, NAIROBI, Kenya, Jul 8 – The interview with John Buckley is a unique one.
We are cruising well into the skies in the DeHavilland Dash 8 plane; one of SafariLink’s finest from Kilifi to Nairobi as Buckley, part owner and Managing Director of the company, talks to me on what it takes to run a private airline in Kenya successfully.
“First, you have got to have a flawless record on safety. You cannot compromise on it if you are to succeed,” says the 69 year-old.
The English national knows firsthand what it takes to run an airline.
He had, after all, been at Air Kenya for 15 years prior to founding SafariLink with other stakeholders some 11 and-a-half years ago.
“My experience at Air Kenya also taught me about reliability. Nothing wins customers over as much as reliability does in the air business.”
The don is to be trusted.
SafariLink has established itself firmly in the business and gone as far as competing favourably against the national carrier.
We go back to where it all started.
Buckley toured the world in the days of his youth, falling in love with everything technical. He studied at Birmingham University, majoring with Geophysics. “I also enrolled for a PhD, which I am yet to finish,” he declares.
A 10-year stay in Hong Kong and the US saw him accumulate knowledge in data processing. A proposal to get the Hong Kong-based company in Kenya saw Buckley spinning his globe to locate Kenya. “I had heard of the country, I just did not know where it was,” he says.
That is when he came to Kenya and loved it. The company got ran down, but Buckley was not ready to leave Kenya yet choosing to stay instead. That was in 1984.
During his working years at Air Kenya, Buckley did not like how things were. “There wasn’t variety back then, if you were to fly, there was only one way to fly as there were no other private players. That was when I decided to leave Air Kenya and start SafariLink.”
Armed with $500,000 (Sh50mn) Buckley and some other shareholders set out to start SafariLink with its inaugural flight lifting eight people. Before the end of 2004, the company was airlifting up to 30 people per day.
“If you are to run a successful company, also expect the ever continuous expansion. You need to know that if your service is liked, people will want more of it, they will tell their friends, who will tell their friends facilitating to expansion. Therefore, be ready,” Buckley says.
The company did however face major challenges.
“Our first big stub on the back was the unforeseen Post-election violence in early 2008. Tourism travel went so down immediately.”
The company was however able to pick itself up. For instance, SafariLink had its most successful year yet in the 2012 financial year when they carried more than 13,000 customers.
It also diversified its routes to cater for an expanding clientele flying in as many routes as three in to the Maasai Mara daily.
But this success was yet again challenged by terrorism, which hurt the economy.
“The travel advisories issued against Kenya following the Westgate Mall attack in 2013 and other attacks that have followed since, have been a huge problem. Advisories against Diani and Lamu for instance were detrimental seeing that these areas had a big number of our customers,” he states.
Repeated attacks on the coast also pushed the company in considering other routes that were not tourism-dependent.
“This is my next lesson for anyone hoping to venture into air business. You cannot give up on your ideas. Sure, things will get tough, but all these are not unique.”
Hence the Lodwar route, which targets business people travelling from Nairobi to Lodwar.
But Buckley is quick to admit that the aviation space in Kenya could do better.
He states that taxations levied on the aviation sector is too much and may make new entrants into the industry shy off.
“Plane spare parts are for starters very expensive. Take the engine of a charter plane. It costs approximately $800,000 (Sh80mn) each. If then the government capitalizes on this to make money, then no one will be able to afford it. It would first of all require the company to carry so many people in order to recover the spare engine in the first place before another spare part breaks down eventually,” he says.
Such taxations are why air fare in Africa is too expensive and hence reserved to the rich.
Opening the African skies as suggested by IATA, is therefore an issue that Buckley supports.
“Of course opening up the skies means more players into our skies which mean that some airlines might be kicked out in favour of the entrants. But as such as business, survival for the fittest.”
Having open skies, as Buckley says, would also do the economy well. First, the government would have less control on the sector at large which means the sector would grow more, but more jobs would be created directly and indirectly.
“If the Kenyan government could recognize how much potential the Tourism sector has, it would do more to make it favourable. For instance, tourism is a big contributor to success in aviation in the country, there is the hotels and the agriculture sector which also benefit directly. More so, there are jobs that are created by tourism. We cannot go wrong as a country by enhancing the industry,” he explains.
Buckley however insists that it can all be done. “It is possible for our government to take the tourism sector into the glory it deserves making the aviation sub-sector a great place to invest in.”
As we conclude on what it takes to run an airline successfully, Buckley insists that all the above are not enough if the one does not take care of their customers.
“Begin by building a great relationship with them, regardless of whether they are frequent fliers or not. Ensure that you know what they like and improve on what they are complaining about. Do not take them for granted because this is where business begins; with the customers.”
As we land in Wilson Airport and our ‘ears pop’, Buckley tells me about his life outside Safari Link. For starters, he is a father, and he used to play football during his University years. He also loves to travel to Diani, which is where he would have loved to settle after his retirement with his beloved wife who died a few years back.
On whether he is Kenyan, “after spending the last 30 years of my life here, the government is yet to acknowledge me as a Kenyan. I do not think I am as English as I was when came. None of the people in my old neighbourhood back home know who I am, neither do I know them. So yes, I am Kenyan.”