Africa, particularly Eastern Africa, is slowly, painfully but determinedly inching its way towards fully fledged low-cost carriers. While fastjet has had to fight unexpected battles, newcomer Jambojet has been making cautious but steady advances. Martin Rivers reports from Nairobi.
Media reports about Africa’s fledgling low-cost carrier (LCC) market tend to be dominated by the trials and tribulations of fastjet, the Tanzanian airline that began operations in November 2012 with the backing of EasyJet’s founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou.
After promising nothing short of a European-style low-cost revolution in Africa, fastjet’s slow progress has disappointed many. The London-headquartered company still deploys just three aircraft – one fifth of the fleet size it planned for 2014 – and cross-border expansion is proving troublesome.
Though international routes are finally being added, its share price has tanked 96% since launch as the business comes under intense regulatory pressure.
Yet across Tanzania’s northern border with Kenya, another African LCC is quietly gaining traction. Jambojet, a wholly owned subsidiary of flag carrier Kenya Airways, began flying from Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in April. The venture is headed by former KLM executive Willem Hondius, who, mindful of the problems that fastjet has encountered, is decidedly cautious when assessing progress to date.
“If you look at how things are developing, it’s quite promising so far,” the chief executive tells African Business.
“The load factor [a measure of seat occupancy] is 60%-plus, which is not too bad for the first couple of months. On the routes we operate, the market has grown by about 50% year on year, which is also quite promising. Our on-time performance is about 80%, and we are aiming for even higher. So things are going reasonably well.”
Jambojet launched operations with three domestic routes, connecting Kenya’s capital to Mombasa in the south (38 weekly flights), Kisumu in the west (14), and Eldoret, also in the west (10). Frequencies on the Mombasa route have since dropped to 29 per week, while the other two cities are now served 13 times each.
Hondius explains that the three routes account for 85% of domestic air traffic in Kenya, guaranteeing buoyant demand while the brand is introduced to customers. Jambojet has now replaced Kenya Airways on the Nairobi-Eldoret route, and the flag carrier has scaled back its presence on the other two routes. By handing over traffic to its low-cost subsidiary, Kenya Airways can reduce losses in the domestic market while also catalysing demand among a new breed of cost-conscious travellers.
“You see that a lot of our customers, about 30%, have never flown before,” Hondius notes. “These are the people we are aiming at – people who normally travel by ground transport, but are now able to fly instead. They are realising that it is not much more expensive than going by bus, but it is much more convenient and also much safer.”
The government’s now-rescinded ban on night-time bus journeys underscored the dangers of ground transport in the country. According to the World Health Organisation, between 3,000 and 13,000 Kenyans lose their lives in road traffic accidents every year, with sub-standard safety measures on public transportation vehicles accounting for a significant proportion of deaths.