It’s a work in progress, but Kuwait Airways CCO Phil Saunders says that the carrier is on track to emerge from the heavy shadow of its ‘step sisters’ Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways. Could we soon be witness to something of a Gulf Cinderella? While truly optimistic about the future of his airline, Saunders says that he, airline management and stakeholders are under no illusions about the difficulty of the road ahead. It’s going to take more than a fairy Godmother to realize the airline’s grand ambitions, return to profitability, and compete with its conspicuous neighbors.
“I flew here on Etihad and it was quite interesting because I was speaking to one of the cabin crew and I said I work for Kuwait Airlines,” he told delegates last week at the Hamburg Aviation Conference. “And she said ‘what’s that?’. So we do have a little bit of work to do.”
Indeed, a quick survey of the audience at the Wednesday afternoon session produced only three individuals who could attest to having ever flown with the airline. Most of us know why of course. In the 1990s, the carrier lost the prominence and reputation as a service leader it had enjoyed in the 1970 and 1980s. Two consecutive wars shook the nation to its core, having an economic impact on the national populous and creating a psychological effect across the board.
“The whole fleet of Kuwait Airways was essentially destroyed and the country was occupied,” Saunders explained to the group. “Actually, it was only after the second Gulf war that Kuwaitis started to really invest in their own country and their own infrastructure again, so there’s been a big gap. In fact it’s one of the richest countries in the world, but it’s been investing mainly outside the country. We still have major challenges, were not hiding them.”
In October of 2013, Kuwait Airways was thought to have one of the oldest fleets in the world and even had to invite press into its hangars in a bid to quash rumours that its operations were in a state of shambles. Now says Saunders, the airline is fully committed to rising fast through global ranks, much like the country it serves as ambassador to.
In December 2014, Kuwait Airways took delivery of its first new aircraft (a leased A320ceo with sharklets) in quite a long time. Next will come six more A320ceo and five A330-200, all leased. These aircraft will help the carrier modernize operations and services while it awaits the delivery of the ten Airbus A350-900s, 15 A320neos and ten Boeing 777-300ERs that it has recently ordered.
“Within three to four years we will probably have the youngest fleet of any airline in the Middle East. We have, I think, a position of potentially huge strength,” said Saunders. “If you look at the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries we actually have the largest population locally based and ready to travel. It’s time we regained our market share and we’ve got some great ideas to do that.”
The CCO went on to say that Kuwait Airways has no intention of mimicking its local competitors in order to carve out its name, and that joining one of big global alliances is definitely not a priority. The plan is focus on the smaller picture, for now.
“Rather than growing a huge network, I think we’re going to concentrate on making sure that our flows work better and that our product is extremely reliable in terms of on-time performance,” Saunders revealed.
Inflight service will get some tweaks, but will remain true to the customs of Kuwait and the surrounding area.
“There won’t be any alcohol,” he told the conference attendees. “But that is not necessarily a bad thing. I think that we can work very hard on actually providing a better drink service and mixed, blended fruit cocktails more than we do today and make it a unique selling point rather than a weakness. We must respect not only the laws, but the customs of our country and I think that will actually help us in terms of growing business from countries like Saudi Arabia.
“Unlike most of the GCC carriers our primary focus will initially be on growing market share in Kuwait.”