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Blue sky thinking

Written by: Rachel Hamada
Fastjet Airbus 319

There’s a new face in town. A new face with a beady eye and a sharp beak, and he’s turning heads. With a quirky African grey parrot logo representing a regal presence, friendliness, intelligence and the ability to think and travel smart, new airline Fastjet has the ambition and potential to change the face of travel in sub-Saharan Africa.

Less than two weeks after the inaugural flight, queues of people are spilling out onto the street from its ticket offices and people who have never flown in their lives before are taking to the skies en masse.

This is all part of the vision of democratising air travel in Africa that Fastjet aims to bring to the continent. Back in the day, Easyjet took the UK’s aviation market by storm. Now Fastjet, with the involvement of many former Easyjet executives, aims to do the same on a continental scale. With a head office in the UK, where strategy, finance and brand will be managed, and a team of mainly British execs, is there a danger that the airline will face hostility?

Depending on perspective, it could either be seen as a relief – to have a business-focussed budget airline in place of some of the disastrous state-owned efforts across the continent – or a new colonialism.

Chief commercial officer Richard Bodin does not think this is an issue. “We do have a company in each country we operate in. We are already employing over 100 people and are recruiting more, and we will be paying taxes locally. Democratising air travel is what we are doing. People LOVE the fact that they can now afford to travel.”

“Governments are approaching us – this is major recognition. Low cost carriers like us are the way forward , not expensive state-owned airlines.”

Richard Bodin, Fastjet

Richard Bodin, on the right

By the end of 2015, Fastjet aims to have a fleet of 30 to 40 Airbus 319s. The aim is to operate these models exclusively, unless Fastjet runs another brand, such as Fly540 in Kenya. In Tanzania, the company will only operate Fastjet-branded Airbus 319s, and will only fly into airports that can handle planes of this size (the Airbus 319 is a single aisle plane that carries around 150 passengers).

Where can passengers expect Fastjet to fly? Tanzania, of course. The first flights made by Fastjet have been from Dar Es Salaam to Mwanza and Kilimanjaro. The airline won’t fly between Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar, and is unlikely to, but will fly between Nairobi and Zanzibar, and “who’s to say we won’t have a Mombasa-Zanzibar connection”. It’s also highly possible that Fastjet will fly to the Comoros, though it has no immediate plans to fly to other Indian Ocean destinations.

Fastjet will also fly to routes in Uganda. General manager Kyle Haywood is previously of Air Uganda, but Bodin says that he doesn’t think this gives Fastjet an unfair advantage as Haywood is working on the operational side in Africa not the strategic side in the UK and points to the fact that Fastjet is still awaiting approval from the Ugandan authorities.

The airline will probably operate in Ghana and Angola. Bodin says that executives had been in enthusiastic talks with late President John Atta-Mills (“he was a great supporter of ours”), and that conversations about a Ghanaian base of operations would resume early next year. He also said that a number of governments had been in touch with Fastjet to encourage them to operate in these countries but that talks were still in progress.

A possible partnership with Emirates is still on the cards – “both sides are very keen to establish a relationship” – although it’s not yet clear what form this would take. Meanwhile, Fastjet is still in talks with the liquidators of South African airline 1Time, South African authorities, the ANC and other stakeholders, about purchasing the airline. If this happens, 1Time will be brought into the Fastjet brand and its planes will soon be replaced by Airbus models. What’s more, Bodin says that Fastjet would look beyond the ‘golden triangle’ of South Africa, Zambia/Zimbabwe and Zanzibar and fly many more routes out of South Africa, representing a major opening up of the continent in transport terms.

Fastjet crew, Tanzania

Fastjet crew in Tanzania

North Africa won’t be added in the short-term as there are so many opportunities for regional expansion in sub-Saharan Africa, but could be introduced some way down the line – in particular Cairo, with the volume of traffic comes through potentially feeding into a wider African flight network.

What Fastjet (probably) won’t do is operate services between East and West Africa. Its planes, and onboard services, are optimised for a journey time of three to four hours at most, whereas the five-plus hours it takes from east to west would be pushing passengers and planes past comfortable limits. “Beyond three to four hours the low cost option looks sparse.” However, he adds a last minute “never say never”.

Are rival airlines such as Precision and Kenya Airways disconcerted? Precision in particular is seeing many of its routes potentially shadowed by more affordable Fastjet flights. The emphasis for Fastjet, says Bodin, is market stimulation rather than battling for market share. Previously, many Africans saw “flying [as being] only for the rich and famous”. Now, however, flights can compete on price with bus services, and so the goal is to get people on planes who would not have flown before.

Bodin says that out of the 300 to 400 passengers he has chatted to so far, a large proportion of them were excited first time flyers. Fastjet aims to provide these flyers with helpful information before travel to make the first check-in and flight easy, and so far this seems to be working well.

In-flight catering and entertainment is for now simple. African-sourced teas, coffees, cakes and buns for sustenance, although the offering should broaden soon. For entertainment so far there is just a quarterly magazine and the view out of the window. Fastjet will look at in-flight entertainment options as the airline develops, but the priority still is offering flights as cheaply as possible.

Inside a Fastjet Airbus 319 in Tanzania

Inside a Fastjet Airbus 319

Are the current fares just lead-in fares that will be dropped soon in favour of higher permanent fares? No, says Bodin. The price level will be maintained for as long as possible and is certainly not just a “flash in the pan”. Currency and fuel hedging – buying options at a set price to avoid market volatility and therefore surprises for the shareholders or passengers – will be employed also.

Flying to secondary airfields other than the main national airport in each country can help to keep costs down too. “Zanzibar itself is a great airport.” Fastjet are encouraging governments to invest in more, although nothing too fancy. “We are looking at operational efficiency rather than bells and whistles,” says Bodin.

Fastjet, of course, is only responsible for one element of the full price that passengers pay, as high levels of airport tax can majorly inflate the overall cost. “Everyone in aviation wants to stimulate the market. The airline can do one part, but governments have to do the other.” Fastjet is willing and able to lobby governments on this issue, and the demand for their presence from different African governments may give them some extra leverage on this. “We collectively need to make sure that air travel isn’t just seen as being for the wealthy.”

As well as price, Fastjet hopes to offer USPs of punctuality (in the first five days, 100 per cent of planes have left on time), plane quality and good service.

Fastjet branding has been slick

Fastjet branding has been slick

Sales will be designed for the African market – meaning lots of real offices, which Bodin says all have queues snaking out of them from dawn to dusk, meaning that more staff are already being recruited to man them. “It’s a lovely problem to have.” More offices will be opened soon in Arusha, Moshi and Mwanza, and in the next few weeks, mobile payment facilities (MPesa and Airtel) will be added to the mix. “We need to suit distribution channels to the market, not drive markets where they don’t want to go.”

“Although interestingly, when I was at Easyjet in the very early days the Internet wasn’t really invented, and when it did come there was a lot of nervousness about commercial activity online. There were actually three companies who verified [that] commercial activity online [was doable], and that was Easyjet, Ryanair and Amazon.

“With those three companies, all of a sudden consumers trusted that it was safe, and from that very small start online commercial activity really took off. Can Fastjet do the same in Africa? I don’t know.”

The social media element is certainly going well, with 10,000 likes on its Facebook page since it was created in early November. “We are genuinely delighted with the reaction of people in Tanzania.” It helps that Fastjet have staff ready to respond to messages in Kiswahili as well as English (including specifically Tanzanian Swahili – “we do know the difference!”)

Fastjet advert being put up in Tanzania

Tanzanians seem to be embracing Fastjet wholeheartedly. They also don’t seem to be living up to stereotype. Before the airline launched, it was claimed that passengers would be resistant to buying extras like hot drinks and food, and would be unlikely to book far in advance. In fact, says Bodin, refreshments are selling out, seats are being booked for March 2013 and searches made on flights as far ahead as April.

In case it isn’t already obvious, why did Fastjet opt to come to Africa? The answer is simple. The continent, says Bodin, is the last place in the world with no established local carrier network. And with over one billion potential customers, it’s not hard to see why it’s an attractive option.

“I think Africa over the last decade or so has changed really quite dramatically, when you think of the horrible pictures at the time of Live Aid and now you have lead articles in The Economist and so on saying ‘this is the continent that is going to be our future’. It’s the right time.”

“Low cost carriers similar to ourselves are the way forward, rather than expensive, state-owned and, dare I say it, in some cases badly run airlines.”

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