BY NDALAMA LWANDO
In 2018 alone, Zambia was visited by the likes of Will smith, Brian McKnight, Joe Thomas, Jack Ma and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex. All the above world famous people shared one common experience: they used foreign airlines to visit Zambia.
South African Airways especially got serious media coverage when they safely landed Prince Harry at Kenneth Kaunda International airport. In other words, during the highest moments of highlight, Zambia managed miss out on the perfect opportunity to market the nation. Even when Zambia brought home the Africa cup of nations, it was on a foreign airline. Without an airline, our tourism policy remains cheap-talk.
The time to re-launch a national airline is now. Simple-minded arguments about the unprofitability of a Zambian national airline are baseless. A national airline is a strategic entity. It is almost impossible to calculate the profitability of a national airline. The balance sheet never tells the true story of the advantages of operating a national airline. For example, EMIRATES and ETIHAD have single-handedly helped turn the once desert sands of the gulf into world-class tourism destinations.
A national airline in Zambia, if successfully operated, has the potential to transform many sectors of the country’s economy. In deciding to re-open the national airline, Zambia made one right decision: choosing Ethiopian airlines as the strategic partner. Ethiopian airlines are known to be one of the most profitable airlines in the world. Ethiopian has a management model that strictly ties personnel remuneration to company performance and profitability. Unlike letting the airline rely on government subsidies, the Ethiopian business model creates company sustainability through realistic expenditure. Zambia has a lot to benefit from this partnership. The only caution is not to let Ethiopian run the whole show. We must get value for our investment.
A word of caution though: government must let Zambia airways be as autonomous as possible. Since Zambia has already committed to opening a national airline, negative talk towards the venture is hopeless. Let us instead discuss ways of making the airline profitable and sustainable. Once more, job well-done for choosing Ethiopian airlines as partners in the venture: critics can visit Ethiopian airlines websites and see the excellent performance of the company. They have been profitable for more than three (3) decades consistently almost. Ethiopian also has the most realistic personnel remuneration in the aviation industry: they even partner with Boeing to manufacture and supply electrical wire looms (cables) manufactured right in Ethiopia. In short, Zambia will have a lot to learn from Ethiopian counterparts. My appeal is to ministry of transport is this: formulate a statutory instrument (SI), making all corporate and group GRZ travel by air mandatory.
Currently, too many business and GRZ travel is by road, making our aviation industry fragile and non-competitive. Almost all companies and GRZ ministries hold annual general meetings and other workshop in various parts of the country. Unfortunately, they all use government and private vehicles, which require large sums of money on fuel and food, and waste even more time on the road. These endless road trips actually make the driver tired upon arrival to the destination, and further congest our roads. Local air travel can solve this problem.
Another reason the aviation industry in Zambia has stagnated is because of the myth that air travel is very expensive and reserved for the elite. The truth is actually the opposite; most people travelling between Lusaka and Johannesburg by bus actually spend more money and more time on the road.
The role of our Zambia airports corporation therefore is to expand their facilities into common places like Inter-city bus Terminus, Shopping malls, Markets and hotels for more efficient Marketing, air ticket sales and airport shuttles services. This practise of taking air travel to local communities is worldwide: potential travellers can actually check-in at a shopping mall and board a bus straight into the plane. This cuts outs the cumbersome airport logistics which many local travellers find unpleasant.
Besides, most local middle-income businessmen and women find our airport environment and pre-flight procedures intimidating. A word of caution: please avoid unnecessary rebates and free travel for politicians and airline personnel. Corporate clients should also pay promptly: many companies go down because of huge unpaid corporate client bills. Let us put our heads together and make the national air career a success story.