This month sees the official handover from former CEO Dr Titus Naikuni to Kenya Airways’ former Chief Operating Officer Mbuvi Ngunze. msafiri went to meet him to find out more about the new man in charge
How has your journey been at Kenya Airways up to this new appointment as the CEO?
It’s been an exciting three years. Definitely a lot of learning involved. Clearly the aviation industry is more regulated than the industry I was used to, but at the end of the day it’s a business, and when coming in from outside you need to run the business within its set framework.
What are you most looking forward to in your new appointment?
Interesting question. I would position it mostly towards what opportunities there are for Kenya Airways. If I look at it, we are in a major re-equipping exercise with brand new aircraft and, from a product standpoint, we have done very well in positioning ourselves. If I look at airport infrastructure, we have positioned ourselves well as a hub, with good product connectivity, with the opening of new terminals. Thirdly, internally, we are looking forward to refocusing our efforts on the customer standpoint and guest journey, and seeing how to step it up.
Do you intend to change the structure of the company?
I can’t talk about strategy when I’m not sitting in the seat (at the time of going to press) and I don’t think it’s fair for me to say what I would change or not change – the context of the business will determine what is the best move. Project Mawingu, for example, was previously conceived by the board within a certain context; we will continue to evaluate that context with the board and advise accordingly.
What do the next ten years hold for the aviation industry?
If I look at it from the aircraft perspective, we have seen significant modernisation in terms of equipment. You can see this just by looking at the evolution with the 787s and the B-50 – so there will be more efficiency.
The competitive landscape has significantly changed, and I expect it to continue changing. That is probably driven by the demographics from a global perspective – if you look at the forward forecast from IATA, most of the growth will be in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, with Asia probably having the biggest growth. Africa is growing but from a low base, I expect a significant forecast into a mature market, and a lot into Asia.
Which areas of your operation would you want to strengthen?
I would not say ‘strengthen’ exactly, but I would say make a personal focus. Clearly we continue to be driven by the fact that safety is our licence to operate, so for me that’s a clear picture.
I’d say for my day-to-day perspective, that’s commercial – making sure that we take the opportunity in the market to sell and enabling our team to penetrate the market and drive value. Secondly, from a financial viewpoint, we are in a turbulent market – you just need to look at the ups and downs in the industry. One has to keep a tight focus on the airline considering we are in a period of expansion and we need to make sure we are responsible in this regard.
What have been your best and worst moments as COO?
Good moments are there every day – we have a committed team of players in operations. Think about it, every day we are trying to deliver promises to our guests.
Our guests measure us by on-time performance; I have seen a strong progression in on-time performance over the last three years – sometimes it’s been up and down, but largely we have maintained progress. The engagement I see in staff to deliver promises and how they embrace positive change on the ground has been inspiring.
The worst moment must definitely have been the fire that razed JKIA last year. It tested our business, but out of the ashes of the fire there was a blessing in disguise because it galvanised us. It tested our systems and we reacted positively. It also positioned our relationships with the government and the Kenya Airports Authority – there is now a much clearer understanding of the importance of infrastructure.
What’s your tribute to the outgoing CEO, Titus Naikuni?
Most certainly Titus has done a phenomenal job. I knew him even before he joined KQ and always admired his strength of resolve and character. I know that he took on KQ during hard times and he did a good job of growing this company. You only need to look at our aircraft numbers and the destinations they fly to. As he retires, let him not think that he will be sitting pretty! There will be many opportunities to reach out to him for advice so that the knowledge he has learnt here doesn’t go to waste.
Do you have any messages for the staff?
I’m excited to be taking over at a phenomenal time, what with our new equipment, airport infrastructure and the possibilities in the things we are working on together. So I take this position with humility, but I also say to our staff that these are times for us to embrace change and drive this business in an ever-changing, competitive environment together. We can build a truly exciting and rewarding brand together.