cancellations stuck more to "Fly the Plan" than we have seen in recent years. Inevitably for those whose flights were delayed or cancelled it had been a frustrating and in some cases difficult day. Information is always a customer relations problem but usually, apart from explaining the cause, there isn't much to say until a flight has a definite new time or is cancelled. Shouting matches with gate staff or crews on aircraft are entirely unproductive for all concerned. The fact was that the sky had not fallen in, everyone was safe and would be got on their way as soon as possible.

On Saturday morning everything was entirely normal. Any cancellations were mainly due to aircraft and crews being out of position.

One might think that, the causal defect apart, it would have been an occasion for a round of applause. The professionals, controllers, pilots, cabin crews, operations people and others had taken it all in their stride and delivered. Surely a good story?

Unfortunately the media and politicians were on the case from entirely different angles.

"Unacceptable" said Transport Secretary Patrick McLouglin. Why did he say anything at all other than the fact is that those closest to it solved the problems on the day (what could a politician do other than get in the way?)  and he had every confidence that they would now investigate what went wrong and leave it at that. The media were ready with their "Chaos" banner headlines and stories of celebrity chefs texting BA to "get a grip" and things like that. The usual "Heads must roll" theme formed the background and of course calls for independent enquiries.

In a non politicised world the summary would be simply "It happened", "It was dealt with very well" and "Yes, it could happen again but next time the cause will probably be different" and "The people who can and do fix it were on top of it throughout". That lacks the required sensationalism, shock/horror element, celebrity or political angles though.

The one silver lining for the airlines was that it has been ruled that they are not responsible for any compensation for late or cancelled flights on this occasion. Things have at least moved on from the infamous Icelandic volcanic ash saga where totally unjustifiably they had to shell out huge amounts for governmental "No fly" decisions.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

What goes round........

Sometimes there's just nothing new in the sky. You may think there is and then it turns out that it's been done before.

KLM has announced that Amsterdam airport is to have a Junior Jet lounge for young passengers travelling alone. This comes as part of a package labelled Bluey. Amongst other things this also offers those up to the age of 12 a smart "crew" badge, a bag of goodies and special meals to order.

BA's predecessor BOAC first dreamed up the Junior Jet tag in 1956/7 with its Junior Jet Club which was launched an impressive and highly prized winged metal badge. Additionally there was an equally impressive and prized hard covered certificate-earning log book to be signed by the Captain. In fact the log book became so powerful in forcing parential choice of airline that in reality and unintentionally it became in a small way the world's first frequent flyer programme. In due course modernisers morphed the Junior Jet Club into a much more populist but less effective Skyfliers Club,the badge became plastic and over time the whole thing lost its allure.It was even advertised on the back of cereal packets. How exclusive and status building is that?

Now nearly 60 years later KLM ,taking over the Junior Jet title, might be about to re-invent a very (low) cost effective sales device. If they develop it further and get it right they may find it a much more powerful weapon than they had imagined. The light blues should raise a glass to the old foe, the dark blues across the North Sea.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Of Hubs , Narrowbodies and the dangers of being outflanked.

On first sight Kenya Airways termination of its 4 x weekly Nairobi-Delhi B737-800 service does not look significant news.One low demand, low frequency route. Nothing notable surely?

But there is. In fact three things .

First is whether, despite losses caused mainly by concerns about security in Kenya and especially on the coast, which is the destination of most tourists for all or at least part of their holidays and by the cutbacks to and reduced loads on West African services, taking spokes out of a hub network is the right recipe.

Second is the question of just how far will people with any kind of a choice fly on a narrowbody?

A hubbing network may initially be born almost accidentally. People use connections because they are there and usually because there is no direct point to point flight on the same day,- or at all. This can happen even if the airline has only two destinations, simplistically one north and one south. Then if it adds an east and a west it finds it has more passengers on each leg as numbers, albeit initially small ones, flow from each sector to another building a bedrock of revenue which is not affected by events in or the economy of the home base. Add more spokes and the synergy increases until eventually it drives the airline.This spreading of the sources of business frees it from some of the ups and downs of its home base and enables it to become a much bigger airline than the base country would support on its own. Historically KLM was the first airline to espouse this as a policy, something BA and its predecessors did by accident rather than design via the sheer weight of destinations and frequencies which developed out of Heathrow. Emirates, when it originally started with a single leased A300 and B727, was point to point but quickly grew out of that to be, along with its new Gulf colleagues, one of the world's greatest hubbers. Success in the game depends on adding destinations and frequencies as quickly as possible, outrunning both the less nimble competitors and the red ink. Each spoke adds a handful or more passengers to a selection of the others. Turning the clock back and dropping them risks the whole ball unravelling. In Kenya Airways' case getting rid of the Delhi service saves money here and now but it also deprives other spokes of revenue  and so reduces their profitability. That's not fatal and as a one off may be the best thing to do but if further spokes are removed, especially at a time when the home base is down on appeal, the process could have very serious unintended consequences.

The narrow body question may or may not be part of the problem on this sector but it is worth consideration. At the end of the 707/DC8/VC10 era it was considered that narrowbodies were dead for anything much more than a 4 hour trip. Indeed when the A300 first appeared there were fears that on the shorthaul routes it flew any competing narrowbody had little chance. As time went on that turned out not to be the case especially where narrowbodies enabled higher frequencies. As result SAS did not keep their A300s long and as a type they didn't dominate ever Europe. On longer hauls however the story was different and once a wide body appeared the narrowbodies were pretty much dead. Hence the development of smaller widebodies, first the 3 engined DC10 and Lockheed Tristar then the first of the big twins, the  A300/310 and the B767.

Since then there have been some slow inroads by narrowbodies pushing their way back into shorter long haul business. First came 757s used by inclusive tour operators. They have been accepted as a way to get the lowest possible seat prices and flights out of local airports but with Thompsons and others now introducing 787s their days on those trips are probably numbered. Then came their use by the major carriers on UK and Europe hub-avoiding sectors trom secondary airports to the eastern USA and Caribbean. If flying Bristol or Birmingham direct to New York in a 757 was the price to pay for not fighting ones way to and through Heathrow then that was OK. Run a 787 or other wide body against it though and it's game over for the narrowbody.

One wonders if Africa may not also be tiring of long distance narrowbodies too. It's true that trans continental multi stopping 737s can provide links which would otherwise be absent but once each point can stand on its own feet the demand for nonstops to the hub is difficult to resist and it's a question of how long a narrowbody can hold out before a Gulf carrier puts in a widebody whose economics are also helped along by its much greater cargo capacity.We have touched on it before but one can see the attraction of finance people of the lower purchase and operating costs of a stretched 737-800 compared with the 787-8 which does not offer that many more seats.  Putting aside,-and one shouldn't,- that additional cargo potential of the widebody, the first sight lower risk attraction of the narrowbody is obvious. Who though would choose to fly on one if there is someone else offering a widebody alternative,- and there is from a large number of African countries to the Gulf and a plethora of points beyond? That's even before other factors such as flying via glitzy, easy/a pleasure to use airports rather than Addis or Nairobi come into it. It looks as if for some at least, transiting one of these may be preferable to 7 or so hours nonstop in what is essentially a short haul aircraft.

This brings us onto the third point. Essential to a hub's successs is it not being outflanked by:

 a)Being overwhelmed by the network and/or frequencies of a neighbour.


b)Being out- positioned geographically (ie flown over, around, behind, in front of) as has happened to Europe for much of the world east and south by the Gulf hubs who in turn for some destinations have been jumped by Turkish. The Asian carriers have suffered similarly to the Middle East and Europe as the Gulf operators offer a vastly greater number of destinations, In Europe the vast majority of these bypass the national capitals and avoid the much disliked ternational to domestic connections.


c) The vital home hub airport losing out in sheer attractiveness or ease of use to others in comparative attractiveness or ease of use. For example even Heathrow can claw back some domestic business currently flowing out of the UK provinces over Europe, Turkey or the Gulf if the transfers were made easy, hassle-free, seamless ,and reliable.

Or any combination of all three or any two of these.

It looks as if Nairobi based Kenya Airways may be suffering from elements of such outflanking to add to the first two questions, It's not a problem exclusive to them or to Kenya. It's how an airline handles the whole constantly shifting hub game that matters. That's what makes the Delhi announcement possibly significant and interesting way beyond that first impression.