AVIATION

Exclusive: The untold story of Silverstone Air and planned rebrand

The airline has attributed this to unfairness in the industry and suspected competitors' aggression.

In Summary
  • It has already notified the regulator about the planned name switch to Jetlite Air Limited. 
  • It had ticket bookings of over Sh100 million before suspending passenger flight operations 
The Silverstone aircraft which was forced to make an emergency landing at Eldoret International Airport on Monday, October 28, 2019.
The Silverstone aircraft which was forced to make an emergency landing at Eldoret International Airport on Monday, October 28, 2019.
Image: MATHEWS NDANYI

The budget domestic airline, Silverstone Air has cleared at least 85 per cent of air ticket refunds and debt owed to suppliers, even as it plans to rebrand, hoping to get back to past glory someday. 

This, after the voluntary suspension of passenger flights operation in November 2019 following a trail of negative publicity following a bearing mishap on one of its planes that saw the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority(KCAA) suspend seven of its planes for a week. 

The airline has attributed this to unfairness in the industry and suspected competitors' aggression.

It has already notified the regulator about the planned name switch to Jetlite Air Limited. 

According to Silverstone Air reservations manager Maureen Bittah, a proper audit of remaining repayment is top-notch to weed out a high number of fraudulent claims. 

''We had bookings worth over Sh100 million stretching into 2022. Most of those who booked directly and online have since been refunded. Those who booked tickets via agents will get refunded by those agents,'' Bittah said.

She added that just like other airlines, Silverstone had an arrangement with ticketing agents who received customers' money on behalf of the airline and remitted after an agreed period.

''Unfortunately, some of these agents never remitted customers' cash to us, putting the airline in a tight spot. We also have cases of double claims. It is our hope that this will be resolved amicably as soon as possible,'' Bittah said.  

She explains that were it not for Covid-19 which disrupted some of its operational business, all claims will have been settled. 

''Some of our agents and suppliers have been very supportive, with several asking us to hold back on refunds, anticipating our full return into the market,'' Bittah said.

The genesis of Silverstone's woes

On October 28, 2019, one of Silverstone's plane Dash 8-300 registration 5Y-BWG lost the number three main wheel assembly on take off from Lodwar forcing an emergency landing at the Eldoret International Airport.

The plane was en-route from Lodwar to Nairobi. There were no causalities.

The root cause for the Silverstone plane's wheel falling off was a bearing failure, a common mishap in the airline sector that has never resulted in a crash according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). 

According to High Sky Flying, if an airplane wheel falls off, the pilot tries to identify the missing wheel and contacts the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) to get further instructions.

The flight manual (FCOM) of the airplane is to be consulted in emergencies as it provides pilots with a stepwise checklist that must be followed.

According to the portal, larger aircraft mostly have multiple wheels attached to each landing gear. For example, the Boeing B777 has two wheels on the nose landing gear and six wheels on each main landing gear.

Having multiple wheels per landing gear allows some breathing room for the pilot if one wheel is lost.

Dash 8 crafts have double, meaning they can safely land on one. According to the manufacturer, the wheel may come off as a preventive measure to release excess fuel to avoid on-air fires.  

Even so, small airplanes, on the other hand, do not possess the luxury of having multiple wheels per landing gear, which makes handling a wheel-related emergency much more difficult.

At least 167 bearing failure incidences have been reported globally in the past three years. No fatality reported. 

According to Irene Mutisya, director of air safety at Silverstone, the airline conducted the manufacturer of the bearing who confirmed recording similar incidences globally. 

 

Foul play?

The Silverstone incident was no the only air mishap reported in Kenya in recent times.

Data from AAID, air accidents investigations department at the State Department of Transport show that there were 29 air mishaps in 2019 involving Kenyan registered domestic airlines.

Only Silverstone was reprimanded by KCAA, grounding all Dash 8 fleet and even recalling a flight in session from Mombasa to Nairobi, a move the airline terms as extremely unfair.

The regulator did not take any action on another player in the industry whose Dash-8 wheel had a similar incident in Eldoret in August 2018.

''Although the regulator gave the fleet a clean bill of health after a week of investigations, we believe that the action was quite unfair and injured our steady reputation in the market,'' Silverstone Air management told the Star. 

Even so, the regulator said the airline had provided satisfactory corrective measures as per the requirements of the Civil Aviation Regulations 2018.

"KCAA will continue to undertake its continuous surveillance on the operator as they resume normal operations for the Dash 8 series aircraft,” KCAA Director General Gilbert Kibe had said.

Taking the market by storm

The airline launched into the market as Silverstone Air Services,  initially, as a charter and contract air operator using a Cessna Caravan CE208 to serve northern Kenya destinations and within South Sudan and primarily serving NGOs.

It, however, took the market by storm in 2017 after rebranding as Silverstone Air, launching two 50-seater Fokker 50s to serve the lakeside town of Kisumu and south coast town of Ukunda-Diani in October. 

The airline subsequently expanded by commencing operations to the coastal destinations of Malindi and Lamu, adding two lease-purchase agreements 37-seater Bombardier Dash 8 Q-100s. These were delivered in November and December 2017 respectively.

It was well received in the market due to attractive pricing and the convenience of operating out of Wilson Airport, which is just five kilomtres from Nairobi Central Business District (CBD).

''We wanted to give ordinary people a chance to travel by air at an affordable cost. We are the first in the market to introduce a Sh4500 ticket to Kisumu and when others were charging up to Sh32,000 for a return ticket to Mombasa, we gave at less than half the price,'' Bittah said. 

Besides, the airline had flights to almost all operational airports and strips in the country, providing convenience. Bittah said they were flying at least 800 passengers out of  Wilson Airport every day and 1400 from the combined network. 

Shuttered hopes

Since the airline suspended passenger operations, things have never been the same again at the Langata Road-based Airport. 

Phoebe Wanjiru who operates a food kiosk at the pedestrian waiting area at Wilson Airport says she recorded a huge slump in earnings after Silverstone closed. The situation has been worsened by Coronavirus effects.

My business relies on ordinary travelers who cannot afford luxury food. Affordable air tickets by Silverstone directly brought me, such clients. In 2018, at least 200 customers visited the kiosk, this has dropped to less than 50 per day,'' Wanjiru told this writer.

James Ndeto, a digital taxi operator at the Airport is also feeling the double heat of Silverstone Air passenger flight suspension and the advent of Covid-19 that has taken a huge toll on the global aviation sector. 

''At least four out of 10 of my customers in the morning were traveling with Silverstone. Ndege zingine hapa ni za mabazuu (other airlines are frequented by the rich),'' Ndeto said.

''What happened to that company? No day would pass without taking a client to Silverstone's booking section,'' another taxi operator who identified himself only as Karis said. 

Besides, almost 300 employees lost their jobs with a series of direct and indirect beneficiaries including suppliers losing a source of revenue.  

The safety expert at Silverstone regrets that the slight mishap which was blown out of proportion has negatively affected many but she is hopeful that things will rebound after conclusive investigations.

''It is our hope that investigations by AAID will be concluded to enable us hopefully resume full operations and continue contributing to the growth of Kenya's economy,'' Mutisya said.