Why a national airline is a very bad idea

Boeing 747 MSN 19746 leased to Zambia Airways and delivered on 29 Sep 1988 with registration number N603FF. Details http://www.planesregister.com/aircraft/b747-19746.htm
Boeing 747 MSN 19746 leased to Zambia Airways and delivered on 29 Sep 1988 with registration number N603FF. Details http://www.planesregister.com/aircraft/b747-19746.htm

[Published in the Post newspaper on 27 September 2013]

By Sampa Kabwela

I shouldn’t be the one to write on this, but Zambia is not ready now or in the foreseeable future to own a national airline.

One quickest way to send a country into bankruptcy is to start a national airline. While those calling for a national carrier mean well and do so in the spirit of nationalism, running an airline goes beyond sentimental rhetoric of flying the national flag.

One of the most difficult, cut throat and unprofitable businesses under the sun is the airline business. In fact, I am not aware of any airline which is not struggling to survive including long established names in the industry such as KLM, American Airlines, SAA or British Airways, whose closure of the 70year old London-Lusaka route next month has aroused the call for a national carrier.

The pending demise of the above route has come as a total surprise even to those among us who have never used this route. There was just something national, something permanent about BA’s London-Lusaka route, like Findeco House or the Freedom Statue which no one pays attention to until the day one drives past and it’s not there.
The closure of this route is less economic than it is a cultural and historical loss. For some people, this route holds lots of endearing memories; it once stood as a gateway to a bigger world for many young people who left Zambia for the first time to study abroad. The Lusaka-London route was more than just a flight, it was, once upon a time, a dream-liner carrying the dreams of proud parents, excited siblings and anxious brides who waited for long lost children, family, friends and suitors.

But business is business with no room for nostalgia, poetic prose and historical sentiments. BA has packed its bags with the finality that I have come to associate British people with. They have said that the Lusaka route is no longer profitable and have promised to return if and when the route becomes profitable.

Closing routes and opening new ones is the order of the day in the aviation industry, such closures don’t even make news. Majority of airlines operate under the daily risk and shadow of bankruptcy due to the complex, fragile and susceptible nature of the business to even the tiniest changes in the global political-economy. Many airlines operate in the red, are highly indebted or buoyed by massive loans and guarantees from their governments.

South African Airways one of the most respectable, reliable and awarded airlines in Africa with more than 25 routes across the continent and numerous international routes has in the last 10 years made cumulative losses of ZAR14.7 billion (USD1.65 billion). Their 2012 Annual report recorded a R1.3billion (USD (146.2million) operational loss despite increased revenue in 2012. The airlines’ 20year Cape Town-London route was dropped in August of the same year citing competitive pressure.

Since 2001, 21 US airlines have filed for bankruptcy protection or discontinued operations including Delta Airlines bringing the number of major US airlines under bankruptcy protection to four out of seven. Flights by US airlines hit a 10year low in 2011 citing failure to recover from the 2008 global recession and the increasing costs of fuel and aircraft maintenance.

Air Namibia, my most used airline between Lusaka and Windhoek has remained airborne through government bailouts for the last 12years. One of the most contested and divisive public issues in Namibia is continued government bailouts to sustain the airline. Between 2000 and 2011, Air Namibia has received an estimated N$2.8Billion (USD180Million) from government. Despite a new business strategy, a leadership overhaul, purchase of new air-crafts and expansion into the region, the airline is still unprofitable.

Kenya Airways another reliable and respected airline on the continent reported a net loss of Ksh4.8 billion (USD56.4 million) for the full year ending March 2013 and issued a profit warning for the six months to September citing costs and expected reduced revenue by as much as 25%.

I can list many other international airlines from Asia to South America who have parked their planes this year alone or those struggling to survive.

What is my point? My point is to demonstrate why Zambia cannot afford to talk or even dream about owning a national airliner. Luckily for Zambia, BA is leaving at a time when many airlines are operating daily flights from Lusaka to major destinations around the world including London. In fact, BA is leaving due to a competitive environment, they are longer the first choice airline to Europe and the rest of the world as was the case for many decades.

The one thing Zambia doesn’t need is a national airline. Not only is it a needless expensive venture into abyss, it takes time for a new airline to build a reputation and win the confidence of travelers. We can’t even rely upon the Zambian market because when it comes to air traveling, safety comes before nationalism. This partly explains why some of our recent local airlines like Zambezi and Zambian Airways went down.
While as Zambians we prefer buying local meat, cheese and honey, the same cannot be said of flying. We feel comfortable flying SAA, BA or even Ethiopia Airlines, than Zambezi Airlines. Nothing to do with not loving ourselves, but instinct and self-preservation telling us to go for the names we know and trust. Zambia neither has money nor time to build such reputation, and even if we did, the aviation business is not one to venture into.

What we need desperately as a country is to grow the tourism sector to standards that are similar to Namibia or South Africa offering nothing short of world-class facilities and unparalleled services. We need more hotels of acceptable standards with highly skilled personnel.

The Victoria Falls alone is not enough. A wonder as the falls may be, no tourist will stay in Zambia for seven days just watching the falls, there must be more things we are offering as a country to attract a tourist who must decide between Zambia and a thousand breathtaking holiday destinations across the world. A UN report on tourism says cultural tourism is where the future of tourism lies. People are looking to experience the culture, the food, the music, the arts, the traditions, the language and uniqueness of a place than to just see natural wonders. This is where our energies and resources should go, not airlines.

We need new roads and new airports such as the newly built HM Nkumbula Airport. We need connecting flights within the country for efficient and quick travel between cities and provinces. Local private sector can amply handle this such as ProFlight and other new players that are coming in.

To British Airways and the London-Lusaka 70year old route, allow me to say ‘goodnight and good-luck!’


  1. Wholeheartedly agreed.

    We just dont have money and the cons outweighs the pros

    Unwarranted for me

    I have a PhD



    • PF Govt reasoning is cockeyed. Sampa has eloquently presented the issue above for free…Sampa is a patriot but he is advising incorrigible people in PF

    • It is not about prons or cons with PF, it is all about cuts$$$. people have made personal millions$$$$$ from the purchase of the 4 jets, chapwa. Fintu………..

    • Next stop for cuts$$$ is construction of a new state house, then a nuclear power station when we have enough hydro potential, then a new capital city, and maybe destroy the whole of Zambia and rebuild it again.

    • Absolutely shocking… To start with, they go and purchase planes from Russian when Aeroflot, the flag carrier and largest airline of the Russian Federation has Airbus and Boeing as their fleet. The safety record of Russian made commercial planes is poor to say the least. Disaster coming to Zambia soon. Secondly, you will have to invest a lot of money training pilots to fly these Russian made planes and cabin crew to understand how to operate the features of the plane adding more cost to your operations before you even collect a penny from ticket sales….What a bunch of nutters we have leading us really shocking…

    • – Zambian Airways flopped as it was abused by employees for free rides to do shopping in London.

      – The New Airline will flop bcoz PF00L Cadres will abuse it to fly for free to RSA, Dubai, China etc.

      As the saying goes: “The more things change, the more they stay the same”.

    • Why buy Russian planes instead of Airbuses, or Boeing like Ethiopian airlines?

      We all know that russian air safety record is very very poor.

      ZAF bought plenty Chinese jets & choppers that have been crashing left, right, centre including the killing of deputy air commander.

    • Nba cipante pante. Why buy ECL a new jet? Last night Antony Mukwita was on Sunday interview bragging about the US$500m Swedish guys are willing to inject into ZRL. New state house, Funds set aside for creating boundaries among chiefdoms, new capital city, Ngabwe the list is endless. Endless foreign trips. I miss Mwanawasa & Magande combination.

    • Sampa if you don’t have money to get on an airplane, jump off a cliff! Why this pessimism? Airlines fail even in development countries but that doesn’t mean Zambia should be afraid to try again. You must be a loser to fear to venture because of fear to fail.

    • @Obatala – The writer is female… I know her. In fact I read this article when it was published a few years ago and all the points still stand. SAA, Kenya Airways, Air Namibia all deeply in the red than before. Only Ethiopian Airways is profitable on account of many routes. This deal is suspicious because Edgar suspended the airline project during a state of the nation address in 2015. And recently Russia praised Zambia as a good example of democracy. Suspicious.

    • The author is right in most aspects of this article, but truthfully risks must be taken. Will you procrastinate to invest in a business simply because company A’s plan didn’t work? This is where risk and project management experts need to step in. Identify critical areas where losses will leak, be creative in your business. If loss is what scares the author, loss itself is responsible for ALL major breakthroughs in human history. By losing we learned how to gain. Life by itself is a loss, but we keep planning for it, so ba author stop writing and see what can be avoided in order for the airline industry to thrive in Zambia. We have become so good at writing and watching from a distance rather than standing out and be noticed as game changers.

    • Continued,

      Sampa, mistakes must be made. You can never come up with anything original without making mistakes, and this is the reason approaches to past/present failure calls for holistic and deeper scrutiny. By the way life is never about success but service. Sunshine all the time makes a desert. Your article is very welcome but should not STOP Zambia flying the skies.

    • The airlines are right now making a killing in the United States and Europe. The author of this article is living in the past … it is more like telling my great grand father will be on the moon by 1969. No planes were invented then, let alone buses.

      If GRZ does not do it, I will open one myself and run it successfully for all the naysayers to see for themselves. I will demonstrate it can be done and run profitably … I have done that with my own businesses. In fact, I actually get a kick if someone tells me it can’t be done.

      I have more energy to prove them wrong. For the SSJ100, there is no single airline that fly only one type of aircraft. So, those who understand strategic planning would tell just by this acquisition that New Nkwazi is starting small and they would be adding…

    • Continued ….

      So, those who understand strategic planning would tell that just by this acquisition the New Nkwazi is starting small and they would be adding new routes and bigger planes as they go. This is a super smart strategy, but for naysayers, they can’t even see where this strategy leads.

      What kind of Zambians do we currently have??? Imwe lyonse ku lombafye ama rides to banenu? You want to go to South Africa, you have to wait for South Africans to pick you up!!! You want to go to Namibia you have to wait for Namibians to land and pick you up.

      How Stui,pd is that? You can jump into your own plane, let alone your own car and you can only go where others what to take you? Come on guys, let make something for ourselves and jump on our planes wherever we go …

    • Even small useless countries have their own airlines … come on guys. The airlines industry is a high impact industry and one of the largest employers in the world. During Nkwazi years almost the entire Chelston in Lusaka was occupied by Zambia Airways employees.

      Do you know how many people those were? Here below are the number of employees some airlines have:
      American Airlines (world’s largest) 118,500
      Lufthansa (World’s 4th largest) 120,000
      Air France/KLM (5th largest) 93,000
      United Airlnes (3rd largest) 83,000
      Delta Group (2nd largest) 80,000

      Even the small regional airline Southwest Airlines in the United States has over 40,000. Imagine if the new Nkwazi just competed with Southwest how many of your relatives would be employed once it is operational.

      You are the same…

    • Continued ….

      You are the same people crying for GRZ to create an enabling environment for employment creation and here comes a possible largest employer prospect in the country and you all are crying foul!!!! What kind of Zambians do we have now, Monday morning quarterbacks???????????? Heaven help us all!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Two years ago I was waiting for my flight at KKIA and there landed a Jumbo Jet Boeing 747 from China. It did not even carry passagers … it was a cargo plane. Thirty minutes later another cargo plane landed on it was the insignia Emirates Cargo!!!!

      Others are busy making hay while the Zambian sun shines, and the owners of the country are doing nothing but coming over here debating why a new Zambia Airways is bad for the country!!!! Bad for the country and the Chinese and the Emirates are busy hauling your stuff.

      Ukutumpafye ne fipale fya bupuba lyonse … all hat and no cattle. Do you even know that the world’s most profitable (FedEx) does not even carry people? Big planes such as the one in the picture above carry both, that great economic activity adding to the GDP.

      Grow up!!!


    • National airline borders way beyond business understanding, its not about government investing. There are cases of ppp ‘s that have succeeded try study Air Malawi

  2. Morning Kabwela , good article and well researched.
    But i suspect you have missed the most important reason why despite airlines being loss -making are not shut down. Why SAA and other airlines are not shut down. Why in Europe governments are usually directly involved in airline bailouts.
    The economic value of airlines is not in its bottom line alone but in its wider capacity to integrate,direct and link economic agents (people, businesses)to sectors ,industries,regions within the economic. It is a public good (with bad financials). The question you should be considering is to what extent is the airline a catalyst in speeding up development. For instance we know may great tourist attractions in Zambia but cannot access them. Perhaps if we opened up the area with a small aerodrom and…

    • Can we start with building aerodroms inthe provinces and tourist spots and ask public sector to run flights? Government can think of multiple ways to incentivize the private airlines.

  3. That is his point exactly. Invest in making tourism accessible internally through road, rail and air network internally. Then the economic return will support a national

    I’m not sure if government should even be involved in running this national airline. I would be more convinced if someone could point to just one parastatal that is doing well. Zamtel? ZESCO? May be NatSAVE?

    We are not ready folks.

  4. Very well said about a national airline, i have the same sentiments. And my wonder is, how we have failed to revamp and run a rail transport company like zambia railways, and what we have done with Tazara. In the case of our rail transport systems: Has anyone in management seen the opportunity created by the ban on night time travel by bus. I have been hoping that a smart ceo would come in and introduce night time travel by train for both passengers and goods. There are times when i wonder what exactly they discuss as managers of major transport companies in their meetings or their spare time. CEOs wake up and do some thinking, dont let the politicians think for you. Ku chingola, i hear the freight train once a week, if we are lucky. And i have never seen an ad promoting rail transport…

    • Imagine we failed to revamp Zambia Railways and the rest of Eurobond money is history with nothing to show for it. Now somebody is dreaming of revamping Zambian Airways? And if one may ask, who signed that contract for planes, where and why it was done in secrete? There is something very fishy here and all concerned citizens must start to wake up and hold this PF government to account! Enough is enough!

  5. In Zambia, there is too much reliance on politicians to tell us what is good for us. I do maize, soya and cotton farming and can admit that the heavy handedness politician exhibit in all areas of business is very disgusting. I am in transport business too and the bus station is full of patronage….. All politics….. Sad….
    Many of us Zambians are capable of run companies and can do better than foreigners.I used to take toones of tomatoes, onions and vegies to Kasumbalesa . Hey, all politics everywhere.

  6. Our priorities as a people are lopsided.
    We can not provide clean drinking water to the people.
    We can not provide good housing and Infrastructure.
    We can not provide 21st century health to the people
    We cannot assure quality education for all

    What is this rush to purchase very expensive aircraft which will only cater for the elite and those close to the Government of the day.
    We struggled to run a bus company.
    We struggled to run profitable ventures like the mines.
    We can not even run viable companies like ZESCO well
    Starting a new Airline is not a good economic decision.It is purely a political decision.

  7. Very difficult to disagree with Sampa here! When our new airports are operational perhaps consideration could then be made about how we could encourage viable collaborations with the private sector in this area! Great selfless article!

  8. I fly frequently to Zambia. I for one will not fly a Zambian airline just for patriotic reasons. Sampa has said it all. Safety and security first, cost second. A startup airline will not operate more cost effectively than the established ones, so even on cost I don’t see it being able to compete unless it makes serious compromises on quality, yet alone safety. I remember being served drinks out of 2ltr coke/fanta and packet of crisps on Zambezi airline flight btwn JHB and Ndola. Patriot or not, I am not ready to endure such again. Happy to give my hard earned kwachas to RwandAir, SAA et al.

  9. PF reasoning is kaponya style chaiwoiwo! One certain thing about this Russian plane raw deal is someone has eaten! And you wonder why the government has decided to single-source instead of following normal procedure. In a normal country, all stakeholders must give input before anyone goes ahead with such a big undertaking. This is rampant abuse of office and national resources. It must be stopped! First it was Russian helicopters and now we are talking Russian planes? We have not even been shown those Russian helicopters. Is someone supplying air?

  10. Is ready to give business to other countries but not his, when are going to wake you Zambians? Mukonda maningi vachizungu. we nearly hear air accidents over the world, so what is wrong for us to have our airline? when is Zambia going to develop? So in short you are saying Zambia is not fit to have an airline until when you fools if not now?

  11. Do we have a problem with traveling? I fly out without problems whenever I am traveling out. Just improve their airports to attract more airlines.

  12. An airline can waite , sort out rail transportation first for passengers and goods, people are dying like flies in bus accidents….and our roads are getting damaged with heavey truck cargo…

  13. There is NOTHING WRONG in RUNNING AN AIRLINE AS A COUNTRY but EVERYTHING WRONG WITH THE WAY IT MAY BE DONE! The MOST IMPORTANT THING IS TO ESTABLISH AN AIRLINE as a BUSINESS,NOT a POLITICAL PROJECT as we are seeing here! Yes we can cite examples of struggling airlines, but that is how business is, it has its life cycles,an operator must be quick to adjust & adapt! We CAN’T STAY FRIGHTENED by the Zambia Airways saga but WE CAN LEARN FROM IT! Kenya Airways and may be Ethiopian were also undergoing similar problems at that time but they handled them differently and are still operating! How come ETHIOPIAN and RWANDAIR are expanding? Let us LEARN and SEE HOW WE CAN DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY. However STARTING WITH RUSSIAN PLANES WITH NO BUSINESS STRATEGY IS ALREADY A HUGE FAILURE!!

    • BWAFYAA you are absolutely right. The project is being set up amongst genuine competing priorities that would make a huge impact on the Zambian people; high levels of unemployment , deplorable state of our medical facilities, lack of access to clean water and electricity – $500m can make a huge dent in these challenges.

      I am totally baffled by the idea that one of the Planes will be for the President – where will he be travelling to? This is in view of the fact that at the moment he is among the most unwelcome presidents on the African continent.

  14. Can someone please tell me what kind of disease the Zambian economic handlers are suffering from? Iam inviting medical doctors(consultants) to come and do a study on Zambian economic handlers to establish the sickness so that they can start medication as soon as possible because something is certainly very wrong somewhere.

  15. At the time of publishing this story wasnt The Post involved in its own airline? This article Im sure was meant to defend their business interests. And they call themselves Journalists

    • Ba Muntumuntu, Post airline was shutdown in 2010 – actually the article was supporting Proflight whose owners zambef were not friends with the Post.

  16. My sentiments exactly. National Airline for what??? Let those that can run businesses do so and not the government. TAZARA and ZRL are perfect examples of the government venturing into something noble but still unable to make it work. Waste of millions of Euro bond money but still the trains are moving at 40km/hr. No one would use such facilities for their businesses unless their ultimate plan is to fail. No Zambia Airways please….

  17. Satana iwe u want my Aircraft maintenance engineering paper to wrote. This means well for us who have passion the aviation industry.

  18. Uzeress article and uzeress rationale! Zambia needs a national airline fullstop. It was a bad idea to liquidate Zambia Airways.

    • Write properly, this is not Facebook or WhatsApp- also reset your phone, because it can’t be 7pm in the US right now.

  19. I don’t admire people who think backwards, those who only see doom.
    The writer of this article in his opinion nothing can work as concerning the airline, I wouldn’t agree with him yes indeed where some people see failure but others see success.
    Just see how foreigners have swamped Zambia with shopping malls, ask them where is the money in Zambia, just look how the Chinese are flourishing in business right before your nose where you see nothing other see great opportunities.
    Zambia has grown from 10000000 people to 17000000.
    There are lots and lots of Zambians living abroad and Zambians who do business outside Zambia who need to fly .
    You haven’t provided suggestions of how national air line can succeed all you have said is failure, failure, failure that is the problem with some…

    • Nshilimubemba – The author has given his views, and data to back-up. Give us yours. Between your comment and the author, one makes sense – it’s the one whose written with research, sober, no politics or emotions just facts. The other one fake optimism lying to himself.

  20. The idea of a national airline is good though loss making. However if properly run the losses can be offset by gains in e.g increased inflows in tourism and business travel. My fear is political interference in the management of the fleet. We’re buying 5 planes and already one of them a VIP custom made is for the president before we even start running. It means that the presidential plane will be paid for by the other 4 planes. Besides I dont trust the safety of these cheap Rissian planes. This to me does not make business sense. It points to worse things to come.

  21. Not such a good idea starting from where we are right now. Why not wait for better economic fundamentals? Look guys, I mean Hon Mutati has just removed subsidies on fuel, electricity etc. You tell me that whatever we have saved will go to set up the airline, and then for subsidise it for 10 years until it can stand on its own feet?
    Guys even underfive for all his embarrassing lack of strategic thinking cannot start a national airline!

  22. @..BR Mumba … You are justifying this on numbers that may be employed by an airline and you quote ‘huge’ figures from established airlines. What happened to most people who were employed at Zambia Airways when it collapsed? You need loads of people to fly on your airline for you to employ loads of people. Where will they come from when other airlines on the continent that fly to Zambia are struggling? In fact, firstly build a vibrant manufacturing and industrial based economy before you can think of an airline. Otherwise with all the superficial ‘investments’ going on, Zambia will end up with white elephants all over the place, namely, planes, new airports, malls etc.

  23. Sampa is right. That information is very vital and which should enable us to position ourselves on the market. I recall H.E. ECL tabled the issue of establishing an airline with ”Hollande”. Airbus or Boeing was the route to take if mostly important we were to gain customer confidence in the first place in terms of safety and relaibility of equipment. These two giant have smaller planes that we can rely on. As for the route we have taken my concern is underlisted:
    Fact File: As of December 2016, Russia’s civil aviation authority Rosaviatsia has grounded the country’s fleet of Sukhoi Superjet 100 aircraft, citing concerns over metal fatigue. The grounding of Russia’s nearly 50-strong fleet of SSJ100s came after inspections by Rosaviatsia found metal fatigue in the tail of one SSJ100…

  24. Fact File: As of December 2016, Russia’s civil aviation authority Rosaviatsia has grounded the country’s fleet of Sukhoi Superjet 100 aircraft, citing concerns over metal fatigue. The grounding of Russia’s nearly 50-strong fleet of SSJ100s came after inspections by Rosaviatsia found metal fatigue in the tail of one SSJ100 operated by Irkutsk-based regional airline IrAero. Metal fatigue is a common problem in older airplanes, but with the entire SSJ fleet aged less than six years, the appearance in a newer SSJ model is a worrisome sign. The big Question: Is six adequate to get value for our money?

  25. Zambia needs to build on its strengths, and add value to its natural resources to make and sell products. Let some other ***** enter an unprofitable business for the sake of prestige.

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