‘Project Mawingu’ strategists had their heads in the clouds

In 2011, Kenya Airways launched, with much fanfare, Project Mawingu (Kiswahili for clouds) — a statement of intent to take on its aviation rivals.

Core to the 10-year strategy was positioning Nairobi as a hub for flights from the East, notably from India and China, to drop off passengers from where the airline and its Sky Alliance partners like KLM and Air France would pick up fares to the rest of Africa and Europe.

While regionally this appeared targeted at Ethiopian Airlines, a Oneworld member, and its Addis Ababa hub, its impact was also likely to occupy the strategists for Gulf carriers and their operating bases in the United Arab Emirates.

It is under this cloud that many of the recent moves by Kenya Airways can be put into context amid lingering questions on prudence and what-ifs arising from the apparent head-on collision between the airline’s strategies and hostile market forces.

“In a fast growing sector and when a company is doing well, the management can miss out on the nodes for strategy and end up misreading market conditions,” said an investment banker who has aised the airline and did not wish to be named.

Indeed, many analysts believe Kenya Airways may have missed the bus at some point over the past five years, first by giving Ethiopian Airlines a two-year lead time in bringing in Dreamliners, and, second, by getting its hedging instruments against fuel and forex movements wrong on occasion.

While Project Mawingu was supposed to move the carrier from a crisis manager to a keen competitor, it flew into turbulence with the Kenya Defence Forces launch of an offensive against Al Shabaab in Somalia.

Fears of retaliatory attacks by the terror group and uncertainties over elections in its key Africa markets, including Kenya in 2013, weakened demand from Europe — a continent that had been struggling to push passengers since the 2007 economic crisis.

Terrorist attacks on the Westgate Mall in 2013 and Garissa University College earlier this year prompted travel aisories from Europe and America that have since been lifted.

In response, KQ cut capacity to Europe and suspended flights to Muscat, Jeddah and N’Djamena. The exit from unprofitable routes to focus on Africa and Asia, appeared to be paying dividends before the Ebola crisis forced the carrier to withdraw from its West African routes, and it did not resume until the end of the 20142015 financial year.

Constrained demand from passengers in the face of a runaway wage bill did not help matters, with personnel expenses more than doubling from $70 million in 2007 to $157 million in 2011 under union pressure.

The airline’s move to terminate the contracts of 578 workers in the hope of saving $10 million a year ended up being challenged in the courts, which ordered the staff to be reinstated.

The route rationalisation appeared to limit the realisation of one of Mawingu’s goals — three new destinations each year —leaving it to seek code share agreements with smaller airlines on the continent like RwandAir, Air Mozambique, Air Botswana, Air Malawi and TAAG Angola Airlines.

The code shares appeared informed by its alliance partners flying into these destinations, from where Kenya Airways would pick up onward traffic to Nairobi, the Middle and Far East. Another attraction in these partnerships was that they would allow KQ to compete in Southern Africa with South Africa Airways, a Star Alliance member.

The ability to compet was limited by most passengers preferring to rely on the first-leg carriers for onward travel because of Kenya’s Airways higher fares as a premium carrier.

That put plans by Kenya Airways to fly to every African City by the end of last year using modern low-cost aircraft at stake a fleet modernisation plan that many see at the heart of the airlines towards insolvency.

“The Dreamliners are costly to maintain when business is low and should be sold and leased back,” investment banker Amish Gupta said.

The airline has taken delivery of the three Boeing 787 aircraft but not without controversy. It started with the registration of special purpose vehicles, entities to co-own the aircraft with financiers, which critics feared might have been used to inflate the price of the aeroplanes.

With business low after the deliveries, the aircraft has not been deployed to full capacity jettisoning the airline’s revenue projections, pushing it closer to insolvency and desirous of a bailout.

A $200 million loan from the Africa Export Import Bank is expected to largely finance operations, leaving question marks about what would be the best financing option to keep the airline afloat.

With the government and KLM appearing not keen to pump in more money after the $250 million rights issue in 2012, Kenya Airways could become the latest in a long line of corporations privatised by the government — Mumias Sugar Company and Uchumi Supermakets are recent examples.