By Thulani Mpofu,
Zimbabwe’s first budget airline has opened, promising a reliable service and low fares to make flying more affordable to the general public in a country where such travel is the preserve of the elite.
Fly Kumba, a small, locally owned air transport operator, began thrice-weekly flights to Johannesburg in South Africa from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second biggest city, in March.
Ordinary Zimbabweans have welcomed it and hope it will give them the chance to do something they could only imagine before.
“Most of us could not even dream of boarding a plane,” said Thupeyo Muleya, a businessman who imports used tyres from Namibia for resale.
“I didn’t know you could fly for so little. You just have this idea that flying is beyond your reach. One of these days I will have my turn.”More than 75 per cent of Zimbabwe’s 13 million people live on less than US$1 (Dh3.67) a day, according to the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, a consumer rights body. For workers, two thirds of whom are civil servants and earn an average of $160 monthly, flying is simply not an option.
“When we were growing up we had dreams of flying one day in our lives,” said Patrick Chapwanya, Fly Kumba’s chief financial officer.
“Fly Kumba wants to meet everyone’s dream of flying. Flying must not be elitist – a matter of dreams.
“We have identified a workable solution enabling travellers to fly without the burden of costs. Our business thrust is based on the best turnaround time, reliability, cost effectiveness and safety.”
The airline is leasing a 108-seat Boeing 737-500 from Air Namibia. It landed at Bulawayo’s Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo International Airport from Johannesburg in mid-March.
A one-way economy class flight costs $100 while the business class fare is $150. Conventional airlines Air Zimbabwe and South African Airways charge twice and four times as much per ticket respectively.
Emmanuel Fundira, the president of the Zimbabwe Council for Tourism, a representative body for private tourism operators, said the country needed a budget air service.
“One of the issues that we have been grappling with as a country, and [in] southern Africa, is the lack of low cost airlines,” he said.
“The level of connectivity between our [Zimbabwe’s] tourism centres and other destinations in southern Africa is undesirable. Fly Kumba adds to the frequency, but it is only flying thrice weekly and without linking to any of our tourism resorts. If they spread their network to Harare and Victoria Falls, the contribution to our tourism industry will be more direct.”
Local media analysts are speculating that a new budget operator could push the debt-ridden national flag carrier Air Zimbabwe out of business. But Jonathan Kadzura, the board chairman of Air Zimbabwe, is unfazed.
“We have been in this business for decades. Air Zimbabwe is geared to face competition,” he said.
And there is more airline competition looming after Walter Mzembi, the minister of tourism, recently issued 28 air service licences to prospective operators.
“We expect more locally owned and foreign airlines to enter the market,” said Mr Mzembi. “We cannot develop our tourism if there are not enough air links with our source markets”
Seven airlines fly into Zimbabwe, down from 45 that did so before 2000. They pulled out because of low business, and concerns over travellers’ safety after the onset of political unrest in the country. Lufthansa, British Airways, Qantas, Swissair, Air India and Air France were among the airlines that left.
However, Evans Ndebele, who ran Zimbabwe Express Airlines in the 1990s, sees no future for Fly Kumba. “I don’t believe that operation can be viable,” said Mr Ndebele, whose airline collapsed in 1999 because of poor business.“The fares they are charging are too low. You cannot operate a profitable low-cost service on three frequencies per week. At least three frequencies per day, yes. You won’t make any money, if you consider the taxes charged per ticket and other expenses.
“Whoever is funding this project must have deep pockets. Because you are running a budget air service you charge less and then make your money on volumes and frequencies. This is not happening with Fly Kumba.”