Sunday, February 28, 2021

Ben Dahwa ÔÇô Reaching for the sky

Not many General Managers (CEOs) count public criticism as a blessing. But then, Air Botswana General Manager Ben Dahwa, the man tasked with steering the ailing airline out of the bumps is no ordinary industry suit.

We are seated around a huge conference room table at the Air Botswana head office and Dahwa is bubbling with patches of home grown philosophy, bits of industry expertise and spurts of wisdom: ‘We must embrace public feedback. We must embrace Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and all other mediums that our critics use’, he says.

This is not the rambling of some stuck up executive trying to make all the right noises, far from it. When Dahwa took up the Air Botswana top post twelve months ago, he walked right into a media firestorm. Air Botswana was making headlines for all the wrong reasons: substandard services, delayed flights and aircraft unavailability resulting in severe disruptions. Indications are that the new man at the helm has been able to pick the real message out of the noise and the insight is alchemy of transforming the lead of public criticism into the gold of efficient performance.

‘The statistics are very good. They are reassuring. In the past ten months, on time performance has improved by between 15 and 20 percent”, and he vouches that the airline customers will experience schedule reliability and on time performance target north of 85%.’

Dahwa however feels that at some point, the statistics should take second place to real life experience. ‘I want to have a culture where we talk less, brag less and let our customers complement us about the experience we give them; cleanliness, professionalism, customer service and reliability.”

Air Botswana has had a very long bumpy flight and its cockpit is not a place for a captain with a weak stomach. Ever the inveterate optimist, Dahwa however sees an ‘exciting challenge’ where his predecessors felt it was time to move on. The national carrier has experienced challenges for some time now. Overtime all substantive General Managers jumped ship before the end of their contracts.

Dahwa however is not daunted: ‘One can never pretend that it is an easy ride, but it is an airline with lots of opportunities. The opportunities are really what encourage me.’

He is convinced that Air Botswana has some key strengths as a short haul regional carrier which can be harnessed to turn it around.

‘Most airlines are in trouble because of underfunding and shareholder non – performance. Since I have been with Air Botswana there has been a lot of support from the shareholder, especially funding. We also score better than most airlines in Africa when it comes to the availability of basic airline operational infrastructure; maintenance hangar facilities, ground handling/service equipment and specialized tooling. This is a solid base for a team that is confident and knowledgeable to be able to take the airline to the next level.’

Dahwa’s emphasis on ‘a team that is confident and knowledgeable’ is not lost to me. He must have noticed my double take because he immediately went on to explain that, ‘central to any business is the human resources. I am very clear that my biggest challenge is human resources. With that realization, one can then say I know where to focus. I need to develop a well-motivated, resourced and capacitated team that has the confidence to turn the airline around. But it is not as though I am taking a start-up business that has never tasted success. If you look at the Air Botswana financial story you realize that it is an airline that has demonstrated that it was set up to make a profit.

‘Realistically, we are at a state where we can’t say we are a struggling business, but with the right key human resources in the right areas it is very easy to turn the airline around. He talks of a people strategy that enhances productivity and efficiencies. This will involve attracting the right people, developing and retaining them and being brave enough to retire and exit those who through the right process are identified as not adding value. He says, ‘when I look at the ratio of our wage bill to that of our operating revenue, I see a huge opportunity for improvement.” He feels that a lot of Air Botswana processes are too manual and they come with a lot of human errors, ‘so it is very difficult to maintain standards where there is so much human factor. Our competition is all external competition coming from environments that are technologically advanced but when we meet on the market we meet as competitors.’

As he talks about his turn-around strategy, Dahwa sound like a man walking a tight rope: ‘Aviation is a very unforgiving business; there is no room for error of judgment.’ He is looking at cost containment, but he knows that if he cuts his budget too deep to the bone, it may cripple other operations. He is convinced that Air Botswana should embrace what is currently possible with the available resources. Our market is one of those tricky markets where on paper the per capita is high compared to other African countries but in reality flying is still a luxury.” The real Botswana market is 200 000 people. Dahwa’s strategy going forward will focus on increasing revenue while containing costs. But how will he do that with an aging fleet in a small and stagnant market of 200 000 people where the skies have been liberated resulting in more hands on the small cake?

‘Yes the equipment is getting old, yes it is on average, past the magical number of 15 years where you start seeing maintenance costs sky rocketing, but where our fleet age is, we compare better with airlines operating the same equipment. We are at the middle of the bell curve. By world standards we are not operating old equipment, however, in the airline game the age of the fleet is a huge factor in terms of defining the product value our flying customers buy. This is why most successful airlines today have a standing policy to renew their fleet before they reach 10 years; this is “sharpening the saw”, a necessary survival tactic necessary to stay and remain valid in the game. Here, I am saying at Air Botswana we are due for re-fleeting and we are in conversation with the shareholder in this regard.’ There is a small problem; however, while air craft maintenance cost is denominated in US Dollars, Air Botswana collects its fares in the relatively weak Pula. The cost currency is stronger than the revenue currency. Dahwa said that the fleet has gone through heavy airframe maintenance checks during the 2014/15 financial year save for certain engine and landing gear maintenance, a development which should reduce pressure on the cash flow.

Dahwa talks of ‘creating value and selling the value’ and he has a very clear value proposition: ‘we will service our customers on time, as per our schedule and for the money we have taken ahead of the experience. The Air Botswana chief is big on honesty and integrity to win back the customers the airline has lost over the years. He insists that Air Botswana should not be judged on the bottom line alone but on its net contribution to the country’s economy. ‘We should be able to evidence our value add to our shareholders. Our contribution to the economy does not end with the money we make from the ticket sales. You have to look at the nights our passengers spend while in Botswana, the food they eat and all the downstream benefits including job creation; we are an economic enabling tool available to serve and support the National strategies for growth.’ Air Botswana plans to keep the connection with its passengers while they are in the country and see if they cannot influence where they sleep, where they eat and what they drive and make money out of it too.’

Dahwa is looking at Air Namibia as a good benchmark. Both countries have a population of about 2 million and they are neighbors, but while Air Botswana is looking at revenue of P 400 million Air Namibia is chasing a top line of P 2 billion and what they are putting out on the market is ten times more than what Air Botswana puts on the market.

Dahwa however feels Air Botswana can achieve those numbers. No one is better placed to make that bet. Before taking up the post with Air Botswana, Dahwa was, General Manager, Technical and Operations, at Air Namibia.

‘Let us first stabilize our operations, demonstrate reliability and consistence and have measured growth.’ He however insists that there should be ‘no expanding for the sake of expanding without a valid business case. He says once Air Botswana has successfully defended its local market it can then start pursuing the long haul market without putting its aircraft out there but through commercial partnerships with other international carriers.

We are almost at the end of our interview, then a mischievous smirk plays around his face with an ‘I believe I have answered all your questions’. The mischievous smirk is because he knows he has ducked out of a question that required him to talk about himself. ‘A results driven person who lets his work speak for him, Dahwa is most uncomfortable when he has to talk about himself. He is an Avionics Engineer who has spent 30 years in the industry and as a scientist he comes across more as a systems thinker than a feeler, he relies more on logical analysis than intuition. As he puts it he never relies on a gut feel and needs to have things tested out and according to him the engineering bottom-line is “if anything is designed well to work then it must work and produce the desired results” therefore Air Botswana must be Going Your Way.

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