Regional Profile: Proflight Shows Regionals Work in Africa

 - December 2, 2012, 12:15 AM
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. The regionals can serve areas the low-costers cannot reach–or so goes a well known European beer advertisement. Thin routes mean smaller aircraft and services more akin to business aviation flights than those for holiday-makers.

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 it tick.

Proflight has survived in a country that saw its national carrier, Zambia Airways, disappear in 1994 and the smaller replacement, Zambian Airways, fail in 2009. While Zambezi Airlines then lasted only three years (although new attempts to restart it again with one aircraft continue), Proflight prospered through everything–even surviving the stigma of Zambia’s addition in 2009 to the EU blacklist, which made persuading foreign visitors to use local carriers harder.

Tony Irwin, son of airline founder Oliver Irwin, now serves as CEO. His father (who died in February) launched the airline’s predecessor, Air Carriers of Zambia, in 1978 in partnership with Laker Airways, to transport fuel from Dar Es Salaam to Ndola during the Rhodesian blockade of Zambia while it waited for the completion of a new railway link to Dar Es Salaam. Oliver Irwin was an accountant and entrepreneur who taught Zambia’s current president, Michael Sata, to fly; in 1972 he became only the second owner of a Learjet in Africa.

A former Zambia Airways captain, Irwin told AIN that the airline started with a Beech Baron, which it still operates. After the original airline went bust in 1994 it took advantage of the demise of Zambian Express to start scheduled services, using a Piper Chieftain. In 2002 the then-Proflight Commuter Services began flying a British Aerospace Jetstream 32 and now operates three of the type and two Jetstream 41s leased from SA Airlink of South Africa.

In 2009 the airline entered into an alliance agreement with Zambezi Airlines, under which Proflight focused on domestic services while Zambezi operated around the region, but with the grounding of Zambezi for safety concerns last year (and the return of its two 737s to lessor Gecas), Irwin said the agreement no longer applied to the new version of the airline.

Zambezi restarted limited services in June with two Bombardier CRJ200ER regional jets leased from ExecuJet in Johannesburg, flying to South Africa’s largest city and Dar Es Salaam from Lusaka, and Ndola in Zambia’s booming copper-belt mining area from Johannesburg; it then restarted Harare flights in October from Lusaka and Johannesburg using an Embraer ERJ145 leased from Solenta.

Challenges to Expansion Plans

Proflight, meanwhile, keeps searching for ways to expand. Whatever happens, it will grow “organically,” said Irwin, meaning that a jump to larger turboprops such as ATRs appears far more likely than a move to jets. “We just have to decide if a 30-seater is right or if we need bigger and more modern aircraft,” he said. “We’re exploring a whole load of options…taking great leaps killed a whole load of airlines though.” Still, “it’s a great time for Zambia,” he added. “The economy is growing quite quickly.”

Irwin said that he has entered talks with other airlines in pursuit of developing relationships with the likes of British Airways, Kenya Airways and others. He recognizes that the EU blacklist presents an issue, however.

While in Zambia, AIN met with leaders of an EU-funded project aimed at revamping Zambia’s safety oversight mechanisms. Team leader Branko Kochovski said that the European Development Fund program, titled “Technical Assistance Support to the Zambian Aviation Sector,” has already helped to put in place legislation that will lead to the establishment of a new Zambian Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) by August next year. 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 doesn’t have the capacity [to cope],” he said.

The deficiencies clearly presented themselves during AIN’s visit. A political scandal means that the capital, Lusaka, operates without radar, and the airport at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport was severely undermanned, with 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. On a Proflight service returning from Livingstone, AIN witnessed, from the jump seat of a Jetstream 41, directions to go around the nearby hold twice simply because local pilots refused to use the ILS, required due to an unusual amount of cloud cover that day–but well above visibility minimums and decision heights.

Irwin said that Zambia’s challenge centers on an inability to find the right people to run the CAA. Because Zambia, unlike Kenya and even neighboring Zimbabwe, does not have a national airline per se, “it means we don’t have the pool of people to oversee the industry,” he explained.

Irwin acknowledges that Zambia’s ascent will be 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. While some talk of establishing a new national airline and various plans for new airports, Proflight still projects the loudest calls for reform.

Industry representatives express concern about wasting money, however, especially after the government incurred multimillion-dollar penalties for cancelling a contract with Thales for a new radar system for the country. Danger signs are already evident. For example, as a large new terminal at Livingstone (access point for Victoria Falls) nears completion, the government is seriously considering building a new airport to the east of the town. The existing runway lies on a hill and cannot be extended easily, yet it must compete with the airport at Victoria Falls across the border in Zimbabwe, which suffers no similar restrictions. British Airways reportedly has expressed interest in flying to the region direct from London, but can do so only with access to the longer runway given the hot-and-high conditions. Meanwhile, Livingstone absorbed another blow when South African low-cost carrier 1time decided to switch its services from Johannesburg Town to Victoria Falls.

Proflight’s specialty remains its services using smaller aircraft to remote areas, despite the absence of Public Service Obligation (PSO) routes in the country. Irwin said its two Cessna Caravans, three Cessna 401/402s, two Barons and two Britten-Norman Islanders have proved “ideal” for such services.

Although Proflight Zambia carried only 100,000 passengers last year, it has built a foundation to create something larger and seems ready to fulfill a key role of feeding majors operating to Lusaka, Harare and other Southern African hubs. Having obtained its air operator certificate (AOC) in October, it can now operate to Harare, and can consider Johannesburg and the other regional destinations and what aircraft it might use to serve them.