In October last year, at an event in Everett, Seattle, Kuwait Airways accepted the first of 10 Boeing 777-300ERs it had placed an order for in 2014. It was the first new aircraft that carrier had received in over 20 years.
Kuwait Airways isn’t the region’s oldest airline, not even in the GCC. The latter distinction belongs to Gulf Air, against which it once used to compete for supremacy of the skies. But Kuwait Airways, which was formed in 1953, has suffered tremendously since the Iraq War in 1990. The airline hasn’t turned a profit in nearly 25 years. Competition hasn’t helped either, a fact not lost on Rasha al Roumi, chairwoman and CEO of Kuwait Airways Corporation. “It’s no secret that Kuwait Airways lost its march on regional competitors,” she told Aviation Business. “That’s why we needed a fresh approach.”
Rasha al Roumi’s plan to transform the fortunes of Kuwait’s national carrier’s is beginning to take shape. Since being appointed in 2013 it has taken her nearly three years to get her company to this point. And after unveiling her five-year strategic plan in September she is now embarking on the next step of a plan she calls, “Bold, but achievable.”
"The new aircraft will clearly offer an enhanced onboard experience with a nine-abreast configuration and offer all three classes onboard.”
The fresh new approach, to bring life back to what used to be a premier flying experience, involves 35 new aircraft by 2021, massive staff cuts, investments in technology and infrastructure, the renegotiation of slots at airports in an attempt to boost frequencies on in-demand routes by 22 percent and a return to a premium service offering–not to mention profitability by 2019. It’s certainly a bold plan. But is it achievable? That’s the million (or rather billion) dollar question.
Kuwait Airways’ turnaround plan comes at a pivotal juncture for both the airline and Kuwait itself. Parliament after parliament has been dissolved in the Gulf’s most democratic country since 2013–but a new round of elections is creating cause for cautious optimism. A ground-swell of support from the people now exists, “to see their national carrier reassert its proud legacy in the region’s aviation industry,” says al Roumi.
This renewed vigour comes after the airline won a $500 million settlement against Iraq for damages caused during the war. But it also comes as the government waived all of its debts until 2014 and promised no more. That means that the airline’s nearly $8 billion bankroll for a new fleet from Boeing and Airbus could be among the last of its official lifelines.
"The corporate world is dominated by male leaders, but I do feel that we live in a time where that tide is turning. The role and responsibilities of running an airline are the same whether you are a man or a woman. If I am a motivation to others, I am flattered."
Conversation around the carrier’s privatisation has long been on the cards. Despite a move to privatise passing official approval earlier in the decade, the airline remains government owned, confirms al Roumi. But plans to eventually privatise the company are afoot, she says. And they all rely on the airline becoming profitable, which she hopes will happen by 2019.
Investment in new aircraft was necessary considering the airline’s ageing fleet predicament. A scare in 2013, where the cabin started leaking air only to have the hole covered with sheets and blankets, reportedly, led to it having to invite media to a tour of its planes the next year to convince passengers its fleet was still airworthy. Kuwait’s fleet is over 20 years old, having not added any new airlines to its roster in over two decades, and C and D checks, conducted on airliners over ten, are expensive. It’s part of the reason why Emirates has a carrier life of just over five years. “Maintenance checks are expensive to conduct, and new aircraft will help reduce operating expenses,” says al Roumi.
Having the youngest fleet by 2021 will help the airline reclaim its lost prestige in the premium segment, says the CEO. The airline has invested in a whole new identity, complete with uniforms and a set up that includes all three classes on-board its 777s. At the event in Seattle, the airline also unveiled its new brand identity: a more prominent take on its trademark Blue Bird, dressed in tonal blues to represent skies and seas, “signifying new horizons soon to be crossed,” juxtaposed with pearls, a nod to Kuwait’s trading roots and ambition to reclaim prestige. “The new aircraft will clearly offer an enhanced onboard experience. This is especially true of our decision to go with a nine-abreast configuration and offer all three classes onboard.”
That’s not to say the airline has abandoned the low-cost segment. Recent reports suggest that the airline is still considering a low-cost unit, and Jazeera Airways, Kuwait’s successful budget carrier, has attempted to bid for 35 percent of the carrier’s business. Kuwait Air’s older fleet and possibly even some of the smaller Boeings it’s placed an order for could be used for that unit, if the airline decides to go that route. “It’s something we are considering, but it isn’t the main plan yet,” says al Roumi.
by Shayan Shakeel