By Ndalama Lwando
The long absence of a national airline has left very few aviation technocrats and experts in Zambia; most migrated to foreign countries after the demise of Zambia Airways. The few that are left are either beyond their prime and soon to retire, or very young and lacking experience in modern aviation nitty-gritties. The technological advancements in global aviation may also render most indigenous engineers unqualified to work on modern aircraft. The way forward therefore would be to quickly expand the pool of aviation personnel. Expatriate managers and engineers come at a very high cost.
There must also be a deliberate policy to establish maintenance bases across the nation to eventually handle all aspects of fleet maintenance locally. But first, Zambia must be clear on the business model the airline shall adopt. There are several prominent business models in the airline industry, and Zambia shall adopt one or several. The name of a business model may differ depending on the source material, but the idea remains the same. Since Zambia is partnering with Ethiopian airlines, which has recorded a success story spanning several decades, it will be prudent to learn from them. The right move might be to start regionally as a low cost carrier, and invest heavily in human resource training. The fleet must also be kept young.
Zambia must at all costs refuse to accept old aircraft. In the aviation industry, the older the fleet an airline operates, the higher the operational costs, and the higher the risk of aviation incidents and accidents, resulting in loss of customer confidence. The airline should avoid over-employment and budget overruns. The business model should not include government as its pillar to subsidize losses and cash bailouts because of resource mismanagement. Qualified and deserving personnel must fill all managerial positions, without undue government influence, nepotism and favoritism. The airline industry is a cutthroat business: no airline can cut corners in its operations without facing the repercussions of those ill-made decisions.
In the long run, local fleet maintenance should be prioritized. This will creative employment for Zambians, and also bring about the much-needed technological transfer in the aviation and related industries. The infrastructure and equipment required might cost a lot on the drawing board, but with IDC being the investment wing for government, suitable MOUs can be entered into with aviation maintenance equipment manufacturers and suppliers. Further, let the Ethiopian-Zambian MOU be made public: there must not be hidden agendas or unfair obligations on either parties. Ethiopian airlines have stood the test of time mainly because of a very strict code of ethics and conduct. The way forward is to draft necessary document to guide this partnership in both good and bad times. The aviation industry is dynamic; it is therefore imperative that all permutations of the advantages and disadvantages of the partnership are catered for.
It is common knowledge that many airlines have filed for bankruptcy due to the pursuit of careless expansion programs. Zambia must fully ascertain the risks involved in partnering with a multinational airline. The resulting relationship must not be that of dictatorship. Currently, Ethiopia and Zambia’s objectives in this joint venture are very different: Ethiopian airlines want to capture the bigger share of the global and African market in particular, while Zambia only wants to make its baby steps in the industry. Initially, it might be inevitable to bring expatriates to fill up managerial positions. A rigid timeframe must however be set so that Zambians can be trained to fill up all local airline vacancies.
The partnership must create equal opportunities for both Ethiopians and Zambians. One big question must also be answered: is the joint venture going to share profits only, or will be revenue/loss share based? In other words, will the two entities share losses equally? This element is very important since set-up costs might gobble up all profits of the airline. This means that the airline might make losses for a period of times as fleet acquisition and human resource development is underway. Such losses, compared to its revenue, can be very negligible to giant airlines like Ethiopian. On the other hand, these initial operational costs may overwhelm the Zambian balance sheet, especially that the airline will be under strict scrutiny by both parliament and the general public. Zambia must also fully utilize the industry’s supply chain. An international airline’s supply chain is as vast as its destinations.
Once an airline is in operation, Zambian business entities have business opportunities beyond borders. Zambia remains one of the biggest African suppliers of flowers to Europe. It is in the public domain that ZEGA was formed out of the development of the floricultural and horticultural industry in Zambia.Today, Zambia’s potential supply chain to the aviation industry goes beyond flowers. The hotel and hospitality industry must fully engage in order to get the market share in the soon to open airline. The food industry must come on board to supply onboard local meals and drinks which many passengers will find fascinating. The insurance industry must fully participate in the new airline. If Zambia acquires its own fleet, it must be mandatory that all liabilities insurances be locally managed. The aviation industry has one of the most lucrative insurances since very rare do aircraft accidents occur.
As a landlocked country, Zambia can utilize the airline to supply all its natural resources directly to recipient customers on time. While bulk transportation of goods and services remains mainly on rail and roads, Zambia must focus on opening up trade opportunities for locally produced items by air. The dice is cast; Zambia has committed to opening a national airline.
It is understandable that each and every Zambian has a right to question the rationale behind the move. The fact is that aviation will remain the most influential industry in global travel and trade. Zambia must therefore come on board and fully understand the not-too-obvious benefits of the aviation industry. The rule is to keep to the ethics of the aviation industry: prudence, time management and efficiency. The aviation industry never sleeps, as it operates in all known time zones. Management of an airline must therefore keep abreast with global trends around the clock.
Political influence must also be non-existent: company positions must be filled on merit. Employee remuneration must reflect company revenue and loss aspects: it is not right to emulate global airlines who pay hefty amount to pilots and engineers: a model for salaries and remuneration suitable to Zambia must be adopted.