Profiles

Fly748 boss on three decades of steering airlines

mwangi

748 Air Services managing director Moses Mwangi during the interview at his Nairobi home on March 1, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Summary

  • In another life, this man would probably be a botanist. It helps that Moses grew up in the eastern fringes of Aberdare Forest.
  • Nine years ago, he joined Fly748 when the airline had only five planes. He would go on a lavish collection of jets, pushing the number to the current 16. He is going for more.
  • His role involves extensive travel across the continent to oversee the airline’s nearly 400 employees. 

Moses Mwangi, the managing director of Fly748, has at his home what could only be called a super garden. So green and dense it is, that it evokes the sensation of a tropical rainforest —it is hard to imagine it was planted. In truth, though, this is a 20-year project that has cost patience, consistency and lots of money.

In another life, this man would probably be a botanist. It helps that Moses grew up in the eastern fringes of Aberdare Forest.

“My dad knew a great deal about trees. He would take me for walks in the forest and teach me about different species. But I have also learnt about many of them on my own,” he says as we settle down for the interview.

I am here to talk about the aviation industry where he has dedicated 26 years of his life in a career spanning 40 years. He believes in outdoing himself. He started his career as a brewer for the now-defunct Umoja Breweries before serving as managing director at Car & General at 32. 

Nine years ago, he joined Fly748 when the airline had only five planes. He would go on a lavish collection of jets, pushing the number to the current 16. He is going for more.
“We are doing well in humanitarian aviation. Now I want to establish the business as a leader in the area of scheduled flights.”

His role involves extensive travel across the continent to oversee the airline’s nearly 400 employees. 

He starts his day at 4 am on the treadmill for 45 minutes or on the road for nine kilometres for five days every week. By 6.30 am, he is in the office in time for his first engagement at 7 am of the day: meeting the director of flight operations, heads of safety and quality and engineers at the airline.

“In aviation, you should have identified and resolved your problems and figured out your day by 10am,” he says.

Fuel is the biggest expense for most airlines. A slight increase eats into the often delicate profit margins “because you can’t pass this cost on to passengers.”

“Three years ago, fuel was a non-issue. The price had collapsed with a barrel going for $36 (Sh4,100). Today, it is selling for $96 (Sh10,800). With the Russia-Ukraine conflict, it might go up to $120 (Sh13,500).”

For someone with a balance sheet to maintain, does this scare him? Moses leans forward, his countenance contemplative.

“Oil is a commodity like any other. In the last 20 years, the price curve has been going up and down. The worst it got was $28 on the lower side and $150 on the higher side, but never lower or higher. That said, the world has more oil than it needs,” he says.

Moses, however, acknowledges that major fuel consumers such as airlines will feel the pinch in the short-term “even though the equation will balance out in about seven months.”

In terms of the industry’s development, he notes that Kenya is second only to South Africa in Africa.

“Most countries lack the capacity that we have. We have more qualified professionals than any African country. Some of them work in major airlines globally.”

He insists that this is mostly because of the investments made by the private sector despite the tough operating environment. He specifically laments the punitive taxation of aircraft parts, 80 percent of which are imported from North America.

“You’re charged railway levy, IDL and an exemption fee for each part that comes into the country. This tax structure has made it difficult for the industry to thrive.”

For many years, Nairobi has been the aviation hub of the region. Is that title still intact? Moses does not think so. He notes that failure to invest in infrastructure allowed Ethiopia, for instance, to knock Kenya off this perch.

“Even with its high altitude, Bole Airport is in operation for 24 hours. JKIA still has its ancient runway while Bole has two. When an aircraft breaks down on the runway, you all incoming flights have to be diverted to other regional airports.’’

JKIA, he says, does not have enough terminals, and consequently, many airlines prefer to move their passengers to Ethiopia before distributing them to other regional destinations.

Meanwhile, Rwanda is constructing a new airport in Bugesera that will have two runways. “The facility will be connected to Kigali by a high-speed train. Unless we act urgently, all our business will be gone in a matter of years.”

I am curious to know what motivates him at this stage of his life.

“This company has been around for 26 years. We only started scheduled flights seven months ago. I want to conquer this area. It is what keeps me awake at night.”

It is difficult to skirt the subject of the debt burden of Kenya Airways and the need for constant government bailouts.

Moses admits that most airlines in Kenya are struggling “although the problems at KQ are deep-seated despite being exempted from most taxes that private airlines pay. This is unfair because our taxes are used to bail it out.”

Can the airline be salvaged? He sidesteps the question, saying instead that a national airline is an engine of a country’s economy. “Fly Emirates has promoted the economy of Dubai the same way Singapore Airlines has boosted Singapore’s economy.”

For nearly five years, he served as the chief financial officer at Rwandair when the airline was just starting.

“I had been in negotiations to buy aircrafts before, but I had never dealt with large companies such as Airbus and Boeing. I had never bought new jets and configured them from scratch.”

He would also negotiate with leading banks for financing and the government for compliance “and sovereign guarantees.”

What type of negotiator is he? “I fight my corner. You have to research and know what you are getting into. When buying an aircraft, you need to know the status of the engine and the number of cycles remaining. The fuselage is what people see. What does it look like? You just do not go for the cheapest.”

When I introduce the touchy subject of aviation workers’ welfare, Moses says while unions play an important role within the ecosystem, some of them are too powerful for airlines. How so? “The management of most airlines cannot control their pilots, for instance. The professionals are unionised. When you try to control them, they will simply ground the aircraft.”

Forty years later, does it get any easier? “Some things become obvious. You’re able to see what others in the team cannot see.” Any struggles? Moses straightens his back, exhaling.

“Yes, there are a few struggles, mainly in integrating new hires into the company’s culture. Sometimes it takes a lot of time to train people. You can be the best in your area, but without teamwork, you cannot survive in aviation. If you do not have your personnel right and properly motivated, you are going nowhere.”

His career has not been without incidents, but two stand out. The company’s aircrafts were shot at by rebels in DRC and again in Sudan.

“One was flying low during a mission 25 years ago in what is today South Sudan when our plane was shot at. We lost our first officer through a gunshot.”

Lease of aircraft is common practice in the aviation industry. But it is also a pit for most airlines’ money. Moses says it all boils down to how lease contracts are negotiated. Still, some airlines choose to buy their own planes.

“Aircraft prices dropped by more than 50 percent during and post-pandemic. We are taking advantage of the low prices now to buy more aircrafts.”

He says going regional necessitates acquisition of aircrafts larger than the Q400 that the airline currently uses.

“Cargo and baggage are a big issue on longer distances. You can limit baggage to 15kgs per person when flying to Mombasa. When covering Mogadishu and Dar es Salaam routes, you need an aircraft with a bigger belly to accommodate at least 30kgs of luggage per passenger.”

Having given his life to the aviation industry, it is only fitting to ask if he can fly. Moses giggles, and says that he had taken some flying classes but it is not the direction he wanted his career to take.”

As he turns 64, he still runs in marathons —he has run since he was 40. He does admit, though, that age is fast catching up with him. “These days I run for 16 kilometres regularly with friends. It keeps your sugar levels low and your heart in good condition. I am more alert during meetings.”

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