Opinion: Can Mahogany Survive Zambia’s Volatile Aviation Sector?

Since 1995 when Zambia Airways ceased operations, the country has struggled to establish another national carrier, or let alone sustain private entities that have along the way emerged to cover the gap.

The flagship carrier was trapped in a financial swamp and failed to extricate itself, leading to the collapse of what was one of the country’s national pride.

During the 2011 presidential campaigns, Patriotic Front founder, Michael Sata pledged to restore Zambia’s aviation dignity with a national airline. He died three years after assuming office. His promise is still not a reality, six years after the party assumed power.

Successive ministers in the PF government have pronounced a cliche “a national airline is in the pipeline”, but Zambians are yet to see the return to that national prestige.

Over the last 22 years, private individuals have attempted to put up some form of airline, servicing domestic, and to some extent regional routes like South Africa, Tanzania and Namibia.

Roan Air was among the first carriers to attempt to fill the gap, but went under before even reaching teething level. There is no doubt Prolight Zambia has outstandingly performed well by bracing the challenging field, clocking 26 years of experience.

Having launched four years before the demise of Zambia’s national carrier, Proflight stepped in for the country when the chips were down. The company has expanded its fleet to 17 aeroplanes and services a variety of domestic routes from Lusaka to Livingstone, Mfuwe, Lower Zambezi, Ndola, Solwezi and Kasama.

Proflight has limited regional routes which are Lusaka to Lilongwe in Malawi and Lusaka to Durban, South Africa. The carrier operates a 50-seater Bombardier CRJ-100 jet, four 29-seater Jetstream 41 aircraft; two 18-seater Jetstream 32; and two 12-seater Cessna Caravan C208 aircraft, among others.

In its 26 year-existence, Proflight has outlived newcomers like Zambian Airways and Zambezi Airlines. Both carriers arrived on the scene with heavy political backing, but suffocated under the weight of operational costs.

Zambian Airways owners had strong connections to the political elite of their time. Big names in lawyers Mutembo Nchito, his brother Nchima and media practitioner Fred M’membe were the brains behind the company, but it collapsed.

Following Zambian Airways’ demise after it succumbed to massive debts, another airline – Zambezi – emerged. The airline was under the stewardship of the Jangulos, but its survival was equally short-lived.

A change in government from MMD to the Patriotic Front mean the end of business for Zambezi Airlines, a development that stregthens the argument only politically connected airlines survive the aviation industry in Zambia.

Recently, an airline going by Mahogany has emerged on the scene, although its ownership structure and political connection is yet to be established. However, Mahogany seems to be making the right noise. It is difficult to determine whether the company will survive the volatility of the aviation sector in the country.

Having launched its services three years ago, servicing routes between Lusaka and Ndola, Lusaka and Chipata, Livingstone and Solwezi, Mahogany has already suffered signs of uncertainty.

One is tempted to think it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for an airline business to survive the Zambian market. That’s too much of a though, but anything is possible in Zambia.

Zambezi, Zambian Airways and Mahogany Airlines have had the fair share of challenges. But here we are. Mahogany Air is announcing its comeback.

Already, it has sent staff for further training in South Africa and other mechanisms are in place in make the airline sustainable. Will it survive? That’s a million dollar question.

Reports suggest Mahogany Air injected over $23million to organise capitalisation and better aircrafts. After a two year absence, Mahogany wants to be sure, so they have gone beyond Zambia for capital. The airline could not raise funding in the Zambian markets owing to turbulent climate and high interest rates at the time, according to Chief Executive Office Dr. Jim Belemu said.

According to the plan, Mahogany will capitalise an initial $3 million this year followed by an additional $10 million each for 2018 and 2019 cumulating the total to $23 million.

As a result of this capitalisation, Mahogany hopes to put up strong competition against Proflight and Royal Air Charters.

To the Zambian populace, the return of Mahogany is good news. Some 100 citizens will be employed and another 200 may be indirect beneficiaries from the development.

Mahogany is trying to be careful and avoid their turbulent experience. Shortly after launching operations, the company suffered some set back. Two of its 30 seater Embraer aircrafts were withdrawn by South African owners in connection to non-payment of leasing fees.

An attempt to immediately deal with the challenge by securing a 17 seater Beechcraft 1900D was met with its own setbacks; operations stalled after a routine check and maintenance left the company with no airline to service its routes.

Clearly, the terrain in the aviation industry in Zambia is not for the faint-hearted. The high parking fees have not helped operators.

Further, Zambia’s jet fuel is very high compared to others in the region and to some extent this has made it difficult for the country to run or host as many successful airlines.

Whether Mahogany has the muscle to withstand the aviation terrain in Zambia, their emergence on the scene should be supported and welcomed by all well-meaning Zambians, including the government.

If Zambia will not have an airline in the foreseeable future, it is the governmnet’s responsibility to promote and help sustain private entities that emerge, to fill the gap that should otherwise be theirs to cover.

Deliberate policies to ease operational challenges are an important ingredient to sustaining difficult fields such as the aviation industry in Zambia.

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