Proflight Proves Regional Airlines Can Work in Africa

 - November 26, 2012, 6:00 PM
Jetstream turboprops form the core of Proflight Zambia’s fleet. (Photo: Ian Sheppard)

Regional airlines serve a vital purpose all over the world even where they mix with low-cost carriers. In the depths of southern Africa, one such carrier based in the landlocked country of Zambia is proving that a country with vast areas, connected by relatively poor roads and almost no rail connections, does need scheduled services to help its economy function. Proflight has survived in a country that saw national carrier Zambia Airways disappear in 1994, and the smaller replacement, Zambian Airways, went out of business in 2009. Through it all, Proflight prospered–even surviving through the stigma of Zambia’s addition in 2009 to the European Union (EU) safety blacklist, which made it harder to persuade foreign visitors to use local carriers.

Operating a fleet anchored by a pair of Jetstream 41s and three J32 twin turboprops, Proflight keeps searching for ways to expand. CEO Tony Irwin told AIN he has entered talks with other airlines with a view to developing relationships with the likes of British Airways, Kenya Airways and others. He recognized that the EU blacklist presents an issue, however. Zambia’s blacklisted status has put pressure on the country’s tourism industry, as surrounding countries such as Zimbabwe and Botswana remain off the list. Irwin does not argue with the EU’s decision to blacklist Zambia. “Nobody would argue that Zambia’s DCA [Department of Civil Aviation] doesn’t have the capacity [to cope],” he said.

The deficiencies clearly presented themselves during AIN’s recent visit there. The fallout from a political scandal means that the capital Lusaka’s Kenneth Kaunda International Airport a operates without radar and remains severely undermanned, with just one controller typically forced to cope with aircraft ranging from Cessna 150s to Ethiopian Airlines’ new Boeing 787, all the while giving directions to aircraft on the ground.

Irwin admits that improving this situation will involve a “long process,” but the EU has indicated it will help the country become self-sustaining–while Proflight maintains its unofficial status as Zambia’s main carrier, at least for now. Although Proflight Zambia carried only 100,000 passengers in 2011, it has built a foundation to create something larger and seems ready to fulfill a key role of feeding major airlines operating to Lusaka, Harare in Zimbabwe and other Southern African hubs. Having obtained its air operator’s certificate (AOC) in October, it can now operate to Harare and can consider plans to operate to Johannesburg and the other regional destinations.