The month of March as if by co-ordinated conspiracy has seen a number of policy changes in air travel in the region and abroad.
While justified in some respects, these changes affecting air travelers brought to mind two things; one being the conditioning theory of learning by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov and the other being the old-time adage of the boy who cried wolf for his amusement.
Like every industry in the past decade, travel has experienced radical changes. And they almost always affect travellers.
The latest, though seemingly unrelated — specifically pertaining to baggage rules and handling procedures — are certainly bound to have an impact on how the region’s frequent flyers plan for their travels.
The first change was announced by one of the world’s leading airport hubs, Dubai International Airport. It has a made a myriad amendments to its baggage rules.
Last year, Dubai handled 2.89 million tonnes of baggage, and is well known for improving efficiency at its baggage handling. To improve efficiency, the new baggage policy does not allow bags that are oversized, of irregular shape or round and bags with no flat surface. This is because according to a statement from the airport authority, irregular shaped bags are the biggest cause of baggage system jams.
For the African traders buying all kinds of wares from Dubai and originating their trips from this airport, this changes seemed like an affront on their traditionally accepted packaging style.
This airport prides itself on having one of the most sophisticated baggage handling systems in the world that efficiently handles an average of seven million passengers per month. Therefore, such inefficiencies like baggage system jams are unacceptable.
Key performance indicators that airlines use to evaluate airport handlers include the time taken to sort and load baggage onto the aircraft for on-time departure and offloading to baggage carousell at arrival terminals.
The second major announcement came from the US and UK aviation authorities, declaring a controversial ban on electronic devices larger than a cell phone in the cabin on flights to their territories from select North African, Turkey and Middle East airports.
Unlike their US counterparts, the UK authorities have somehow excused Dubai and Doha airports from their anti-terrorism precaution ban list. Expectedly, IATA has summed up the discrepancy as harming the credibility of the measure itself.
Put simply, if you are travelling to the US from the Middle East, and you decide to use a carrier that will transit through or originate its flight in the region, or Istanbul, be prepared to have your electronic devices checked-in.
The alternative for travellers from the region who are familiar with or have been victims of baggage pilferage would be to choose alternative airlines that do not use the flagged airports.
Industry pundits have called the electronic ban an attempt at rolling back the runaway success of the Middle East carriers and Turkish Airlines, which have since the announcement of the ban, witnessed a decline in bookings on the affected origins and destinations.
Frequent flyers who use these airlines need not be deterred by the ban as some of the affected carriers are already finding innovative ways of handling the electronic devices while others are providing tablets on board.
The third baggage-related announcement came from Kenya Airways. The carrier has reduced its free baggage allowance on its East African routes to one piece capped at 23 kilogrammes, and will start charging for extra baggage. Previously, the airline allowed two pieces of baggage of 23kg each, thus giving a free 46kg of baggage to each passenger.
While passengers should expect that the new policy will affect those beginning and terminating their travels within the region, those coming from or going to destinations outside the region on the carrier should not be affected.
Airlines compete on fares, and studies have shown that a generous baggage allowance always tips the scale. Hence an airline offering more baggage allowance is most likely to be more appealing to travellers.
Other airlines in the region like Ethiopian and RwandAir will expectedly hold on to the two pieces of 23kg each, being fully aware that KQ is constrained for capacity due to the aircraft type deployed on the regional routes.
However, a traveller profile in this case also plays a role as business people, conference goers and students account for majority of the intra-regional travellers as opposed to traders who, even if they choose to fly, still prefer to move their cargo by road.
The change on baggage allowance by Kenya Airways, coming on the heels of announcement of expansion of routes by its low-cost subsidiary, JamboJet, could also be a move to prevent cannibalisation of passenger traffic when the latter goes regional.
Being a low-cost carrier, JamboJet may well launch regional destinations with very attractive fares, but travellers should look out for their baggage policy as all checked-in luggage is paid for and can also attract an excess fee.