What’s in the skies for East Africans?

There’s an apparent scramble for the skies as East African Community member states rush into the airline business by investing in respective national carriers, this, in spite of the glaring global industry challenges.

What do you make of that? Will the cost of flying go down and have more of the average regional traveler take to the skies, and a break from the rugged trips by the road that are often characterized by life threatening risks? Not that air is risk-free, but it’s still ranked safest.

Considering that this rush to the skies is happening at a time when relations within our community are not in the best of shapes, a lot of doubt has been expressed by ordinary East Africans; but I don’t want to go that way. I prefer to focus on the positive possibilities and what is in it for East Africans.

For instance, I am thankful to Kenya and Rwanda whose resilience in the airline business appears to have inspired other countries to fly again. That is a good thing to laud.

Will this lead to competition within the community? Well, I have always looked at competition from a customer’s perspective. If this will lead to improved services as well as ultimate drop in flight fares, then that kind of competition is certainly positive and welcome to East Africans/travelers.

For instance, ever since RwandAir became a player, its excellent services have won over the hearts of travelers including Kenyans and Tanzanians, often choosing it over their own countries’ airlines; this means, people will choose options that offer quality and reliability over nationality considerations.

Also, it is possible that when the current friction within the East African Community finally wanes, our leaders are likely to revisit the stalled conversation regarding the revival of the defunct East African Airways  which was unveiled on January 1, 1946 and folded in 1977.

Ironically, the regional carrier’s website remains active, thanks to a one David, who regularly posts updates related to its history and lives of its former employees. This past fortnight, two of its former employees, Peter Marzetti and Nick Von Berg died, according to a post on the site.

East African Airways is most remembered for its many intra-regional destinations beyond capital cities; in fact, most of its over 100 destinations were within Africa with just a handful to Europe; all this achieved with less than fifteen aircrafts including three Boeings.

With four of East Africa’s member states having active airlines and fleets of modern aircraft, and access to dozens of important destinations within and beyond Africa, the opportunities to revive the regional carrier are much higher today;in fact political will appears to be the only missing link.

But even though we fail to revive the regional airline, ordinary East Africans still have something to celebrate in these ongoing developments from country-level perspective. For instance, Rwandans have benefited from direct and indirect opportunities on account of RwandAir’s growth over the last decade.

Its latest route to Kinshasa has for instance excited both Rwandan and Congolese travelers with analysts predicting a bilateral opportunity boom especially with the new political goodwill under President Felix Tshisekedi. What we perhaps needis to enable cargo transport to aid more bilateral trade in goods.

RwandAir’s growth has also, especially in the last ten years since 2009, strongly boosted Rwanda’s brand visibility in international travel news which has directly impacted on the country’s efforts to attract tourists such as the ongoing Visit Rwanda campaign.

In fact, competition within the region should be the least of RwandAir’s problems because the tight regulatory safety and quality standards will weed out those that don’t measure up.

Over the last decade, RwandAir has worked hard to set a clean flight record, passing, in 2016, the all-importantInternational Air Transport Association’s Safety Audit for Ground Operations which boosted its standing as a reliable airline. That coupled with great customer service, has helped build its current reputation as the preferred choice for frequent travelers.

The challenge for RwandAir, if any, moving forward, is to sustain its enviable safety and customer handling record; these two are the most important assets in surviving the emerging competition. For emerging competitors, those two aspects will also determine how long they stay in the skies.

Also, it is important to keep in mind, the government of Rwanda’s original strategic objectives to invest in RwandAir,top of which was and still is, to make Rwanda more accessible to international and continental visitors coming here for either tourism or business purposes.

Therefore, while making profits for RwandAir is certainly important, its strategic role of being an ‘economic opportunity enabler’ ismore important.

For instance, RwandAir has played a crucial role in the early success of the government’s MICE-strategy, in the process, helping position Rwanda as an ideal conference hub on the African continent; with the new airport construction on track, we can expect more.

In 2015, while attending the Kenya-Rwanda business forum, President Paul Kagame was asked to justify his government’s unwavering support to RwandAir,in-spite of its loss making status.

“If you compare the so-called ‘loss’ and how much money local businesses have made, the benefits are significant, and I am yet to be proven wrong,” Kagame said amidst applause from the audience.

Email: kenagutamba@gmail.com

The views expressed in this article  are of the author.

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