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The agony of flying in Africa


The agony of flying in Africa

Delayed, cancelled, overbooked and overpriced flights are the new normal!

Kenya Airways irritates customer

Kenya Airways irritates customer

“Africa rising”is a beautiful slogan. It was coined in December 2011 by The Economistto start a narrative that Africa was destined to follow in the footsteps of Asia, and generate rapid growth, raise household incomes, leading to emergence of middle class.

This narrative generated optimism in a continent that has almost always been presented using five metaphors; poverty, ignorance, disease, bad governments and wars.

Those who have interacted with me know I am a realist.I enjoy saying things as they are. Today, I am going to disappoint a few people – the eternal optimists about Africa. The believers in “Africa rising” narrative.Please stop sloganeering and talk about the real issues that are holding Africa back.

We need to understand why we Africans have failed to master the science of delivery. Why is Africa (or larger parts of Africa – to give a benefit of doubt to a few exceptions) synonymous with very high levels of inefficiency in service delivery?

In particular, why don’t we show signs of improvement? To borrow DambisaMoyo’s words,what renders Africa more incapable of joining the rest of the world in the 21st Century?

Terrible service

Today I will not write a lot of economics and its failure on our continent. I will write about commonsense. Regular travelers in the region will understand better where I am coming from.

On several occasions,whenever I travel in Africa I silently agonise about the awful service I receive from several airlines that dominate the region’s airspace. I will also comment about the terrible service offered by airports in Africa.

It is in Africa where you book and pay for a ticket for a flight that is a month away, only to reachthe checkin point and the checkin agent tells you, with a straight face, “We are unable to check you in because the flight was over-booked. We shall put on you on the next available flight (often 5 hours away).”

After waiting for hours, in an airport without internet(WiFi) and where food and drinks are typically sold by a cafeteria whose monopoly power encouraged it to specialise in hiring the worst cooks on earth, you are checked in.

Then another shocker; airlines offer passengers ‘free boarding’passes for connecting flights without putting into consideration oncoming passengers that hold boarding passes indicating seats that have already been taken.

You enter the plane and your seat has already been taken! You seek to talk to the air hostess and she says, “Sorry, it seems the flight was overbooked.” Meaning? You get off the plane!!

Pilots rely on other aircrafts for weather updates

You go back to the uncomfortable seats in the gate and wait for another three hours. Finally, they put you on a plane and shortly after takeoff time, the flight captain announces how the mandatory paperwork (showing the weight and balance of the plane) has delayed because of system failure. It has to be prepared manually.

After a delay of thirty minutes, the pilot gets the plane in air.Then, they serve you expired food causing food poisoning. The horrible sandwiches are served by uncharacteristically (for aviation) visibly unhappy hostesses.

As you eat the terribly tasting sandwiches, your mind keeps thinking about the paperwork that was manually prepared. “Did they put the plane on a weighing scale?” it asks, literally thinking about safety.

Although there have been improvements, aviation infrastructure in Africa is thousands of miles away from what travellers elsewhere experience. A pilot at one of Europe’s top airlines recently blogged and narrated the ordeal they go through flying in Africa. “We often rely on other aircrafts in range to relay messages,” he wrote.

Lost baggage

Well, on arrival you endure the agony of the long queues at immigration points that are managed in un orderly manner; allowing individuals to overlap them

Then learn that your luggage was not put on the plane. You realise this after spending hours focusing your eyes on the baggage carousel hoping that one of the bags that resembles yours is actually yours.

Reality hits you when you remain alone at the belt and none of the three bags rotating around is yours. You seek help from the baggage reclaim office at one of the corners in the airport and the occupant casually tells you, “That’s the new normal at Kenya Airways. I really pity some of you who are still flying KQ.”

Whatever I have written here is not a movie script or satire. This is my own story, a story I have experienced on several occasions at the hands of African airlines, particularly Kenya Airways, known by its short code KQ.

I experienced this ordeal this week when I travelled to Arusha via Nairobi to present a paper titled, “Countering the Illusion of Big Solutions: How to Build an Economy from Below in East Africa in Hindsight of Current Global Context.”KQ could be one of the illusions we were discussing.

10 hours for a 1 hour journey!

It took me through a similar experience in April when I went to Mombasa, on the invitation of my friends the accountants, to present to them “The Changing Economic Landscape in Eastern Africa as an Emerging Frontier.”

It took me 9 hours to fly from Entebbe to Mombasa. At Entebbe we started our flights with a friend, a Professor, who was heading to Europe. He arrived before I got to Mombasa!

In September 2016, KQ made me endure 11 hours to travel from Entebbe to Dar es Salaam again via Nairobi. What is so painful is that they do this in spite of the ridiculously high rates they charge.

On average, it takes 8 to 10 hours to fly a journey that normally should take an hour or so. Everyone who travels knows there are delayed, cancelled, overbooked, and overpriced flights everywhere in the world. But at KQ it is the new normal.

At KQ workers behave as if they’re doing passengers a favour. They talk to passengers in a tone and demeanor that is more suitable in forestry or mining industry than aviation.

Disinterested supervisors

For the 8 hours I stayed in JKIA no supervisor or manager was available or willing to speak to several frustrated passengers. Many of the passengers were unable to connect their flights to Johannesburg, Brussels, Dubai, Istanbul, and Entebbe.

Only one lady, one Sheila Choge, probably deserves her job at KQ. She tried to help us by making frantic calls to disinterested supervisors and managers, many of whom were reportedly outside the airport – perhaps in Nairobi enjoying beer and nyamachoma.

KQ has been in the news for its huge losses and other struggles. It had the opportunity to become one of the region’s and global giants. It has dominated the East African routes over the years.

Annually, Ugandans give KQ about $8.5 million (Ushs. 30 billion). In return KQ gives us awful service characterised by delayed/cancelled flights, long hours of waiting at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi and other terribly facilitated airports.

That dominance is about to end. Personally, I have always used economics to justifiably argue against the revival of Uganda Airlines. As I sat in JKIA for 8 hours witnessing the level of inefficacy and no-care attitude exhibited in an industry that demands X-efficiency, I questioned my mind, “Can Uganda Airlines be worse than KQ? Is there any low that an airline can go?”

What others say

If KQ can stay in the market with all its inefficiencies, what will stop Uganda Airlines?I even started thinking funny things. May be the only low it can exhibit is if a pilot remembers they didn’t fuel the plane when its already airborne; akin to what matatu/taxi drivers do in Kampala!

When I tweeted about my experience with KQ, tens of my tweeps –most them ironically Kenyans — wondered what I was doing flying KQ.

A Kenyan friend tweeted, “My brother I am sorry for your travails… let me hasten to warn you to avoid KQ’s evil younger ‘brother’ Jambojet [a low cost subsidiary of KQ]. You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

“I met a former Kenyan airline official, now working with another airline, who told me he never flies KQ nor do his colleagues,” another tweet reads. Another one says, “Why do you fly KQ? You need a full therapy session everytime and even that does not help because you will be scarred for life!”

Yet this experience is not limited to KQ. Most airlines in Africa are not any different. Their flights are infrequent, expensive, and circuitous and their service is horrible. I think this should resurrect the arguments against the stubborn nationalism that makes Africans think they can fly planes when they cannot maintain clean pit latrines or grow enough potatoes.

Costly show of patriotism

We are seeking to assert ourselves by creating national airlines.This costly show of patriotism will continue to make Africa weaker, national economies will continue to experience self-inflicted financial and economic ruin.

At the risk of messing with regional diplomacy and individual emotions, I hazard the idea that as East Africa we will be better off pooling our national strengths together and revive the East African Airlines with each country specialising where they have strength

May be the Kenyans should pilot the planes, Ugandans manage the cabin crew (given our ever smiling faces and hospitality), Rwanda does the scheduling and time management (given their relatively higher level of discipline), and Tanzania manage the accounts and airport security.

This will also enable the region to invest in infrastructure(build large airports with sufficient aircraft maintenance facilities), train the personnel,and eliminate the protectionist legal barriers and high fees and taxes that make flying in the region circuitous and expensive. Most importantly it will enable us compete with global aviation giants.




Ramathan Ggoobi is Policy Analyst, and Researcher. He lecturers economics at Makerere University Business School (MUBS) and has co-authored several studies on Uganda's economy. For the past ten years, he has published a weekly column 'Are You Listening Mr. President' in The Sunrise Newspaper, Uganda's Leading Weekly

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