The EU flight ban and lack of a national carrier are crimping the aviation sector in Zambia, but new airports, regulatory changes, and specialization signal better times ahead.

As Zambia struggles to establish a national carrier for its population of 15 million under the constraints of a EU flight blacklist, there are indicators that its local carriers are reaching equilibrium and that the aviation sector will remerge from its involuntary isolation. At the center of these developments is a worrying paradox. Without a national carrier, Zambia's ability to attract sufficient tourism and travel revenue is limited; and concurrently, without tourism dollars and EU routes, establishing a national airline is almost impossible. The EU flight blacklist exacerbates the challenges facing the industry and makes necessary investments a long shot. Under these circumstances, the government is still pursuing its goals of establishing a national carrier and developing aviation infrastructure, while independent Zambian carriers are carving out niche markets and working to establish alliances with international airlines.

In 2009, the European Commission (EC) announced that, “safety deficiencies identified in the system of oversight by the aviation authorities of Zambia" were grounds for an immediate operating ban on flights from the country's carriers. The primary reason for the country's blacklist status was that the licensing process in Zambia—and by default, the system of oversight—is undertaken by the Ministry of Transport, whereas the norm is for a designated civil aviation authority to undertake licensing and oversight. Thus for Zambia to reconcile its status, it required the establishment of a civil aviation authority, as well as addressing other safety concerns. Such changes are in the works. Over the past four years, the Zambian Department of Civil Aviation has been working with the International Civil Aviation Organization, addressing the 98 findings and one significant safety concern that the EC identified in 2009. By 2013, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) announced that Zambia had resolved the “significant safety concern." Zambia was well on its way towards removal from the EU flight ban list. In addition, the EU has partnered with the Zambian government, and is currently providing technical assistance and support to the aviation sector under the 10th European Development Fund. Another important step was the Civil Aviation Authority Act, (Act No.7 of 2012), which passed in August 2012 and enabled the transformation of the Department of Civil Aviation into an autonomous Zambia Civil Aviation Authority.

These developments have spurred the Zambian government towards their goal of reinstating a national carrier. And although the mid-2014 launch deadline was not met, officials remain optimistic. In the mean time, renovations and construction of new airports will facilitate air travel, both internally and abroad. A $360 million upgrade of the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport is set for completion in 2014. Among the numerous upgrades being undertaken by China Jiangxi International is a new 34,500 sqm two-story terminal building, a new 5,000 sqm cargo hangar, and new aprons and taxi ways. The Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe International Airport, previously known as the Ndola International Airport, is set for greenfield construction at a cost of $522 million. This development will revitalize Ndola city. The Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport is also undergoing a $50 million upgrade.

A bright spot in Zambia's aviation is the success of Pro Flight, a private carrier that has pivoted away from tourism to capitalize on business travel from the nations mining operations. In 2013, Pro Flight carried 135,000 passengers and according to managing director Tony Irwin, passenger count should reach 145,000 in 2014. Of these routes, Ndola in the Copperbelt was the most popular, accounting for around 60,000 passengers. A recent interline agreement with Emirates Airlines, and other international carriers, allows the carrier to expand its market beyond the country, a rare feat for Zambian carriers these days. In 2013, British Airways cancelled its Lusaka connection, and KLM is expected to follow in their footsteps. And while this is unpleasant news, their absence opens up space for a national carrier. Moreover, if the aviation sector can evolve to meet the needs of the Zambian economy, there will be positive results in the future.