Featured image: Francesco Cecchetti/Airways

Interview: Lufthansa Group Expands in East Africa

DALLAS — The Lufthansa Group has expanded its reach in the African air transport market with increased capacity and flight frequencies, and one of the areas it’s taking on is East Africa.

In March 2023, Lufthansa appointed Kevin Markette as the General Manager of East Africa to oversee operations and expand the market in that part of the continent. Kevin is responsible for about nine countries in East Africa but operates mainly in five. 

In an interview with Airways, Kevin shared the developments, route plans, the vision for East Africa, and his journey in running the region on behalf of the Group. 

It’s been a year since you were appointed Lufthansa Group's general manager in East Africa. How has the journey been so far, and what were your challenges?

It’s been fantastic. East Africa has been hospitable to me from a professional and personal perspective. The region is diverse, with different countries and different perspectives, but one thing remains the same: the warm welcome I have received. 

I still consider myself a bit new even though I’ve been here for over a year, but challenges have been few and far between. Everyone faces the usual personal challenges moving on to the next assignment. 

However, on a professional basis, it’s been a fantastic start, with significant partnerships and excellent working relationships with our customers, partners, and even the authorities. It’s been an excellent first year, and I am certainly quite happy. 

The Lufthansa Group routes within the East African region have increased. Will the network keep growing in 2024?

Yes, and yes. We’re very excited about expanding our offering for our customers across East Africa in the Lufthansa Group. If we look at it in context, a year ago, Lufthansa had five flights a week into Nairobi. This summer, we will add six flights a week by Brussels Airlines (SN). 

On June 3rd, 2024, Brussels Airlines will relaunch the direct connection between Belgium and Kenya. We’ve also expanded our network offer on the leisure routes to Mombasa, which a year ago was four frequencies a week. This summer, we will fly six times weekly as the only scheduled airline to fly directly from Europe into Mombasa. 

A couple of other charter airlines operate the route, but we are very proud to have that connection, extending onto Zanzibar and Kilimanjaro. The Zanzibar connections will increase, showing the strength of the leisure and Visiting Friends and Relatives (VFR) market in East Africa for German and European tourists. 

As a German airline, Discover Airlines (4Y) doesn’t only transport German customers; we transport customers from all over Europe and Nairobi. It’s different; as you might know, Nairobi is more of a hybrid or a mixed route, with strong demand from customers in North America.

Across the region, it’s a little bit similar. We maintain a daily flight into Entebbe, Uganda, with Brussels Airlines, and we also have direct flights by Brussels Airlines to Kigali, which will increase from five flights a week to daily flights from the beginning of June. That makes us the only airline with a daily flight from Europe to Kigali. No other airline offers that, and we are very proud to expand our offer to our European, American, and Rwandan customers. 

Our additional point of the network is Bujumbura, Burundi. We are the only European carrier operating two flights a week into Bujumbura. We are under challenging circumstances but have performed well and are happy with all those routes.

One additional group carrier flies into the region: Edelweiss Air (WK). It is Switzerland's leisure carrier, and it operates seasonal flights into Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar. 

There’s a clear split between the extreme focus on leisure travel, especially post-pandemic, going into the likes of Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar, and Mombasa, with growing relevance as more and more tourists want to come to this part of the world and then of course, the corporate demand we see in cities like Kigali and Entebbe so there’s a nice mix of growth when we look into the overall perspective of growth in 2024. 

Three airlines of the Lufthansa Group, increasing flight frequencies into East Africa, were proud of that.

Edelweiss Air Airbus A340-300s. Photo: Christian Winter/Airways
Edelweiss Air Airbus A340-300s. Photo: Christian Winter/Airways

East Africa has about 18 countries. Could you enlighten us about the operations in the others apart from the main ones?

My territory, which I am responsible for, covers the countries we mentioned: Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda. It also covers South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. None of the Lufthansa Group airlines operate flights to those countries, and at this point, we don’t have any concrete plans to operate to them.

What more do you have in mind to strengthen your presence and relationships in East Africa and be able to sustain the market?

Flight frequencies drive our presence, but many other activities also show presence. One of them that’s very close to our hearts is what we call the Help Alliance. 

It’s the Lufthansa Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) division, and we maintain several active projects across East Africa. These projects are supported both in person and financially by the donations of our customers, administered by Help Alliance, Which was founded entirely by Lufthansa employees. 

It’s not funded by Lufthansa but by donations from passengers, and it supports projects on a global scale, generally with countries with more need, whether it’s organizations that help orphaned children or abused women, across the whole spectrum. It’s supported in many aspects, both financially and physically, by colleagues. 

Our flight attendants are very active in this; they often actively support one of the projects during their layover. In East Africa, we’ve created the East Africa Help Alliance community, chaired by myself and a colleague in Kigali, to try to build up support for our projects, generate new projects, and give back to the community on a bigger scale.

We have projects in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and, as of this year, also in Rwanda. One notable one is the School of The Future in Arusha. I’ve been to some projects in Masaka, Uganda, where one of our projects is located, working with two high schools. 

I’ve personally been there to conduct design thinking workshops with the students. As far away as this is from our commercial activities, I think it’s strongly focused on our side in terms of giving back to the communities that we serve. On a volunteer basis, my team and colleagues devote their time regularly to supporting these projects by fundraising or helping them on the farm. 

We are also intensely engaged with our travel agency partners across the entire region. We maintain good relationships with the travel agency community and the associations representing them: the Rwanda Association of Travel Agencies (RATA), the Kenya Association of Travel Agents (KATA), and the Uganda Association of Travel Agents. That increases our offer, customers' flexibility, and the network reach. 

Overall, the presence will continue to grow. I’ve just hired three new colleagues on my Nairobi team, so when you talk about physical presence, we also consider our people as a strong aspect, opportunities for growth, and promotions.

Building internal and external relationships is one of the most significant aspects of sustaining the market. At the Lufthansa Group, we have a strong focus on the customer. The customer can be a travel agency, corporate customer, or leisure traveler who travels only once a year. 

Our big focus is being customer-centric. We look at how we build our network to suit customer needs and where they need to travel and connect. They are in a position with the global network of the Lufthansa Group. 

Our European network is second to none by any other carrier, and even our North Atlantic network with our partners, United Airlines and Air Canada, is extensive. Listening to customers and getting feedback on topics we need to improve on is one of the ways we sustain the market. Coming out of Covid, the entire industry has had several challenges. 

We’ve made many changes and are looking at continually transforming and improving our self-service tools via our websites and apps, all the customer touch points. There are a lot of ongoing activities, and there is a big focus on maintaining customer centricity. 

We have challenges in the industry right now regarding the supply chain that make some things more challenging, notably adding more capacity; aircraft deliveries are not as quick as everyone would like. 

Nevertheless, we have already benefited from the added capacity in East Africa, so we are lucky. As the leading airline group in Europe, we have an excellent value proposition for our customers. Still, we are not ignorant of their needs, and we in East Africa must get feedback that helps us improve our services.

Kevin Markette and RSCE. Photo: United Nations
Kevin Markette and RSCE. Photo: United Nations

What difference have you noticed in East Africa since you started leading and before you came in? Is there an increase in revenue or change post-pandemic?

I cannot take credit for the revenue increase; that’s all about the team and their work. However, when you look at the post-COVID period, speaking for Kenya specifically, Lufthansa was one of the first, if not the first, airlines to resume flights to Nairobi after the pandemic, very clearly stating the commitment that our group has towards Kenya and East Africa as a whole. 

Talking about the developments in the last year, the clearest signal of a route's development is how the frequencies develop and how new airlines within the group come in. I’m thrilled to see and be part of the development in East Africa, and I don’t take credit for that. 

Much depends on our customers and partners, how we work with them, and what product offers we give them. So yes, we’ve seen significant general developments in the last twelve months on East African routes, so much so that we are increasing capacity on three of them and launching a new intercontinental destination. 

To put that into perspective, in 2024, we will launch two new long-haul flights to Africa. One of them is Brussels-Nairobi, and the other is Munich-Johannesburg. Kenya gets fifty percent of the new long-haul flights into Africa this year. 

We are launching several others on a global scale. Some of them are North American destinations because of the relevance of North American traffic. We will start flights to Minneapolis at the beginning of June. It’s a very relevant destination because of the strong Somali community in Minneapolis and, of course, great connections from Nairobi. 

We shall also start flights to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, to complement the many other cities that Lufthansa Group flies to in the United States. By having Brussels fly to Nairobi, customers can connect to the U.S. via Brussels as a second alternative with our Brussels Airlines or partners, United Airlines or Air Canada. 

Leadership styles and priorities change whenever leadership changes, but I must say the local teams, whether in Nairobi or other markets, have embraced that. They have boots on the ground and built excellent relationships, which shows. We are proud to be able to offer that to our customers. 

What is your leadership style has been outstanding to bring all these developments?

I have had the benefit of experiencing several countries in my career, and each one shaped and formed my leadership style based on culture and region. I’ve worked extensively in Africa. For me, one of the biggest things in leadership is trust and relationship building with the team. Trust is a big topic because I cannot do my job without my team. 

There is trust in delegating topics to them so they are reassured about whether they will manage the job. That says a lot about our selection at the Lufthansa Group when we select colleagues. Even for individuals that previous people have chosen, it’s been straightforward to slot in and use the local team's experience, especially regarding local conditions. 

No matter how well-experienced you are as a leader, you always need to accept and adapt to the local conditions, and that’s where the local colleagues bring strong value. I work very closely with my teams, giving them much freedom. We make decisions together, and we generally build up a strong rapport in the space of a year. 

In a global context, Kevin added that East Africa is an extremely attractive destination for customers in North America or Europe. “As much as we have a great offer out of Kigali, Entebbe, Nairobi, and Mombasa, these are also great destinations for our customers coming in from Europe and the U.S., the Lufthansa Group offer into East Africa is steadily growing, which provides additional opportunities, better value for money with more choices and also great connectivity through either Brussels or Frankfurt especially looking into the leisure traffic coming through Mombasa, Nairobi and Arusha for the safaris in Tanzania but equally so for Entebbe and Kigali, whether it’s gorilla or eco-tourism, we have an offer in place for everybody.”, he said. 

There are a lot of interesting products that Lufthansa offers, one of them being that Brussels Airlines is the only European carrier that offers a complimentary chauffeur service from Brussels to neighboring countries so customers who are traveling in certain classes or certain fare levels can avail a complimentary chauffeur drive from Brussels airport to their door in neighboring countries such as northern France, Netherlands, Luxembourg or even the western part of Germany and back to Brussels.

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