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Fears of airfare hike as KQ exit of the Congo route creates shortage of seats

The decision this week by Kenya Airways (KQ) to suspend services to Kinshasa is likely to plunge air transport in the Democratic Republic of Congo into a crisis, and raises the prospect of increased airfare as travellers scramble for the reduced supply of seats.

One of only two airlines that provide daily flights between the Congolese capital and their hubs in eastern Africa, the KQ departure has taken roughly a third of the eastbound airline seats out of the market.

Particularly impacted will be passengers who depend on transit through Addis Ababa, Entebbe and Nairobi to their final destinations.

An analysis of schedules data shows that only Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways and Uganda Airlines serve Kinshasa with direct flights to their respective hubs.

In all, there are 5,342 seats a week available either direction. Ethiopian, which operates two flights daily between its Addis hub and Kinshasa, accounts for 63 percent of those seats, while KQ, operating a single flight daily to Kinshasa, offers 1,813 seats, or 34 percent, of the eastbound capacity weekly.

The remaining three percent is provided by Uganda Airlines, which operates three flights between Entebbe and Kinshasa, using its 76-seat CRJ-900. However, because of trade-offs between weight and range, the Ugandan carrier offers only 50 seats per flight, totalling 150 seats a week.

Kenya Airways has been operating its Embraer 190, Boeing 737-800 and recently a leased Airbus 330, to guarantee an average of 259 seats daily. Ethiopian has been using a combination of Airbus 350-900, Boeing 787 Dreamliners and Boeing 737-800 or Max 8 to provide an average of 241 seats distributed across two flights daily.

To maintain capacity and price equilibrium in the wake of KQ’s departure from the market, Ethiopian would require to up-gauge all its services to wide-body aircraft, while Uganda Airlines might be required to increase frequency and deploy larger aircraft.

But, even with a wide-body aircraft picking the baton for its night service to Kinshasa, Ethiopian would not soak up all the demand for the 259 seats vacated by KQ. Uganda Airlines also lacks flexibility within its fleet to deploy a larger aircraft consistently. It might also not be able to line up the technical resources required for it to go daily on the route in the short term. This makes an escalation in fares inevitable.

Congolese air passengers have already been contending with reduced connections to East Africa, after the DRC barred RwandAir from its airspace in May 2022.

KQ CEO Allan Kilavuka announced the decision to pull out of the Kinshasa route effective April 30, citing inability to deliver seamless service after the detention of the airline’s staff by the DRC military.

The DRC military intelligence said that they had arrested the staff in question over attempts to ship high-value cargo out of the country on a KQ flight, without fulfilling customs procedures. It later emerged that the cargo in question was a consignment currency notes worth $8 million.

The military has defied both legal and diplomatic efforts to have the staff released. An order granting the duo bail was rebuffed by the military.

“Due to the continued detention of KQ employees by the Military Intelligence Unit in Kinshasa, Kenya Airways is unable to support our flights without personnel effectively. The continued detention of our employees has made it difficult for us to supervise our operations in Kinshasa, which include customer service, ground handling, cargo activities, and generally ensuring safe, secure, and efficient operations. As a result, we reached a difficult decision to suspend flights to Kinshasa effective April 30, 2024, until we can effectively support these flights,” Mr Kilavuka said on Tuesday.

Observers say Kenya Airways may be paying the price for Kenya’s apparent bid to do business in the DRC while ignoring the local politics. The EastAfrican has learnt that the two staff, a Kenyan and a Congolese, may be held for what they know, having been in the cargo operations for most of the past year.

It all started unravelling when a well-known courier service provider declined to transport cargo from a Congolese bank in early April, sources say. From then, the bank, which we now know is TMB, reached out to KQ to directly ferry the money to Nairobi and then on to a farther destination. But, by then, the military intelligence in Kinshasa had got wind of the cargo.

It turned out that an informant in Nairobi had alerted Congolese authorities, claiming that the money was meant to fund opposition and rebel activities.

Both the airline and the bank have refuted the claims.

KQ said it had no even accepted the money while TMB says the cargo in question were bank notes being returned to the source because they were no longer suitable for circulation.

It said it was “an operation to export banknotes in foreign currencies which, moreover, is a common practice of commercial banks and therefore does not constitute an offence as insinuated by certain journalists who, unfortunately, and for reasons of their own, refrained from investigating the various departments involved in such as operation.”

The bank was referring to a Congolese journalist, who first published details of the detention.

“Our bank has complied with all the formalities required for this operation, which is not the first of its kind and is inherent to the operation of banks, particularly for notes unfit for circulation, either because of their condition or because of their series,” TMB said.

Though the bank has not divulged details of the value of the cargo, sources put the figure at $8 million, but they contradicted the lender on the issue of circulation, indicating the notes were neither damaged nor unsuitable for use as legal tender.

Based on this, the Congolese military intelligence concluded the money was being transported for ulterior motives and did not rule out funding of rebels.

Kenya Airways said they had declined the cargo because it did not have adequate customs details. CEO Kilavuka said military men in Kinshasa took the two employees to the military side of the air wing to record statements, and they were held incommunicado until April 23, when the embassy officials and a KQ team were allowed to visit them.

The DRC government has not commented on the issue and Government Spokesman Patrick Muyaya did not respond to our questions sent on text messaging service.

Sources said Kinshasa was using the KQ staff for leverage, ostensibly, to force Nairobi to “stop providing support or platform for the rebels.”

Since December last year, Kenya and the DRC have had lukewarm relations after a group led by former Independent National Electoral Commission (Ceni) boss Corneille Nangaa formed the Congo River Alliance in Nairobi, ostensibly to target Kinshasa’s leadership under Felix Tshisekedi. The Alliance has since merged with the M23 rebel group.

At the time, Kinshasa recalled its ambassador and forced Kenya’s diplomat to explain the issue. Nairobi denied the claims it was supporting M23 or the Alliance but President William Ruto argued that it was a free country where people speak on any political issues.

After the December fiasco, however, President Tshisekedi did invite Dr Ruto to his inauguration ceremony for the second term in January after winning the December 2023 polls. It seemed to have only peppered over the cracks.

Now, the Congolese government has specifically asked for the arrest of Nangaa and his extradition to Kinshasa, should he set foot in Nairobi again. Kinshasa has also demanded that Nairobi confiscate weapons passing through its territory and headed for DRC, unless those weapons are specifically meant for Congolese security agencies or their allies in the war against M23.

When the KQ staff were detained, Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was “concerned” and promised to use diplomatic channels to have them freed.

By Friday, however, The EastAfrican learnt there was little moving, with Kinshasa sticking to its conditions before freeing them. With the conflict raging in the east, it appears Kenya Airways found itself in the middle of multiple external interests in the Congo war.

Cancelling flights, though a safety precaution, amounts to losses for an airline battling financial headwinds.

The KQ issue has thrust DRC into the spotlight over concerns that it has been reluctant to implement the East African Community protocols.

DRC’s slow pace to integrate with the bloc’s partners, whose emphasis is on free movement of people, goods and services and operation of a single customs union, has come into sharp focus. The DRC formally joined the EAC on April 8, 2022, and subsequently attained full membership status on July 11, 2022.

But, two years later, it is yet to implement the protocols of the Customs Union and Common Market.

Kenya’s Principal Secretary for EAC Affairs Abdi Dubat told The EastAfrican this week that DRC is “still being integrated into the EAC.”

“They have not yet got an implementable roadmap to be integrated into the Customs Union, Common Market and Monetary Union. The EAC secretariat was developing a roadmap to integrate them but since they joined they have had challenges of conflict, peace and security, elections and that has slowed them down,” he said.

On the KQ staff detention, Foreign Affairs, EAC and Trade ministries have been directed to help resolve the matter, and Mr Dubat said it is being handled “at the highest level.”

Yet it is not just Kenya that has problems with Kinshasa. Uganda is threatening to reintroduce visa fees for DRC nationals, which it had suspended after DRC’s entry into the EAC, after Kinshasa continued to levy Ugandans $50 as entry fee, contrary to the EAC Treaty.

“I have informed the DRC authorities that if they do not conform to the agreement, we shall reinstate the visa payments for their citizens,” said Rebecca Kadaga, Uganda’s First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of East African Community Affairs.

Uganda lifted visa requirements for citizens of the DRC during the 8th Joint Permanent Commission held in Kinshasa, in October 2023 but it is now frustrated that DRC has failed to honour its side of the bargain.

During this meetings from October 11 to October 15, 2023, the parties agreed to waive visa requirements for citizens of both countries, starting January 1, 2024.Four months later, DRC is still levying Ugandans $50 entry fee.

DRC has had frosty relations with her EAC neighbours and joining the Community was greeted with hopes that at least these issues would be resolved.

But President Tshisekedi’s frosty relations with his Rwanda counterpart Paul Kagame have not dissipated. The Congolese leader maintains that Rwanda supports the Rwandese-Congolese rebel group M23.