WINGS TO FLY

Zambia 2014 | TRANSPORT | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Tony Irwin, Managing Director of Proflight Zambia, on the dynamics of the local air market, and the recent deal with Emirates Airlines to expand customer choice.

Tony Irwin
BIOGRAPHY
Tony Irwin, a former Captain of Zambia’s National Airline, Zambia Airways was born in Ndola, Zambia and has lived in Zambia for most of his life. After completing his A levels, Tony ambitiously followed his dream of a career in aviation by completing his commercial pilot’s license at Oxford Air Training College in the UK. Tony graduated from Oxford top of his class and returned to his home country, Zambia, where he took up a position flying for the national airline, Zambia Airways. Tony flew for Zambia Airways for over 10 years, and spent a year flying for Transavia based in the Netherlands before setting up Proflight in 1991, which he continues to run today.

Where does Proflight currently stand in terms of fleet and passenger numbers?

We are currently operating eight aircraft. Our largest is the Jetstream 41, which has 29 seats and we operate three of these aircraft. We have four Jetstream 3200s, which have 18 seats, and one 12-seater Cessna Grand Caravan that we use specifically for places you cannot reach with other aircraft, such as locations with dirt runways. In 2013, we carried 135,000 passengers, and we expect to do about 145,000 or thereabouts in 2014. We serve both the tourist and business sectors. When we started, our routes were primarily tourism-related, flying people to national parks. Today our backbone is business travel, particularly in the mining sector.

What drove this shift from tourism to business travel?

The challenge of the Zambian tourist industry is its seasonality. For example, in 2013 on our Mfuwe route we carried 80 passengers on our worst week and 850 on our best. That is a massive cycle and this is a capital-intensive industry; our machines need to work all-year round. Hence we started to look to the Copperbelt, although it was difficult to break into that market. Fortunately, a lot of growth has happened there in the last 10 years. We started out with a small nine-seater, and we have seen significant growth since then, especially on the Solwezi route thanks to rapid development in the mining sector there.

What made it hard to break into the Copperbelt routes?

There were two incumbent operators on that route. Zambian Airways had been around for quite a long time and was fairly entrenched, and then there was a smaller company called Airwaves. Businesspeople generally find reliability to be the most important factor; they tend to be less price sensitive than leisure travelers. They want to know that their plane will arrive and take off on time. During this first phrase when you are proving this, you are not carrying enough people and are probably losing money.

In terms of passenger numbers, what are your most popular routes?

Ndola in the Copperbelt would be around 60,000, so almost half. Last year was a good year for Livingston due to its hosting of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) meeting. I believe it saw around 50,000 passengers. The remaining share is made up of our service to the provincial capitals such as Mansa, Kasama, Chipata, and Solwezi.

You recently signed an interline agreement with Emirates Airlines. How does this fit within your growth strategy?

The strategy is to give us a competitive advantage. We have been fortunate to have a three-year period without any competitors in the domestic market. It is a tiny market, but it has been positive for us to have this time to consolidate our position. Nevertheless, because it is a small market we have to serve it with relatively small aircraft, because businesspeople like frequency; we need to have two to three flights a day. So with that comes some inefficiency because your seat costs are considerably higher than with a larger aircraft. We look at this interline as a way to build some loyalty, and any new entrant will have to get to that stage. We currently have agreements with Kenya Airways, Emirates Airlines, and Ethiopian Airlines. The idea is that a customer would prefer to buy one ticket rather than two, hence one of our strategies is to enter into alliances with all the major carriers in the region. We don't have an agreement with South African Airways, although we have had some discussions with them. We also don't have an agreement for code share; we understand this takes time. Most of the big airlines will not go into a code share unless you are fully compliant with International Air Transport Association (IATA) regulations.