Almost exactly a year ago Mr. Tozivazvipi Benster (Ben) Dahwa was appointed as CEO of Air Botswana (AB). He thought carefully before taking the job, but having done so he certainly threw himself into the task of formulating and delivering a five-year plan to turn the country’s national carrier into a catalyst for its economic development.

Trained as an engineer, Ben Dahwa has over 30 years’ experience in aerospace, and sees his job as delivering culture change in an organisation hitherto cast in a traditional mould. To assess the current state, and to formulate change, AB brought in the USA-based consultancy ICF International. “The plan sets out a strategy based on structured rather than aggressive growth,” he said. “We need to consolidate and refine what we do.”

The plan launched at the beginning of this year. Early targets such as on-time performance, cost containment and network rationalisation, however, were addressed right from the time of Dahwa’s appointment. For the travelling public the key metric is on-time performance: At the time of writing AB’s on time record (defined by IATA as within 15 minutes of scheduled time) stands at 86 percent. That is against a global industry average in the low to mid 70s, and represents a 16 percent improvement over the last ten months. Cause for satisfaction? Yes, agrees Ben Dahwa: “But we are a small airline. With new equipment and once the changes we are making take effect I see no reason why we should not achieve on-time performance more than 90 percent of the time, consistently.”

The plan addresses both restructuring the company operations and re-fleeting. “Our fleet is getting older so the cost of keeping the aircraft flying is getting steeper by the day. We need to be renewing the fleet so that we can enhance our product and provide services we can’t now.” There’s a growing demand, he says, for business class services for example, and the in-flight comforts and refinements that the latest jets incorporate.

Re-fleeting will happen over the next four years so that by 2020 all the planes will be new. “We expect to see our maintenance and fuel costs going down significantly. We’ll also have a more attractive product that will sell better and boost revenues,” he said. “We believe this plan will improve our profitability to a point where we will no longer be reliant on subsidies.”

While he’d like to be able to purchase new aircraft that may not always be the best way to go. “In our current model we operate six aircraft,” he says. “We needn’t say that we will replace them all in the same financial year though. If market conditions are favourable an outright purchase might be the best mode of acquisition. If we are less sure about traffic growth we can go for an operating lease.” Botswana has the highest credit rating of any African country, so would have no trouble leasing on favourable terms.

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Addressing operational issues has to be done in partnership, he emphasises. The Civil Aviation Authority of Botswana (CAAB) manages the country’s airports, including Sir Seretse Khama International Airport at the capital Gaborone, and Francistown International Airport in the north east. A very close working relationship exists between these parastatals (government owned entities operating as commercial concerns), both reporting to the Minister of Transport.

The government has every reason to support AB. In 2014 tourism contributed 6.4 billion Pula ($650 million) to the economy, said Dahwa. “Within that figure, about two billion is traceable to high value tourists – the ones that would use air transport to come into Botswana, and who also use internal flights. We can thus claim to be facilitating a P2 billion impact on GDP. Even if the government subsidises our operations to the tune of say P100 million, that would be hardly five percent of our net contribution to the national economy! I think this is how a national airline should be measured.”

Dahwa favours partnership with private operators in developing short routes that would not be operable using AB’s larger aircraft. A good example is the link between the popular tourist destinations Maun and Kasane. The hour long flight is operated twice weekly by local operator Kalahari Air Services (KAS). AB underwrites the operating costs, and KAS maintains the route using its own aircraft. That is a model he would like to see replicated widely, as a way of bringing such places as the mining town of Orapa and the desert community of Ghanzi into the network. Such small operators need to be as strict in compliance and safety as AB itself, which is IOSA (IATA’s International Operational Safety Audit) checked every two years.

A vital component in AB’s modernisation plan is the introduction of new ICT systems. “The present system is too manual. We lack world class automation tools.” To address this an ERP solution will be implemented, linking every activity from operations, commercials, finance, maintenance, tracking of paperwork such as airworthiness certification and all customer facing processes. This is a critical phase, Ben Dahwa emphasised. Over the coming three to four years, in the same timeframe as fleet renewal, expenditure of P30 million ($3.5 million) has been budgeted for ICT alone, as the new system is implemented, module by module. “It is a big step so we need a transformational culture change,” he said. “My management team is driving that forward. We want to see efficiency and productivity going up and wastage, whether performance or equipment related, going down!”

Downsizing will be minimal. Certainly fewer people will be needed to maintain existing levels of work, but this should not mean involuntary redundancy. AB is in expansion mode and this will absorb most of the core workforce. Retraining and multiskilling will be needed: older workers will be retained to pass on their knowledge, then perhaps offered early retirement.

It’s national policy to bring long-haul flights into Gaborone, though AB will itself stick to regional flights up to 2020, extending its network though code sharing arrangements with global carriers. “We are part of the national team that is working on attracting international flights into the country, in partnership with private business.” He said. “Botswana Investment and Trade Centre (BITC) Botswana Development Corporation (BDC); The Botswana Confederation of Commerce, Industry and Manpower (BOCCIM); Public Enterprises Evaluation and Privatisation Agency (PEEPA) Botswana Tourist Authority (BTA) - we all need long haul into Gaborone!”

Additionally to becoming a passenger hub, providing feeder flights to the region, AB want to become a cargo hub for southern Africa. After all Gaborone is nearer to the industries of Gauteng than Cape Town or Durban! As the assigned ground handler, occupying the cargo terminal at Sir Seretse Khama Airport the company has invested P43 million ($4.36 million) in the latest cargo handling equipment. Once the final items have been delivered, AB will be able to handle the largest aircraft in the skies.

 

Written by: John O'Hanlon

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