Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Airlines bid to open up African skies

From David McKenzie, (CNN)
Click to play
Kenya Airways CEO Titus Naikuni
  • Titus Naikuni is the CEO of Kenya Airways, the third biggest airline in Sub Saharan Africa
  • The company now flies three million passengers a year
  • "Africa is still unserviced," says Naikuni

(CNN) -- Africa's airlines are aiming to expand into new territories and improve connections across the continent.

While there has historically been a lack of flights between many African countries, ambitious airlines are planning to introduce new services.

Among them is Kenya Airways, the third-biggest airline in sub-Saharan Africa. It already flies more than three million passengers a year, but according to the company's CEO Titus Naikuni, the airline still has plenty of room to grow.

CNN's David McKenzie sat down with Naikuni to discuss the recent growth of the African airline industry.

An edited version of the interview follows.

CNN: Kenya Airways is expanding rapidly in Africa. Why is Africa such a good market for you?

Titus Naikuni: I don't think we're expanding rapidly -- if you ask me, I would have wanted to expand three times what we are doing right now.

But we've got limitations in terms of getting the right pilots, in terms of getting traffic rights -- because it's a political business where you don't just wake up one morning and decide to fly into a particular destination.

Africa is important to us and dear to us because it's a growing market. It's still, to me, unserviced. If you look at West Africa, it's not fully serviced. If you look at some pockets in Central Africa, it's not serviced.

Africa is important to us and dear to us because it's a growing market.
--Titus Naikuni, Kenya Airways CEO
  • Africa
  • Air Travel
  • Transportation

And even when it's serviced, I don't think we are providing the best service because we're going to only one frequency in between some destinations. We still have restrictions, in the sense that you can't move from one city to another and pick up passengers.

CNN: So if you fly from Nairobi to Lagos, you can't pop over to Abuja, pick up people and come back to Nairobi. Why is that?

TN: It's just the political nature of the business, protectionism. People are protecting their own skies. In some countries, it is possible. You are able to negotiate. It's called freedom rights.

CNN: You would think these countries, which effectively, most of them don't have a viable national carrier, would want a service for their customers.

TN: Yeah, I mean, that's common sense, but common sense is not always common. In some countries there is that realization. In other countries, it's not there.

We're Kenyan by name, but if you look below the name Kenya, you see the pride of Africa ... and so yeah, we're a de facto national carrier for some of the countries.

CNN: Who is your ideal customer in Africa? What sort of person?

TN: We have a real mix here, because you have the traders ... you have the (new) investors ... say from India. Then you have the traditional investors who've been in Africa for long, from Europe ... and then you have the tourists, depending on which country you're looking at.

CNN: Some of the regions you're going to aren't necessarily the most stable places. Does that worry you from a business perspective to take this leap and say, 'I'm going to be flying to Abidjan on a weekly basis' and then have those hits to the business?

TN: We have a very huge security system where ... we do an assessment of every country before we decide that we're going to fly into it. In fact, like Abidjan... we had our own person on the ground who was advising not to do it and we stopped.

CNN: What are some of the big challenges of flying into new routes, even like Juba in Southern Sudan? What keeps you up at night?

TN: The challenges are -- first of all, the experience of the staff that are there, because some of these countries don't have the right personnel. You're looking at air traffic controllers, you're looking at ground facilities and so forth, but we do carry out audits before we go in there.

So really, the thing that makes me awake at night is whether some of the navigation aids are working or not in some of the airports.

CNN: What is the advantage from a business perspective, of getting into these places first, as a major carrier -- given the fact that you've got South African Airways and Ethiopian Airways, the other two big players in the African market?

TN: I think the advantage you have over the others if you get in first is that you start getting customers early enough and you make sure that you implant yourself in the minds of the people.

I don't ignore the fact that the two carriers mentioned are major competitors and we compete and sometimes cooperate in some situations.