LAST week, the local skies welcomed the arrival of the restructured fellow southern African carrier, Air Tanzania.
The airline re-launched flights to Harare after close to two decades of no direct flights between Harare and Dar-es-Salaam.
To maximise on profitability, the passenger carrier is connecting Harare to Lusaka as it flies south of the African continent.
What a remarkable story it has been for Air Tanzania.
When President John Pombe Magufuli came to power in 2015, the airline had only one plane.
Upon assuming the reigns, the “Bulldozer”, as Magufuli is affectionately known, prioritised investment in the airline to revive the loss-making carrier because of the potential to boost the vital tourism sector — a top foreign exchange earner.
Through his impressive and commendable austerity measures, this carrier managed to get his government to raise money and recapitalise by purchasing brand new long haul and short to medium haul aircraft in the form of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, two ultra-new Airbus 220-300 — formerly known as the Bombardier C Series — and three Bombardier Q400 Turbo Prop aircraft, all which are fuel efficient and will be utilised to capacity.
Air Tanzania touched down at the Robert Mugabe International Airport last week hard on the heels of the suspension of flights into Harare by Zambia’s Proflight which had launched the service in May last year.
The airline had been facing stiff competition from Emirates and Kenya Airways. Air Tanzania’s arrival therefore keeps our hopes alive.
Flights into the country had declined considerably since the beginning of the new millennium largely due to the volatile political and economic landscape, which resulted in the majority of the international airlines — mostly from Europe and Australia — pulling out of Zimbabwe.
Most international airlines ceased flying into Harare, among them British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, SwissAir, Qantas, Egyptair and KLM.
KLM’s case was unique.
The airline pulled the plug after operating for about a year citing the unviability of the flight.
It is, however, encouraging for Zimbabwe’s tourism industry to see Air Tanzania joining the list of other airlines that have now entered the local market, among them Emirates — the only international airline coming to Zimbabwe and taking advantage of a yawning gap in the market.
Ethiopian Airlines also saw a gap to connect global travellers from various cities such as Washington DC, London, Milan, Paris and Asian cities and flying them to the resort town of Victoria falls via Addis Ababa.
RwandAir also launched flights into Harare in 2016 and has added a connection onward to Cape Town — a route that last saw a direct flight from Harare through Air Zimbabwe (AirZim) in 1999. Of course, South African Airways (SAA) has never pulled out of the route – opting to stayed on and defend its market share.
SAA’s most lucrative route is the Harare to Johannesburg flight where it operates six flights a day of which four are to the capital city and the other two to Bulawayo and Victoria Falls, respectively.
The increase in airlines plying into Zimbabwe is a clear indication of the massive growth potential the country has and the fact that there are monetary rewards to be gained by airliners despite the economic challenges facing the southern African nation.
The development comes when the aviation industry in Zimbabwe is confronted with a number of challenges, mainly the foreign currency shortages, which have caused most airlines to decline payments in local currency (the RTGS dollars).
Airlines flying into Zimbabwe have been advising their customers to purchase tickets in United States dollars or to use international credit cards for payment to avoid exposure to the unpredictable new currency. This is quite understandable.
Air tickets paid for in local currency have caused remittance challenges at the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, which owes airlines millions in ticket sales remittances from the International Air Transportation Association.
Over $60 million is owed to airlines by the central bank.
Ethiopian Airlines is owed $18 million, while Kenya Airways is owed $30 million.
The aviation industry is critical to the growth of the country’s economy.
As more airlines join the local skies, AirZim should dust itself up and be competitive in the game.
The period when the local skies were almost deserted by regional and international airlines should have been an opportunity for the national flag carrier to consolidate its position.
Unfortunately, that has not happened due to poor management and government interference.
If only government could stop interfering in the running of the national airline and allow other local players to come in without restrictions. Better still, government can liquidate the airline and start afresh for AirZim’s current reputation has inhibited it from withering the storm.
The sky is the limit for the local aviation if it can be liberalized to buttress growth through diversity.
One hopes that the country would be able to address these challenges since tourism has huge potential to outpace traditional foreign currency earners such as mining in terms of growth.