in Air Transport / Features

New kid on the block is not kidding around

Posted 15 August 2019 · Add Comment

Allan Kilavuka became CEO of Kenya Airways’ low-cost carrier (LCC), Jambojet, in January 2019, succeeding industry veteran Willem Hondius. Kilavuka talked to Victoria Moores about how it felt to fill those shoes, as a complete newcomer to aviation.

“I was warned that it [running an airline] was very complicated, it would take me years to settle in, there would be a lot of road blocks and barriers and I should brace myself,” Jambojet CEO Allan Kilavuka said, recalling his first experiences of his new industry.
Kilavuka’s predecessor, Willem Hondius, had a wealth of industry experience. Before setting up Jambojet, he had racked up 14 years with KLM. From there he went on to become EVP and CCO of Dutch LCC Transavia – a role that he held for 13 years – before becoming general manager Eastern Africa for KLM.
Hondius launched Jambojet in April 2014 and stayed with the LCC for five years, before returning to KLM as senior advisor for alliance development.
Stepping into the shoes of someone with so much experience was daunting. “He was like a 35-year veteran, compared with a three-month old,” Kilavuka said, in March. “I’ve been three months in the industry.”
Kilavuka brings a wealth of experience of a different kind. He studied in Nairobi and then joined management consultancy firm, Deloitte, as an audit and assurance manager. After that, he embarked on a 13-year career with General Electric, working his way up through finance and operational roles to become GE Africa global operations leader. Those various positions took him from Nairobi to South Africa – and now back to Nairobi.
“I’ll be quite honest, I was not specifically looking at airlines; I was looking for an organisation that I would be able to add some value to. In fact, aviation was actually one of the last choices for me – not because I didn’t want to, just because I never thought this is something I would do,” he said.
However, Jambojet saw all the right ingredients for their new CEO in Kilavuka, particularly his experience of start-ups and transformations within a large multinational. He was brought on board to make the airline more sustainable.
“What I am running is a five-year old airline, which is basically a start-up if you think about it. They need someone like me, who has international experience, has worked for a multinational and has lots of experience in executive management, to take us to the next stage of growth,” Kilavuka explained.
Kilavuka was told this would be a difficult start, so he took that advice and braced himself. “That’s what I was told to expect, so of course that’s what I kind of expected, but what I found was a pleasant surprise.”
Jambojet’s employees, regulators and airport partners turned out to be very friendly, supportive and “surprisingly excited to have someone from outside the industry”, Kilavuka said. “They offered a lot of help; they were only a phone call away.”
However, some of that early advice also rang true. Kilavuka modestly says that the highly regulated nature of the industry “complicates things a little bit”, but he describes himself as “very curious” and said his experienced team were “very willing to help me have a soft landing”.
Kilavuka’s predecessor set up the airline, implemented systems and made sure he hired the right people to get Jambojet off the ground. In this second phase, Kilavuka is shifting gears and preparing the company for expansion.
The aim is to be able to scale the business without a fear of losing the people – and experience – that it depends on. “We are still relying a lot on the experience of our people, so what I need to do is to make sure all those processes are very clearly defined and documented,” he said.
Jambojet started out as a Boeing 737 operator but, over the last few years, has shifted to become an all-Bombardier Q400 operation.
“Today, we are operating five Q400s, but we are getting four more this year,” Kilavuka said, adding that those additional aircraft are scheduled to arrive in July, August, September and November. “That’s a doubling of our fleet. We’ll use it for regional expansion.”
Jambojet currently serves five domestic destinations from its Nairobi home base – Diani, Eldoret, Kisumu, Malindi and Mombasa – and one regional flight, to Entebbe in Uganda.
“We will increase our frequencies and then we will expand into the regions. We are just waiting to get [traffic] rights. We are hoping to go into Juba (South Sudan), Bujumbura (Burundi), Kigali (Rwanda), Zanzibar (Tanzania) and Goma (DRC). What has stifled our growth a little bit is the speed at which we’re getting the rights to fly to some of these places. Right now, we have Juba and we have Goma.”
Kilavuka is confident that Jambojet has the people skills and processes that it needs for this expansion. “We don’t have a shortage of pilots and crew and we are training more,” he said. “The people who work for me are very experienced, because we got them from mostly from Kenya Airways. I hear the CEO of Qatar saying he gets staff from African airlines, but some of ours are from Qatar, actually.”
Under the current vision, Jambojet plans to continue as a Q400 operator. Kilavuka said it might be interesting to bring in other types, but the current fleet gives the airline a cost advantage.
“For us to minimise our costs, we will stick to this one fleet. However, as we grow and expand, of course we want to vary our product a little bit. In the future we will look at whether to change – or have another type of aircraft – to respond to our customers’ needs.”
Kilavuka said Jambojet’s core mission is to give customers access to affordable and safe travel, but feedback suggests the market may be demanding a bit more than the carrier currently offers.
“Sometimes we hear our customer say, ‘Okay, fine. I get that – and thank you – but maybe we want something a little bit more premium’. We are thinking about it and seeing how can that play within the model, while still sticking with making sure it’s affordable and minimising our costs. My inventory is not necessarily easy, especially in this region,” he explained.
Jambojet already has a strong strategic partner in Kenya Airways. “We are 100% subsidiary, but we are autonomous,” explained Kilavuka. “We have a separate board, we have separate management, we have a separate building. In fact, on some of the routes we actually compete – quite aggressively by the way! And I won’t say who ends up winning…”
As well as being a tiny bit competitive, Kilavuka is also big on collaboration. This could play into the airline’s future, especially once the airline is International Air Transport Association (IATA) operational safety audit (IOSA) registered. Once this approval is in place, he is hoping to secure codeshares with SkyTeam member airlines and other regional carriers within Africa.
“The possibilities for growth are great and we are open to looking at strategic partners going forward. All options are open for the growth of the business,” he said.
Along with the experienced team and established processes, Kilavuka has also inherited a financially stable business. Jambojet became profitable in 2015 – its second year of operations – and maintained this in 2016. However, the Kenyan elections in 2017 disrupted travel and pushed Jambojet to a loss. Now Kilavuka says the business is doing well and is on a sound footing to enter its next stage of development.
Summing up, this rebirth in aviation is keeping Kilavuka on his toes, especially with the unpredictability of the African market. “It’s been dynamic in a nice – and not so nice – way. It’s exciting because you wake up in the morning and what you find is not what you thought you’d find yesterday,” he said, smiling. “It’s been easier – not easy – but easier than I thought.”

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