Thursday, May 6, 2021

About Air Botswana…A letter to Batswana

Bagaetsho.┬á I have been postponing to write this letter to you all for a while, in my mind, that is….

I have served our national airline, for over 20 years and would like to share my experience and thoughts of what perhaps causes the “muddle” at Air Botswana. By this time, i sincerely believe that any sensible, caring and responsible Motswana is fully aware that our national airline is in disarray, grossly mismanaged and faces a bleak future. Being a professional pilot- bred and trained by Air Botswana, through the Botswana Government, l remain indebted and truly grateful for the opportunity. Therefore, I will always have a warm heart for our national airline and hence felt compelled to write this letter. So to answer that question……no other motivation whatsoever….just purely my personal views.

As is known Air Botswana is owned and funded by the Botswana Government with tax payer’s money, and the Ministry of Transport, the accountable organ of the government. This therefore, makes the Honorable Minister of Transport, whom I believe reports to the President, directly responsible for Air Botswana. Then of course there is a Board of Directors, appointed by the Minister to provide over sight and guide Air Botswana Executive management, which is headed by the General Manager. Below the Executive Management comes Middle Management, Supervisors and the rest of the staff which completes the structure of the organization.

The above paragraph is a simplified version of Air Botswana’s corporate governance for the reader to follow my views. In most cases when an organization either ascends into good governance or descends into a dark hole, the whole organizational structure will be responsible, directly or indirectly and in one way or the other. My simplistic view is that we are ALL responsible for the gross failures at Air Botswana.

His Excellency, The President of the Republic of Botswana.
Let us then start at the very top, with His Excellency, The President of the republic of Botswana. Batswana would like you to come up publicly and share your thoughts about the state of our National airline. The Airline has been going down the drain for years now. Your urgent intervention, through the Minister of Transport is required. A positive way forward is of utmost importance, solutions must be found and people directly responsible for the “muddle” must be called to account. I sincerely believe that it would be in your interest, as part of your legacy, and especially that you are a very proud Aviator, to leave behind a prosperous and well-functioning National airline, one that all Batswana will identify with and proud of.

Minister of Transport
Second in line is the accountable Minister of Transport. Honorable Minister I have doubts if indeed you are fully aware of what is happening at the national airline, the gross mismanagement, low staff morale, lack of proper structures and poor corporate governance to name but a few. The performance of your Board of Directors is usually below par, primarily due to the fact that they have limited or no aviation experience and hence have to rely heavily on the General Manager. This has been the case for years now. Aviation, including aircraft operations, is a dynamic, highly specialized and very expensive field and must be handled with that respect. For example, type and size of aircraft purchased and/or leased for any airline operation is a huge undertaking that cannot be left to the General Manager alone. It MUST be team work that involves a carefully selected team, including a knowledgeable board. I am afraid this has not been the case in previous decisions. In question would be: The purchase of the Bae 146 jets in the 1990’s; The purchase of the two ATR 72 ÔÇô 500 in 2009 and; the recent purchase of the Avro RJ 85 jets in 2012. In general when you scrutinize these purchases, it becomes clear that no proper aircraft and route performance analysis was conducted, hence the dismal performance of these aircraft on Air Botswana’s route network; and all these purchases had received the Board of Directors approval!

In view of the aforesaid, might I then suggest to the Honorable Minister, that perhaps this might be the time to revise the Ministry’s process of recruiting and appointing of the airlines’ Board Members.

Board of Directors
The board, in any set up, guides and directs an organization, and Air Botswana is no different. And just like a coach in a football team, the Board of Directors must possess a certain level of relevant experience and knowledge to guide and direct. It would be so much more effective to reserve a certain quota amongst the Board of Directors team, say at least 50%, to candidates with a specified level of experience in airline management and general aircraft operations.

I am not in any way implying that all Board members at Air Botswana are below par, and the usage of┬á “below par “in this case┬á is strictly restricted to: aviation knowledge, aircraft operations and airline management. For any airline to function well, aircraft choice, which is the most crucial, must be handled professionally by experts and endorsed by a knowledgeable Board. It is expected that the Board must have a clear understanding of related aircraft choice topics, which includes, but not limited to, aircraft performance throughout the entire route network, maintenance costs, fuel burn, payload, dispatch reliability, parts availability, seat/nautical performance, breakeven figures/ particular sector, aircraft resale value. As mentioned earlier in this writing, unsuitable aircrafts either bought or leased for the national airline met the Board’s approval.The foundations, in any plan must be solid, otherwise what follows will be like trying to fit a square plug into a round socket! A wrong aircraft choice from the onset is a recipe for disaster.

The two BAe 146 ÔÇô 100 jets have been parked outside Air Botswana hanger for years now, and 4 months ago their sisters, the two Avro RJ 85 jets joined them. About 3 years prior, one of the ATR 72 ÔÇô 500 turbo props was sold, with hardly two years into service due to its poor performance in and out of airfields where Air Botswana operates. The board and management surely must know that parking aircrafts, under the harsh African sun, for years on without a plan to dispose of them is a very expensive exercise. Of note is that, the two Avro RJ 85 jets and the two ATR 72 ÔÇô 500’s turbo propellers were all purchased against advice.

The Board is responsible for the recruitment of the airline’s Executive Management, and this includes the General Manager. For years now the airline has been subjected to questionable General Managers, whom staff where informed were head hunted. These “head hunted” individuals, who are as usual, preferred over Batswana, have brought very little positive change to the airline. In fact the staff notices from the Board to introduce the new General Managers, on more than one occasion had full praise on the incumbent as having been airline consultants- never any mention of the airline that they had led before. Looking at the pathetic state the national airline is in now, it is very clear that, they all come with no past experience of heading an airline of the size of Air Botswana let alone one going through a difficult period.

Let no one believe that I am anti expatriates, no, not at all, but for some reason, the past Boards have always looked beyond our borders for the position of General Manager. Candidates can be Batswana as well, who probably will have the national airline at heart. Batswana are well capable as a people, with the full support of the Board and staff, it can be done locally!
Therefore, my advice to the Board is very simply, in future kindly head hunt people with a proven track record, the right qualities- relevant experience and knowledge to turn the national airline around.

The General Manager and his Executive team
This is the team, headed by the General Manager that deals with the day to day running of the national airline. At this level operational decisions are made, which can make or break the airline and some deemed of utmost importance are escalated to the Board of Directors for consideration and perhaps approval. Truly speaking this is where it all starts, the plans, dreams, visions and ambition of the airline are born here. This calls for men and women with the right qualification, integrity, attitude, experience, and above all determination to succeed. This is perhaps the most crucial platform and all other platforms ie of the Board of Directors and the Minister, then rely heavily on this team’s technical expertise.

In a lot of the organizations the “muddle” normally starts at this level, and I am afraid to say that this is exactly the situation at our ailing national airline. The General Manager and his team appear clueless on a way forward: how to steer the airline away from the rough seas! Air Botswana was a little better a year ago. The General Manager and his team have now managed to lead it into a darker hole. The two Avro RJ 85’s were flying then, albeit with recurring engine problems that required attention. We as the Avro pilots’ voiced our concerns and at one point were addressed by the General Manager, who clearly appealed to all to let the aircrafts fly, to save him from the ministry. The pilots appeal to have the engines attended was taken lightly, and as reality is never fooled, the two Avro RJ 85’s have been grounded now for 4 months and counting!

All this would have been avoided had the laid out maintenance procedures for engines been followed. There are no excuses for these kinds of lapses, especially that the General Manager, whom we are told is an Engineer by profession, was very well much aware of the Avro RJ engines situation. Due to this gross neglect, the national airline has no choice but to ground the Avro RJ 85 jets and to “wet” lease aircrafts from South Africa to carry out its schedule. One need not be a brilliant accountant to realize the extra expenditure that the national airline carries with this. Air Botswana has to now contend with lease rates of foreign aircrafts, as well as pay to the salaries of both Avro RJ 85 pilots and engineers sitting at home!

Following news from The Voice newspaper locally and The Herald in Zimbabwe about similar dubious aircraft lease deals, involving the same personnel and the same aircraft leasing company from South Africa, can anyone be blamed for believing that there might be ulterior motives after all? Is this an example of good leadership and performance by an accountable Manager? No! The General Manager has been holding the fort now for almost a year and no signs of recovery are in sight for the airline. He has taken steps, could be positive ones, to replace members of his Executive team. And where do his eyes land for suitable replacements??….. his home country Zimbabwe of course!. Is it a coincidence? No! And are they Ex Air Zimbabwe? Yes! Is Air Zimbabwe a prosperous and functioning airline? Hell No! This is basically a defunct organization, and these so called experts that the Board is endorsing have each played a role in what Air Zimbabwe is today. So now begs the question, what value will these individuals, including the General Manager add to our ailing national airline? Not much is the answer!

The Executive members sat and watched the General Manager lead the airline into further disarray. I say this because organizational decisions are made at the Executive team meetings. It is a team effort. The grounding of the two Avro 85 jets which led to the “wet” lease of aircrafts from South Africa is the responsibility of all the Executive Managers before Board approval. That Air Botswana continues to perform below standard, with a dysfunctional schedule, poor market share, poor route networks and loss making falls on the shoulders of the Executive Team, duly led by the General Manager. A lot that happens at Air Botswana, the grounding of the two Avro Jets, as an example, is a total failure by the Executive Team and was completely avoidable. The Board must demand accountability from all and stop rewarding poor performance by allowing the General Manager and his team to use leasing of foreign aircrafts as a solution.

The Executive Management must be responsible for cost control, this is a standard operating procedure in any organization. Not so with Air Botswana though:

The General Manager is free to recruit staff from outside at a higher pay, overlooking Batswana, some who are better experienced, knowledgeable and who too have a right to personal progression.

The Flight Operations Department continues to transport pilots to and from work; this is against normal airline practice worldwide.

The Flight Operations Department continues to rely on outsiders for basic refresher courses such as Crew Resource Management, Dangerous goods, etc, and spends thousands of Pulas yearly.
The Catering Department continues to waste money, millions of Pulas yearly on Airchefs, a South African catering company. It appears there are some at the national carrier, who continue to strongly support this set up. It is at Airchefs where all the meals and snacks that Air Botswana serves on board their flights are purchased. Air Botswana even purchases items such as Ice cubes and lemon slices from Airchefs, which leaves one to wonder just how much effort and expertise is required to produce ice cubes? All these millions wasted on Airchefs could be saved by self-catering or using local caterers – this is what most airlines, Air Botswana size do. The advantages to self-catering are huge, saves a lot of money, creates employment locally and passengers get to enjoy freshly prepared snacks as opposed to being served snacks that were prepared the night before!

The engineering and purchasing department wastes millions  by and often due to improper trouble shooting processes leading to wrong parts being ordered and purchased from overseas suppliers, which in turn sometimes lead to the grounding of an aircraft.

The Engineering Department spends funds on Boroscope specialists, whilst the airline has the equipment and properly trained personnel.

The Finance Department runs huge bills on fast food like Nandos, consumed during overtime.
The Ground Services Department, will on the slightest hint of an impending delay, spend money on purchasing food for passengers.

The Marketing Department spends fortunes on branded items like bottled water, which is totally unnecessary for an airline this size.

The Human Resource Department will often leave the airline’s training rooms and instead opt to book training facilities at places like Maharaj. An unnecessary cost.

These are just a few of the examples. Every single department at Air Botswana is very wasteful, and this is a fact! I am more that certain that an investigation coupled with financial audits of all relevant departments will reveal more. Air Botswana is dying for a strong Executive Team!
 
Staff in General
Lastly comes; the staff in general. Granted the staff is demoralized, and who could blame them… working for an ailing airline? But, can the staff in general be completely exonerated from all the ills of their beloved Air Botswana? No, not all! They too have a role in all this, and as such a considerable portion of blame has to be apportioned to them. Most of the staff is not aware of their true value; that they are the most prized assert to the airline; and that without them nothing will move or work. They simply consider themselves to be just workers, sorely needed to perform minimum efforts and get a monthly salary. Most never consider what is it that they can do to help Air Botswana, instead they either spend time at work, lamenting, complaining, bickering, gossiping or back biting the other.┬á Positive, accountable, disciplined and forward looking employees are shunned and detested at Air Botswana instead below average performers, often very loyal to a manager or supervisor are favored. All this is negative energy that can never be used to turn the airline around, converting it into positive energy of team work, if fruition is to be realized. It must be. It is not an option.

 It is crucial at this stage to forget about your usual silos, come together and save what, to some of you has provided daily bread for you and your families for many a years. Staff must start thinking positively, difficult as it may be. Service delivery to the travelling public has to be good. Simply answering the telephone at sales office and making sure that the online booking system functions well at all times can be helpful. Smiles at check in will be welcome. Clean, reliable, properly maintained and safely operated aircrafts is essential. Top this up with well-groomed and trained cabin crew for a good onboard service

I am told that recently a whistle blowing policy has been put in place at Air Botswana, albeit long overdue but welcome, I would edge the staff to fully utilize this handsome tool; for the right reasons of course. Not to settle personal scores. All has to be in the best interest of our beloved Air Botswana. The staff must wake up from this slumber and false sense of security that the Botswana Government will always be available to bail out the airline. Motswana o rile se sa feleng se a thola!

Ka boikokobetso.
Captain Dick K. Mulalu.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper