Battle hots up in east Africa's thriving LCC market
Githae Mwaniki spotlights the rise and rise of the east African low-cost carriers.
East Africa’s airline industry is on an upward trajectory with more people being able to afford to fly across the region – thanks in large part to the emergence of budget carriers.
These low-cost carriers (LCCs) have increased the level of connectivity between key cities like Nairobi, Entebbe, Dar es Salaam, Bujumbura and Kigali, improving domestic services in Kenya and Tanzania.
Currently the emerging carriers include Fly540, Jambojet and Skyward Express in Kenya and Fastjet in Tanzania.
Fly540 and it sister airline, East African Safari Air Express (also known as SAX), have stabilised a diverse route network across the region, serving both business and tourists at budget rates.
Jambojet, a subsidiary of Kenya Airways, has, over the past year, grown to serve key destinations within Kenya and recently expanded its fleet to include leased Dash 8 Q-400 turboprops to serve coastal destinations of Ukunda and Malindi.
The airline recently passed the one million-passenger mark, when it transported more than 10,000 passengers in a month to Ukunda – a feat that other airlines operating to the destination have not achieved. Fastjet has completely revamped airline operations in Tanzania. It re-established Dar es Salaam’s airport status by providing connections to key destinations in Tanzania and other southern Africa destinations including Harare, Lusaka and Johannesburg.
Now a new entrant – Skyward Express Airlines – has expanded its cargo operations from the former Skyward International Aviation to include passenger services to Eldoret, Lodwar, Wajir and Mandera, out of its base in Wilson Airport, Nairobi.
Its impact on the Kenyan domestic market even led to the Kenyan Civil Aviation Authority commending it for providing an efficient air service.
The airline was started by pilots Mohamed Abdi and Issack Somow, who serve as chairman and managing director respectively. It has been operating since 2013 and has been gaining market share.
The airline was initially focused on offering passenger charters and cargo flights and ferrying khat from Nairobi to Somalia, using a fleet of Fokker 50s.
A Fokker 100 jet was also used on the Nairobi-Mogadishu route with the former Skyward International operation. However, after the corporate reorganisation that led to Skyward Express being created, the company acquired a set of Bombardier Dash 8 Q-300s. The 50-seaters are now the primary aircraft serving the Wilson-Eldoret-Lodwar route.
The airline’s performance has had a major impact. The ticket price is significantly lower at $90 and $170 for a return ticket to Eldoret and Lodwar respectively. Previously, the Lodwar route had been underserved, with only Safarilink offering daily flights at a cost of $320 for a return flight.
The Skyward Express service has now inspired other airlines, with Fly540 adding the route to its destination network.
Skyward Express has been serving a wide range of clientele, including investors to the oil-rich Lodwar region, business executives, relief personnel and regular travellers visiting friends and relatives.
The airline plans to start serving the coastal destination of Mombasa from Wilson Airport before the end of the year, putting it in direct competition with Kenya Airways, which serves Mombasa from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
The Skyward Express fleet now features eight aircraft, including Bombardier Dash 8-Q300s, Fokker 50s and the Fokker 100. The planned operation to Mombasa will mean it is competing directly not only with Kenya Airways, but also with Jambojet and Fly540/East African Safari Air Express (SAX) for a share of the most popular domestic pairing in Kenya.
The airline is implementing an expansion plan to include other domestic destinations including Lamu, Kitale, Ukunda and Kisumu, with other regional destinations like Zanzibar, Bujumbura, Addis Ababa, Comoros and Entebbe to be included to form a regional network.
It recently invested $24 million, sourced from a consortium of Kenyan lenders, to add an additional three aircraft to its fleet. The set of Dash 8 Q-300s were sourced from operators in the US and Europe.
The airline also plans to acquire an additional Bombardier Dash 8-Q300 with options for a Dash 8-Q400.