Zambia Plans Aviation Revival After EU Blacklist Shock
Ian Sheppard – following the Emirates engine failure story in Lusaka – finds himself in a country celebrating independence and learning a lesson about what happens when a national carrier fails.
The blacklist has had a significant negative impact on the country’s tourism industry as visitors decide against booking (or are barred from doing so), and affects operators even if they are safe because the blacklist is based on ICAO’s verdict on safety oversight.
In effect, Zambia is paying the price for the demise of its national airline, Zambia Airways , in 1994. Since then, two smaller airlines have come and gone, Zambian Airways and Zambezi Airlines – which having had its aircraft returned to lessors last year, is trying to start up again. This has left a small regional airline, Proflight, to carry the flame.
Proflight CEO Tony Irwin told Arabian Aerospace during a visit to the airline’s Lusaka headquarters this week that the airline would grow “organically” rather than jumping for jets. It is currently evaluating adding ATR42 turboprops to its fleet of smaller twin-engined aircraft such as Jetstream 32s and 41s. The airline had signed a cooperation agreement with Zambezi in 2009 which saw Proflight act as domestic carrier feeding Zambezi’s regional services, but now there is no such agreement with the new Zambezi, which is also considering ATRs.
Irwin said that the airline is hoping to receive an Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC) form the Zambian DCA for the first time this week, allowing it to plan its own regional services around Africa – to Harare in Zimbabwe, for example.
Meanwhile the biggest international aviation news to come out of Zambia recently is the engine failure (reportedly uncontained) on an Emirates Airbus A330-200, half an hour out of Lusaka just as it entered the cruise. A local pilot who took pictures of the fan said that it appeared a fan blade had failed, taking the one each side of it out as well. The debris would have caused irreparable damage to the engine. On the eve of Independence Day a new engine arrived in a charter aircraft and it is being fitted so that the aircraft can return to service. This will leave the UAE airline and Rolls-Royce, which manufactures the A330s Trent 700 powerplant, to investigate what happened, with possible implications for checks to the entire A330 fleet. Catastrophic engine failures are a particularly sensitive issue; while being incredibly rare these days, Rolls has had more than its fare share with the most high-profile being that to a Quantas A380 two years ago, on 8 November 2010. Such incidents also have serious implications for Extended Twin-engined Operations (ETOPS) over water although the aviation industry doesn’t seem willing to admit that two engines represent an inherently risky proposition for long overwater flights (or, for that matter, over vast stretches of sparsely populated regions such as Africa).
Meanwhile back in sleepy Lusaka, the new government of President Michael Sata is planning a revival. There is talk of creating a new national airline, and of Lusaka being a new African hub. It has already attracted Emirates and KLM, to add to the long-term but often overbooked British Airways flights from London. Zambia dreams of A380s visiting, having already become one of the first destinations for Africa’s first Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which entered into service earlier this month with Ethiopian Airlines. The aircraft certainly made a surreal sight yesterday as it gracefully descended into Lusaka’s Kenneth Kaunda International Airport yesterday.
At a meeting yesterday with the mission that the EU has dispatched to Zambia to help it create an independent CAA, among other steps, to lift the stigma of the Blacklist, Arabian Aerospace was told by an European Commission official that Europe did not want to add airlines to the blacklist and simply walk away; conversely, it intended to work with the country and with ICAO to ensure that Zambia has every opportunity to turn things around. He emphasised repeatedly that leading experts with decades of experience were working with the Zambian authorities, and already a new aviation Act has passed into Zambian law (which is broadly based on the English legal system). On 8 August 2012 the provision for the creation of a Zambian CAA created a timetable which should see this occur within one year.
In parallel with this effort, the Zambian government is working hard to plan the modernisation of aviation infrastructure. It is never easy in Zambia, or Africa in general, as illustrated recently with the wasting of large sums earmarked for a new radar system. Legal proceedings are continuing against those (including the former transport and communications minister) accused of mishandling radar tenders: one an offer from Italy’s Selex Systemi Integrati to repair the existing system at Lusaka; and another for a replacement radar system agreed with France’s Thales.
Having awarded Thales a nine million Euro contract for the Zambia Air Traffic Management surveillance radar system, officials then cancelled it, allegedly without due procedure of authorization. President Sata ordered an inquiry into the radar contracts, which were intended to upgrade the systems at all three international airports in Zambia (Lusaka, Livingstone and Ndola), but then described the findings as “useless.”
As the controversy over the radar system rumbles on through the courts, the country continues to plan new infrastructure investment, as part of the overall scheme aided by the EU to the tune of three million dollars. There are plans to build a new terminal at Lusaka, and even a second runway, and to build a new airport at Livingstone, despite the existing airport receiving significant upgrades over the past few years. Apparently this is because of the perceived threat from a resurgent Victoria Falls airport, just over the border in Zimbabwe. However, local aircraft operators were incredulous and said that visitors don’t come for the airport, and the priority should be to make the country more investor-friendly so that private enterprise can develop the tourism and transport sectors generally.
In May the government acted to prop up the Kwacha, Zambia’s currency, by banning the use of foreign currency such as $US dollars for domestic goods and services. This seemed to work for a while but then the currency started to slip again, with dollars now more expensive (Zambians are still allowed to hold foreign currency, they just can’t spend it in-country).
On 1 January 2013 the government will knock three zeros off the currency – so that current rate of 5,300 to the USD will become 5.3, and new replacement banknotes will be issues. Inflation is running at around ten percent and is currently increasing.