How Kenya Airways can tap tech to fly out of turbulence


Kenya Airways planes at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Over the next 20 years, global air passenger traffic is forecasted to double, while airport capacity will only grow by 5 per cent, calling for a new approach to air travel business models.

The future of air transport is one expected to rely heavily on new technologies such as artificial intelligence, biometrics and blockchain to deliver more efficient operations and seamless passenger travels.

Adoption of innovative technologies is also crucial not just for the revival of airlines flying through stormy economic path such as Kenya Airways, but for their survival going forward in the face of cutthroat competition.

The use of technology across all touch points will be necessary for the industry to accommodate more passengers, baggage and aircraft, as well as increased regulations and passenger expectations while addressing security threats.

Greater collaboration between airports, airlines, world governments and service providers will be critical for the industry to fully embrace technology to achieve better global customer experiences.

“Technologies such as machine learning and deep learning will further enrich the value of the data being generated by the industry. Presently, the smart use of data allows airports and airlines to better embrace disruption and proactively respond to an event before it happens,” says Mr Maneesh Jaikrishna, Indian Subcontinent, Dubai, Eastern and Southern Africa vice president at Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques (SITA).

The Geneva-based multinational company provides IT and telecommunication services to the air transport industry across the globe, with presence in 24 African countries.

The company is now eyeing Nairobi with its next wave of data innovation, having worked with Changi airport in Singapore, which had limited visibility on arrivals (30-60 minutes before touchdown) that was caused by rapid weather changes.

Using deep learning and an innovative form of AI, SITA provided an accurate prediction within 15 minutes of the flight arrival for around 80 percent of flights, six hours before touchdown.

“That allowed the airport to anticipate delays and respond accordingly, limiting the impact on passenger convenience. If you know an aircraft is delayed and passengers will miss their connecting flight, you can rebook them on a new flight even before they arrive,” Mr Jaikrishna told Digital.

Kenya is one of the fastest growing domestic air transport markets in Africa, registering annual air passenger traffic growth of 22.5 percent in 2018 while international passenger traffic grew by 13.1 percent in 2018.

As per the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority, the total number of passengers handled increased by 16.8 percent from 10.1 million in 2017 to 11.8 million in 2018. Moreover, Nairobi is home to one of the busiest airports on the continent and Kenya Airways (KQ) despite its recent trend of losses, is one of the largest airlines in Africa.

Last year was marked by some positive milestones for the Kenyan aviation industry starting with the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) being positioned as a regional aviation hub with the launch of a direct route between Nairobi and New York as well as the expansion of domestic and regional routes.

There are complexities such as the proposal to form a Kenya Aviation Holding Company to operate all airline businesses, but the national carrier must look into new ways to better manage their operations while ensuring passenger experience is smooth. Ensuring that the airline, JKIA and ground handlers work closer together will be of critical importance.

“This is where data plays a vitally important role. The sharing of data between airlines, airports, ground crew and allied stakeholders is fundamental to the smooth operation of any air transport industry.

“SITA shares and bridges 60 percent of the air transport industry’s operational data, handling 3.9 billion business and mission-critical messages each year across baggage, passenger movements and airline data,” says Mr Jaikrishna.

By collating and analysing a range of data streams using flight information, baggage and wait-time, SITA together with clients such as Swissport promise to develop a standard format to securely share common data with the relevant stakeholders, while enriching these data streams to provide predictive analytics.

Such data will help enhance cross-company services such as staff planning based on real-time data, and measures to prevent delays, or door-to-door baggage services.

“SITA is well placed to support the industry in Kenya with a long history of engagement with the air transport community. In 2009, Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) signed up with SITA for a complete upgrade of passenger processing at the country’s two international gateways,” says Mr Jaikrishna.

“The move to self service and the adoption of SITA’s common-use technologies allowed airports to maximise the capacity at the airports and manage peak travel hours smoothly thus providing the best service for both the airlines and passengers using these airports.”

SITA says it has implemented a large-scale networking infrastructure project with Kenya Airways.

Kenya now leverages SITA’s latest communication technology to drive new efficiencies in the management of its route network while ensuring the best passenger experience across the airline’s global footprint.

If this is actualised at KQ, it could improve the national carrier’s global ranking which fell five places in the June 2019 rating of airlines to position 90, trailing its regional rival Ethiopian Airlines (44) and South African Airways (46) that ranked among the top 50 carriers, according to Skytrax World Airline Awards.

Since then, KQ started flying to Rome, Italy and Switzerland in efforts to widen its global network. There will also be another boost as Air India plans to resume direct flights between Mumbai and Nairobi on September 27.

However, KQ posted a Sh7.55 billion loss in the year to December 2018, while grappling with a Sh220 billion debt and seeks a government bailout to compete favourably with foreign airlines flying into Nairobi.

“Our only desire is to emulate the success of our competitors, Ethiopian Airlines, Emirates and Qatar Airways which are all strongly protected by their governments,” KQ CEO Sebastian Mikosz said.

Could technology be the only credible and sustainable remedy to raise the once famed ‘pride of Africa’ back to its feet and give global airlines a run for their money?

“From when SITA took its first steps to create the world’s largest data network in 1949 to today’s software-defined networks (SDN) and tech-savvy passengers, given the chance we would transform Kenya Airways to deliver a more efficient industry and a better passenger experience with easy travel every step of the way. This eventually boosts revenues.”

SITA’s main African hubs are located in Johannesburg and Cairo with smaller satellite offices in Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and Angola.

SITA has been at the heart of the air transport industry since 1949. This year SITA celebrated its 70th anniversary.

“Today, SITA does business with nearly every airline and airport in the world. It also provides border management solutions to more than 40 governments. In total, 95 percent of all international destinations and over 13,500 industry sites are connected by SITA’s network,” says Mr Jaikrishna.