By Brian Mulenga
Zambia Airways. For 3 and a half decades Zambia had a national airline. It trained a highly skilled workforce and it connected Zambia to the world. It, however, was also a political football.
Its strong unions, even the pilots were unionized, its well-educated workforce, its elite position in the Zambian political conscious and the access it provided to certain things, meant it had strong vested interests. Interests who took positions for their own benefit to the detriment of the airline. For instance, its highly educated workforce, sometimes used their education and intelligence for selfish ends.
Right up to the end they would not let go of their perks and privileges which were costing the airline tremendous amounts of money and affecting its viability.
Several times, pilot strikes paralyzed the firm. Airline benefits were routinely abused, for instance the 10% staff tickets. There was also the overmanning. The workforce was stuffed with relatives of the influential and being a member of staff of Zambia Airways was a license to print money.
They lead a privileged life. It was not unusual for groceries to be bought in London or Johannesburg. It was also not unusual for you to buy your dollars from a member of staff of the airline. Zambia Airways also had a distinct disadvantage. Zambia has always had the most expensive fuel in Southern Africa and Zambia Airways had to use that fuel.
The other was the exchange control rules. Zambia Airways generated enough foreign exchange to pay its bills however it had to surrender all its foreign exchange and then apply for it just like any other company. This really crippled the airline.
Furthermore, the political interference led to some strange decisions as to who would run the airline. Both Presidents Chiluba and Kaunda decided who became MD with comical and at times disastrous results.
As we start another National Airline, I hope this cautionary tale is read by the powers that be.
So, let us begin. From the leftovers of the central African Airways Corporation came a new airline Zambia Airways. Its fleet consisted of 2 x BAC-1-11, 2 HS748s and 2 very old DC-3s. As usual with the division of assets during the Federation Zambia got the short end of the stick. Just like the Air Force which ended up in Rhodesia despite being bought using Zambian money, the airline’s main assets ended up in Rhodesia. Zambia got the left overs, and these formed the basis of the birth of Zambia Airways.
After the dissolution of Central African Airways, Zambia Airways was formed with the help of the Italian government. The Italians were to also help build the Zambian Air Force.
On January 1, 1968, Zambia Airways began operations. Its first board Chairman was dynamic Ndola based businessman Tom Mtine. The first Managing Director was Francesco Casale, on loan under a management contract signed with Alitalia, the Italian flag carrier. The airline almost immediately began international services. Employing a Douglas DC-8- 43 leased from Alitalia, Lusaka to London flights via Nairobi and Rome began. The BAC 1-11 flew regional routes to Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, and Mauritius. While the DC-3s, the HS748s and Beavers flew local.
Zambia Airways grew quickly and the Italians rapidly constructed valuable infrastructure including housing in the Longacres area, a maintenance base, a headquarters in Longacres and cargo handling facility at Lusaka International Airport. The reason for the concentration in the Longacres area was the airline flew from City Airport until late 1968 when the new airport, Lusaka International Airport, become fully operational. The airline by the end of the year had over 800 employees.
In 1969 the DC-3s were disposed of and fully replaced by HS748s. With inadequate pilots available, the Zambia Air Force has pilots and engineers seconded to the Zambia Airways to fly the HS748s. The ZAF pilots are to later rise high in the ranks of Zambia Airways as well as on the technical side infact one of them even becomes Managing Director.
In 1971 Tom Mtine is replaced as Chairman by Simon C. Katilungu, while Roberto Tarantino is the new Managing Director. Zambia Airways adds routes to Gaborone and orders its first Boeing 707 which iss used as a freighter by the freight arm of Zambia Airways National Air Charters formed in 1974.
In 1975 Zambia Airways acquires a Boeing 707 that flies to London direct and the BAC-1-11s are sold. Alitalia bows out and a new management team from Ireland comes in. The Alitalia management contract is replaced by one signed with Aer Lingus Irish Airlines, the Irish national carrier. Zambia Airways quickly adds two more Boeing 707s to the fleet and now has three 707s including the freighter.
In 1977 Zambia Airways suffers its first serious accident. A Boeing 707 freighter declares an emergency and makes an emergency landing a Lusaka International Airport. The pilot damages the runway in his efforts to save the plane. Zambia Airways also has a pilot strike that paralyzes the airline. Senior managers have to come out of their offices and get back in the cockpit and some ZAF officers are drafted in to fly as well.
In 1979 a new deal to help improve technical and regional operations is signed with Ethiopian Airlines. Zambian pilots and technicians fly under some very primitive condition in Ethiopia and realise that flying in Zambia is a piece of cake compared to the conditions in Ethiopia.
In 1982 ZIMCO takes over operations and Zambia Airways is converted from a Statutory Corporation to an ordinary company. Patrick Chisanga, director general of ZIMCO, on the direct orders of the then President Kenneth Kaunda becomes Chairman
Zambia Airways acquires its first Boeing 737 that year and it quickly becomes a firm favourite on regional flights. A HS748 is involved in an accident when it fails to take off and overruns the runway at Kasaba Bay. The plane is severely damaged but is eventually repaired and put back into service.
One of the Being 707s is retired and is relegated for use as a source of spares and for ground training and is parked behind the maintenance base. Zambia Airways is training its own pilots. The first go to Australia for the CPL and PPL training and then go to Lufthansa in Germany to train on 707s or to Aer Lingus for 737 training.
Zambia Airways now has 1,700 staff and now owns hotels in Lusaka and in Mauritius. Under Oliver Chama, the airline ambitiously decides to acquire a wide-bodied aircraft. In a powerful show of economic muscle Zambian banks like ZANACO, Barclays, Stanchart and Zambia State Insurance provide the finance for the aircraft with crucial financing also coming from Chemical Bank and the Export Import Bank of the USA. Oliver Chama is unable to savour his triumph as the man with the vision to acquire the wide-bodied aircraft as he is replaced by Lawrence Bwalya
The giant DC-10-30 is the second largest passenger plane in existence at the time and it allows Zambia Airways to fly to Paris as well as London. Zambia Airways is now flying to Bombay as well as to Mauritius.
That same year an enraged Director of Civil Aviation closes the airport for an hour causing flights to divert to Harare and Lilongwe. He is upset because Zambia Airways cannot hold a flight for him when he arrives 5 minutes late to board the plane.
Zambia Airways now has 1 DC-10-30, 3 Boeing 707s, 1 Boeing 737, and 2 HS 748s. Zambia Airways now has revenues of $40 million and is breaking even with a small operating loss of $150,000 although financing costs blow the loss to nearly $5 million.
Drastic action is taken with Captain Godfrey Mulundika, a former ZAF Pilot, put in charge and a comprehensive review by Lufthansa undertaken. Meanwhile a popular flight to Swaziland is inaugurated. Zambians fly to Swaziland using their US$300 holiday allowance allocation of foreign exchange and come back with goods for sale.
Zambia Airways begins to modernize its fleet and acquires to ATR 42-300s and disposes of the HS748s, it also puts up for sale its ageing Boeing 707s. Zambia Airways begins a flight to New York via Monrovia. In an embarrassing fiasco, the inaugural flight arrives in New York with all the VIPs and visitors including Transport Minister General Kingsley Chinkuli arrive without visas. Deft diplomatic moves by the Zambian mission in New York salvages a truly appalling situation.
Zambia Airways acquires a DC-8-71, the plane actually belongs to the government, but in order to keep it active and for easy maintenance, it is added to the fleet and places an order for an MD-11 as well as for a Boeing 757 freighter.
Zambia Airways is the first airline in the world to operate the 757 freighter. With 2,150 employees there is concern that the airline is overmanned with only 300,000 passengers and a fleet of 2 ATR42-320s, 2 Boeing 737s, 1 Boeing 757 freighter, 1 DC-8-61 and 1 DC-10-30. The plane to crew ratio is over 300, three times the ideal.
A crisis develops in 1991. Zambia Airways is affected by the Gulf War as the cost of fuel soars and Zambia Airways now begins getting fuel outside Zambia where it is cheaper. Meanwhile, the escalating civil war in Liberia means the New York flight instead uses Freetown as its base for the hop across the Atlantic on the flight to New York.
As losses pile up, Godfrey Mulundika is sacked, he is replaced by Luke Mbewe a turnaround specialist with a reputation for reviving moribund companies. He does not endear himself to the pilots when he tells them outside the intricacies of the cockpit, flying is no different to driving a bus. He cancels the MD-11 which was even painted in Zambian colours and nearly complete. The cancellation costs a very painful $2 million in penalties.
Zambia Airways not only flies locally but it flies scheduled international flights from Lusaka to Bombay, Dar es Salaam, Entebbe, Frankfurt, Gaborone, Harare, Johannesburg, Lilongwe, London, Lubumbashi Nairobi, and Rome.
True to his reputation, Luke Mbewe slashes 400 jobs and is chipping away at the losses. New York is making losses and the route is chopped. However, he is battling a very strong union and a new government is in place. His reputed family ties to the former President Kenneth Kaunda do not help. He is sacked and replaced by Peter Kaoma who continues to implement his restructuring program.
Unfortunately, the sacked employees are rehired due to political pressure and the airline headcount climbs and its financial status is still bad. By 1994 Peter Kaoma is sacked and George Lewis steps in. By now the situation is dire, Creditors are seizing assets and aircraft must be shuttled around to avoid attachment by banks.
George Lewis puts together a comprehensive resuscitation plan that involves asset sales, workforce cuts, closing of offices and rationalization of routes. He begins laying off employees. However, he is taken by surprise after being assured of the survival plan being put in place, on December 3, 1994, the airline is closed. Vice President General Miyanda announces the placing of Zambia Airways in liquidation.
Passengers are stranded all over the world. Staff are trapped in various offices around the world. The offices are surrounded and locked by armed police. 28 years of operation is over. 28 days before it was due to clock 28 years of operations Zambia Airways shuts its doors.
Its assets are sold off by the liquidators Price Waterhouse. The liquidator Jack Ward, becomes a very well-known person as the various controversies in the liquidation play out on the front pages of the newspapers. Sonny Mulenga the Minister represents the employees in their negotiations with the liquidator.
In a humane gesture Jack Ward, decides to sell the housing stock to the employees. Very soon SP Mulenga and the employees are embroiled in dispute as Jack Ward threatens to sell off the houses because the payments as agreed are not flowing in. It turns out well, S P Mulenga are behind on the payments while the employees in certain cases have even paid in full.
The Zambia Airways maintenance base is invaded by brokers from all over the world as they buy bits and pieces of a 28-year stockpile of spares and equipment. Its Christmas time for anyone who flies BAC-1-11, DC-8, Boeing 707, Boeing 737, Boeing 757, HS 748 and ATR-42. It’s an Aladdin’s cave for spares and sophisticated testing equipment and aircraft metal work shop. Lathes, drills, CNC machines. It all goes. Zambia Airways employees act as consultants to the vultures.
Very soon aircraft engineers, pilots, air hostesses, stewards, cargo handling staff, logistics experts languish away jobless. The lucky ones get jobs abroad. An expensive investment in manpower goes to waste. One Zambia Airways aircraft engineer pops up on BBC, he is now a taxi driver. A man must do what he must do to survive.
Meanwhile, Zambia becomes an aviation backwater. The local airports fall silent some of them for good and become derelict. Kasaba Bay, Zambezi fall into ruin. Zambians now have to go to Harare or fly to South Africa to fly out of the country.
In 1995 the DC-10-30, Nkwazi, is sold to Monarch Air, a UK airline. It is the last aircraft to be disposed of, it is a fitting epitaph.
N.B. this story is culled from lots of sources, some copied direct from some blogs and web pages. It is the tale of an airline.