INSIGHT

African Safari Airways: The Rise and Demise of an all-inclusive Charter and Tour Operator

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Swiss entrepreneur Karl Jakob Rüdin, out of interest in branching out and creating a vacation getaway in Kenya, built a complete tourism package with a company that would take care of everything for passengers along the way.

This began the foundation of African Safari Club group of companies in 1967, a tour operator in which African Safari Airways would also be a part of.

The tour company began with their very own hotel, the Watamu Beach Hotel, being constructed in the coastal town of Mombasa.

Rüdin then formed his own airline to fly passengers to the hotel and to make sure passengers got the home to hotel experience.

Sweet smell of Success

The airline began by launching charter flights to European airports including London, UK; Frankfurt and Munich, Germany; Basel, Switzerland; Milan and Rome, Italy; Madrid, Spain; Vienna, Austria; Paris, France and Egypt from Mombasa’s Moi International Airport.

Initial equipment was provided by Bristol Britannia turboprop airliners from summer 1969 until disposal in 1972 when they were replaced with Douglas DC-8s.

Over the years African Safari would upgauge their Douglas DC-8s with larger variants replacing the smaller DC-8-30s with a Douglas DC-8-53 intercontinental airliner from KLM Royal Dutch Airlines in August 1976 and operated the aircraft on its long distance routes until it was sold in November 1982.

Douglas DC-8-70s also joined the fleet in the early 1980s with the airline never holding onto more than two aircraft at a time since their purpose was small and specific.

But while the airline was small, the African Safari Club was expanding and by 1990 owned 17 hotels and four cruise ships.

Things fall apart

Unfortunately, this expansion would not be sustainable and the company started to take on debt as the oil crisis of the early 1990s drove down the demand for leisure travel.

The airline would also have to respond as the gas-guzzling Douglas DC-8s were replaced with an ex-KLM McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 in 1992.

Internally the company was also seeing issues as the African Safari Club was seeing executives clash on ways to solve the company’s increasingly dire financial situation.

The airline would also create a Kenya based subsidiary called SkyTrails, which would share the same zebra style livery as ASA and operate a fleet of small De Havilland DHC-6s and Cessna 206s around Kenya. SkyTrails would start operations in 1998 and would be closed in 2005 as the parent company continued to struggle.

In 1999, the Group, which included a domestic airline in Kenya operating a fleet of 7 aircraft, two cruise ships, 10 hotels, 5 lodges and a vast travel agency network in Europe, faced bankruptcy and engaged Kai Wulff (owner of Plexus Ltd. Consultancy) to manage all its operations and lead a turn-around.

Wulff made widespread changes but as he increased his footprint on the company, Rüdin stepped in and forced Wulff to go through him to get any changes to the properties and airline approved.

While Wulff prioritized an employee and property first approach, this would fail to live up to fruition as renovation plans were scrapped and the company failed to improve employee pay in favour of just having Rüdin pocket the money.

The group re-entered profitability in 2001 and while property changes would be small, airline changes would be substantial.

The idea of owning aircraft was done for African Safari Airways as the DC-10 would be removed from the fleet in 2002 in favour of leasing Airbus A310s from Hapag-Lloyd of Germany as Wulff’s reign ended in 2004.

Although African Safari Club would limber through the 2000s, the company used various asset sales to stay afloat.

Post-election Violence

The company operated as a vertically integrated group until its slow demise which started in 2007 when the Kenyans saw a political uprising take place following the election of President Mwai Kibaki, which many saw as rigged.

The violence across Kenya forced African Safari Club to issue a statement that their resorts were not impacted by the violence and that tourists would be safe on property. However, the scenes coming from Kenya were more than enough to drive people away.

By 2008 the company was a shell of its former self. African Safari had trimmed their fleet down to just nine. The airline was down to just one 233-seat Airbus A310 and said to be operating 54,000 passengers per year with a route map similar to the one they started with in the 1960s.

As a result of the drop in passengers and the downturn in use of the airline, ASA would be the next asset to be removed. The airline suspended charter flights and the Airbus A310 would be returned to its lessor before finding a new home at Mahan Air of Iran.

Now, the hotel operator would use third-party airlines to get passengers to their resorts, either by scheduled or chartered aircraft. But with a financial situation too dire, African Safari Club would continue its downward spiral until the entire company collapsed in 2011 and filed for bankruptcy.

 

 

By Victor Shalton Odhiambo

 

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