Airlines have to wake up and up the ante on customer service


I left the our residence on the shores of Lake Victoria around 0230 hours for the nearly 50 kilometer drive to the Entebbe International Airport to check in for my flight on Kenya Airways to Nairobi, which was due to leave at 0510 hours. Why so early you may ask? The answer is simple. From the entire Eastern and Central African region, KQ flights arrive in Nairobi between 0600 and 0730 hours, then permitting seamless connections to another part of Eastern Africa, and a little later to central, western and southern Africa, Europe, the Middle East, India, and the South and Far East.

My driver and I met two police patrol vehicles, cruising along the road from Kampala to Entebbe at slow speed, with 4 armed cops huddled on the rear benches of their vehicle and probably another 4 or 5 inside the double cabin pickup, keeping a lookout for anything untoward happening and needing intervention. Some flights come and leave deep into the night, like Egypt Air, while the KQ aircraft stays at the airport overnight after the arrival at 11 pm from Nairobi, to offer early morning network connections to all regional and most international flights within a few hours after arriving at Kenya’s main airport Jomo Kenyatta International. It is for this reason, that the police are putting up extra patrols at night to ensure that arriving and departing passengers have a safe journey between the airport and the city. Uganda takes the security of visitors seriously, knowing well that one single nasty incident could wipe out years of intense marketing of the country as a tourism and investment destination.

At the airport perimeter, where parking tickets are drawn, a first check-point reminds travelers of the increased state of security, mostly acting as a deterrent at that stage. On arrival at the departure terminal – which in Entebbe is upstairs – and on first entry into the terminal, all luggage is screened, as are passengers, while before reaching the check-in counters, another baggage and passenger check is carried out, and only then are travelers WITH tickets for a current flight permitted to go on to the airline desks.

And here begins the direct contact with the airline one has chosen to fly with, and, in fact, the reason for writing this article vis-a-vis “upping the ante.”

Queues are well managed by airline or handling agents’ staff, who check both tickets (“e” of course) and passports, also handing out immigration departure cards, which need to be filled out before moving passengers on to the next counter becoming available.

First and Business Class passengers have prompt access to their check-in desks, just as soon as one is free that is, and do generally not need to queue, but are fast tracked.

The 0510 hours Kenya Airways flight is often full, as many passengers then fly beyond Nairobi and have to catch their connections, and while the staff work under pressure – often stand by passengers need to be attended to and given assistance – they nevertheless show a smile, greet politely when a traveler steps up to the desk, and try to be of help, should issues arise. Such passengers are, by my own observation, promptly referred to a supervisor and dealt with further away from the immediate check-in desks, so that other passengers and staff do not get distracted.

In my case, my seat preference known and pre-booked, it was just a matter of exchanging some niceties with the staff on duty while my two pieces of luggage were checked in – NO extra charges for the second piece nor any charges at all for the first piece of luggage – and my boarding passes printed out. Yes, passes – plural – in all two of them, as I was traveling via Nairobi to the Seychelles. And then, my passport was handed back to me, as was my e-ticket and the boarding passes, a warm smile and “have a nice flight Professor, until next time.”

Immigration had two desk officers on duty for outbound passengers and scanning of the passports, and taking a picture – done for some time now by immigration from arriving and departing passengers for biometric recognition and comparison with the scanned passport photo – was done swiftly and professionally. Immediately after the immigration desks, travelers find the duty free shops, several of them, and a coffee shop and open-plan seating outside the boarding gates – the First Class and Business Class lounge, combined in Entebbe, is at the very end of the terminal but still only a few steps away from the four boarding gates, which need to be entered prior to boarding – and yes, there is another hand baggage check and passenger screening, including pat downs. It is surprising what passengers still carry with them at this point. Duty free purchases are sealed in clear plastic bags, visible to security officials – and all stuff delivered to the airside duty free shops is religiously screened for prohibited contents – but still, boarding passengers are relieved of nail scissors, pocket knives, Leatherman’s, water bottles, and excess liquids and creams carried with them, in spite of travel agents and airlines, when selling tickets and reconfirming flights, constantly updating passengers on permitted quantities and prohibited items.

The drop containers are no longer as full as they used to be, a sign that those messages slowly but surely get through to passengers, but alas, there are still those ignorant enough to arrive at that final check with a valuable Swiss Army Knife in their pocket, or a recently purchased set of nail and skin scissors and related instruments, which then all, without fail and in spite of at times tearful pleading, are to be disposed.

Kenya Airway’s B737NGs are normally not accessible through the passenger bridges from the terminal, but it is a short walk down the stairs to the apron, and then led like the proverbial sheep, kept together by security and staff to the aircraft’s stairs. Flying upfront again permits for swift access to the cabin, where 16 recliner seats with foot rests await the passengers, while economy class passenger board through the aft door – although stragglers are eventually permitted to enter the aircraft through the front stairway, when the rear doors have already been closed.

Service on the one hour flight – compared to the short hops in Europe or the US for instance – is still what one can call service, and a continental breakfast with cereals, yogurt, warmed buns and croissants, and marmalade and jam are served in the front cabin, while economy class passengers also got a light breakfast, including tea or coffee. Being busy with these offerings time really flies, and once the trays are cleared, it is already time for the final approach into JKIA.

On this occasion, our aircraft was parked on a distant apron position and all passengers were bussed to the terminal to either proceed to immigration or else to the gates of connecting flights – all imminent departures already being announced on board while taxiing in from the runway.
Sky Team airlines cardholders, from a certain level upwards, qualify to use the Kenya Airways transit lounge, as do KQ’s own passengers traveling in C-class, and this is a most welcome stopover when a flight leaves a little later than immediate or else the connecting flight is delayed. In our case, the Seychelles departure was about 75 minutes late so that a large group of connecting passengers, whose aircraft was also late in arriving in Nairobi, could join the flight, certainly a much cheaper option than accommodating those passengers in Nairobi from Sunday till Thursday, when the next service to Mahe was due.

Yet, time flies even in the lounge with snacks constantly resupplied and both wireless and wired Internet available. The hours between 0630 and about 0900 are clearly rush hour in the lounge, with travelers arriving and departing in rapid succession, but the KQ staff in the lounge were on top of things, rearranging newspapers, magazines, refilling the coffee and tea flasks, and keeping a constant stream of new pastries and sandwiches coming.

KQ has now also started calling C-class passengers first for boarding from the boarding gate, although facilities at JKIA do not permit a separate gate yet as seen recently in Brussels.
Once on board, with plenty of hand baggage space in the overhead lockers, the crew – when everyone is seated – offers a choice of juices, water, or sparkling wine, and the hot towel arrives soon afterwards.

At that stage, the printed menu is handed out and not long afterwards, one of the cabin attendants takes the order for one of the three main courses on offer, to be served enroute to Mahe. The B737-700 has an onboard inflight entertainment system, which after lunch switched from the route map to a feature film, long enough to last through the entire flight, and alternatively music channels are available, as is incidentally an eye mask to take a few “z’s” before landing. A flight level of 37,000 feet assures of a smooth flight without much rumbles and turbulences, much appreciated by all passengers on board.

The descent and landing into the main island are not to be missed, as during the final approach into Mahe International, several smaller islands are visible, with the turquoise color of the water along the shores, bays, and shallows between islands the most striking feature.

Hence it is my contention: while many other airlines truly need to wake up and be shaken up to enhance their service levels and give passengers what they pay for, preferably without the current avalanche of add-on charges, many of them indeed unheard of a few years ago, here in Eastern Africa, the airlines, including others besides KQ, do normally deliver what is expected of them, even in economy class – I am regularly flying on aircraft with an all economy configuration, so I should be qualified to speak of experience – giving value for the money passengers pay.

What happens in other parts of the world, where airlines are lowering service levels, while at the same time trying to charge ever more under the disguise of ever-new fees, should be for them to resolve, and strong passenger reactions are a useful tool to help the airlines on the way to such change, i.e., reversing the at times grotesque inventions. In fact, where passengers have choices on a route and can decide to move from a lousy airline to a better one, the market will eventually sort out the bad apples.

African aviation, facing many challenges, has a number of formidable players able to hold their own against global competition, like Kenya Airways, South African Airways, Egypt Air, or Ethiopian, and none of those has needed to invent those new charges to make ends meet nor inflict cuts in inflight service to the bone at the expense of their faithful travelers – and frankly us here in Africa, paying admittedly relatively high fares, would most likely not stand for that anyway and punish those who would try by flying with others.

Excellent frequent flyer reward programs by Africa’s leading airlines also influence market behavior and loyalty by travelers, as the ease to earn and burn miles make a difference – after all, many such passengers have their tickets paid for by their company but hold and spend miles under their own name, an important factor when it comes to choosing an airline.

In closing, those who can should try out our leading airlines operating in Africa and experience the difference directly and hands on, and then decide for themselves which of the lot needs to wake up and up the ante and which others are doing just fine.