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FLYING TO SUCCESS

Bluebird grew to chartered flights king through sweat, dust and tears — GM

With aircraft leasing costing up to Sh9 million, the founding pilots could not afford to sleep. They worked with a team that is still going strong nearly three decades after the airline's inception

In Summary

• Conceived in January 1992, Bluebird Aviation has had a tough and tireless journey

• Capts Hussein Mohammed and Mohamed Adan grew it from one aircraft to a fleet

Planes at the Bluebird aviation hanger at the Wilson Airport.
Planes at the Bluebird aviation hanger at the Wilson Airport.
Image: MONICAH MWANGI

Bluebird Aviation is one of the oldest and successful airlines operating from Wilson Aiport. It provides only charter services, and over the years, the airline has flown among others retired President Daniel Moi. Its general manager, Capt Hussein Mohammed, spoke to the Star.

When and how did Bluebird start?

 

In January 1992, the idea of Bluebird Aviation was born. Capt Mohamed Adan and I had vast flying experience by then. After leaving the military as a pilot, I joined Air Kenya Aviation as a line pilot, while Capt Adan was working with Western Airways, a local air charter company, as a charter pilot.

We had identified a niche in air cargo business, which had not been exploited. We met and discussed how we would partner and, instead of going single-handedly, we agreed to combine effort. We jointly registered Bluebird Aviation in February 1992.

In April 1992, we invited one of the veteran Air Force pilots, Col (Rtd) H Farah, who had just retired after 25 years of decorated service, to join us and provide leadership and experience in the business.

By late May 1992, we invited one of the miraa dealers then, Yussuf Adan, by virtue of his cargo, which was being transported by air at the time, to join us as a quasi-shareholder. Hardly four years into the growth of the business, his miraa venture collapsed. Out of sheer good faith, we maintained him as one of the shareholders. The rest of us embarked on a tough and tireless journey, through sweat and tears, to grow the company from one aircraft to the current fleet.

Why did you name your airline Bluebird?

My late father Mzee Unshur Mohammed, a retired paramount chief of Wajir, had a habit of feeding birds in our homestead. He set up an area in the compound, where we would place water and food for the birds of the area.

 

Among the flock of birds that fed there was a beautiful bird with a bluish shining back and golden feathers on the chest, which I came to learn, while serving in the Kenyan military, that it was called Bluebird in English. In memory of my late father, this particular bird came to my mind as a fitting name for the company.

How much and how many planes did you use to start the business?

My business partner, Capt Mohammed Adan, and I leased a Cessna 402 aircraft. General aviation business had started to take root in this country at the time. This one aircraft would prove to be a springboard given the increased demand, especially for air charters. The three of us would fly this aircraft tirelessly almost daily, except the time it was due for maintenance.

What was the main challenge?

Creating value out of nothing is not a walk in the park. While others are seeing threats, as an investor, you can only see opportunities. It was not easy to narrow to air charters as opposed to other lines of the aviation business.

We had lease-purchased an aircraft at Sh9 million, and the lease rentals were due by the end of every month. You could not afford to sleep! Aircraft financing is a capital-intensive venture; you cannot afford to pay upfront, and hence the need for sheer hard work on our part to ensure the monthly lease rentals are well catered for. This coupled with the fear of failure would propel us to work around the clock and meet all the obligations.

Just like in most new businesses, we were literally doing everything. From flying the aircraft, sales and marketing, minor aircraft troubleshooting, and general administration, it was quite overwhelming. But with God’s grace, we managed to grow the company to one of the leading airlines in this country.

Aviation business requires a high degree of commitment just like any other venture. Running all these activities to make sure everything goes on smoothly requires sacrifice. That coupled with flying duties would mean that our life would start and end with the business.

As an investor, you are destined to have strengths and weaknesses. We needed a business team to cover up or complement each other's weaknesses. A like-minded team is mandatory for a successful business. It makes it easy to transfer passion and vision within your team. We managed to assemble an excellent top management team that has served tirelessly since inception, and the results are visible.

What drove you to start the business?

Passion and legacy. Passion is a crucial quality of success. We all love flying as a team. In addition, we wanted to be in this industry for the long haul and effectively create something new, be market leaders and innovators in the rather underdeveloped aviation industry.

How would you describe the journey since then?

Credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with dust and sweat, who strives valiantly, who may fall again and again because there is no effort without error or shortcoming.

Nevertheless, the journey has been tough. But tough times never last, tough people do, and it’s gratifying to see the fruits of our hard labour today.

Tell us about the safety record of your airline

The aviation industry is a highly regulated sector, with procedures, controls, rules and regulations encompassed in the Kenya Civil Aviation Act. We are bound to abide religiously by these rules.

Bluebird Aviation Ltd general manager Captain H. Mohammed during a press conference with The Star, 13, May 2019.
Bluebird Aviation Ltd general manager Captain H. Mohammed during a press conference with The Star, 13, May 2019.
Image: MONICAH MWANGI

We have done what it takes to ensure safety is our number one priority in all our operations, and hence the high degree of compliance in our operations.

To enhance safety even further, the same teams are annually trained by approved top-rate aviation training organisations globally.

Who are some of the most prominent people you have carried?

Our air charter service provision has seen us offer our services to the UN agencies, Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, IEBC, Kenya Red Cross Society, sub-charters from other players in the industry, among others. We have flown the former President Moi, the late President of South Sudan John Garang, prominent media personalities, among others.

Why do you do only charters?

We chose to venture and specialise in air charters because the other line of business, namely scheduled passenger flights, had been dominated by Kenya Airways, the regional carrier. With their modern equipment and capital base, no competitor would dethrone them in this line of business. This together with the fact that there was another passenger air operator would mean that our entry would be futile. Air charters have been our market niche in effect.

Is there a boardroom tussle between directors?

Yes, there is a boardroom dispute involving three directors on one side and a miraa trader, Yusuf Adan, who we brought on board purely as a client. Hardly four years after he joined us, his miraa trade up north started nosediving, leading to unbearable losses on his part. Despite him having abandoned his business, we maintained him as a shareholder.

In late 2015, his religious convictions suddenly changed, and he became very uncomfortable being a shareholder in a company that deals with miraa freight. The rest of us toiled sweat and tears to dissuade him from his new line of religious conviction. At that point, he was very categorical that he wanted to exit the company and therefore, the rest of us should give financial compensation. On the contrary, we explained to him the fact that the team spirit has always been to expand and grow the company so it’s able to compete globally.

His idea was that if the rest of us cannot buy him off, he proposed that we disintegrate the company and sell it off to any willing buyer, an idea that was opposed by the majority.

In early 2016, he rushed to the High Court with a winding-up application, where he failed. After dismissal, he further filed an appeal in the Court of Appeal.

The same was also denied. I'm informed that the matter has been appealed at the Supreme Court.

How has it affected the business?

The volume of business has declined, something I am very convinced the dissenting shareholders are proud of. But, the rest of the team is working very hard to ensure the business goes back to its usual course. It will take us time, but we will manage.

What are your general comments on the aviation sector in Kenya?

The performance of the aviation industry in Africa still lags behind. However, there is a market demand for air transport over the past years, with both passenger and freight traffic registering increased growth.

In the last 10 years, the Kenyan aviation industry has seen some of the fastest growth in the continent.

I foresee this trend continuing for the foreseeable future due to increased population, resulting in an increased number of Kenyans preferring air transportation to travel regionally and within the country.

This has made the aviation industry play a vital role in the growth of our nation. It has accelerated the convergence of goods and persons in the growth of the industry.

It is notable and commendable that the current leadership and staff at the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority have taken a professional approach to addressing deficiencies in aviation safety and security, and they have thoroughly strengthened the regulatory framework.

This has resulted in industry-wide improvement of standards, procedures and training programmes.

Accordingly, I expect this positive effort on the part of KCAA and increased appetite by Kenyans in preferring air travel as opposed to road transportation — to result in the sector growing even faster in the coming decade.

What are your ambitions?

Bluebird Aviation is committed to becoming the premier air charter service provider globally.

What is the future of aviation in Kenya?

In my opinion, from the industry trends I observe, the contribution of air transport far exceeds that of road transportation, resulting in spill-over effects through the creation of direct and indirect jobs in the industry and other sectors, such as tourism and other service sectors. I believe we can sustain the growth of our aviation industry if more and more people can afford to pay for the cost of air travel.