AirNam courts the region
Air Namibia will this Thursday launch three new regional routes to Gaborone (Botswana); Harare (Zimbabwe) and Ondjiva (Angola).
These direct flights will commence on 15 May where the ERJ 135 Jet will fly four times a week to Harare and thrice each week to Gaborone and Ondjiva.
A fourth new regional route; another four-times-a-week direct flight from Windhoek to Livingstone (Zambia) will also start in October this year.
Although this maybe good news to travellers and business people, the sustainability of these routes and their viability remain questionable.
According to the new Air Namibia Corporate Affairs boss, Paul Nakawa, the new routes are part of the implementation of the national airline’s five-year Strategic Plan (2011/12 - 2015/16) approved by Cabinet last year, ‘that is aimed at achieving constant commercial success’.
Part of this Strategic Plan has seen the acquisition of modern aeroplanes and alignment of internal processes.
“We currently have three Embraer ERJ 135 aircraft and we will use them for the regional routes. We have purchased a new one set to arrive by end of April.
These Embraers have replaced the Beechcraft 1990s. ERJ provides improved safety and dispatch reliability, enabling faster turn-around times and onward connections,” said Nakawa.
The ERJs are 37-seaters and Air Namibia had abandoned the Gaborone route years ago because it was not viable, although Nakawa says this time, the format will ensure viability.
However, the ERJ’s limited cargo capacity (300kg per whole plane) might work against it in its regional expansion plans, especially along the lucrative Ondjiva market where the US dollar rules.
The State-owned enterprise’s regional expansion drive comes at a time when the company recently received N$500m from the national budget (2012/13) to turn around their fortunes and subsidise their growing debts and acquire airplanes.
Air Namibia had incurred N$120m loss from their last financial statements and was relying heavily on hiring planes to sustain their routes on the international and regional routes.
Currently, Air Namibia has direct regional flights to Cape Town, Johannesburg, Victoria Falls and Lusaka. Although the Lusaka route has been castigated for not being profitable, the airline has found it otherwise.
Recently, Air Namibia increased flights to Lusaka from one to four every day but still says it is failing to meet the traffic demand between the two countries.
Speaking in Lusaka last month, Air Namibia General Manager, Commercial Services, Xavier Masule said the airline had noticed increased traffic between Zambia and Namibia; a move that had prompted the Lusaka destination changes.
“From March, we shall be sending one big plane on Tuesdays, which will not just have more passenger capacity but will also boost capacity of cargo tonnage.
A market survey has revealed that a lot of tourists to Namibia, especially from Europe and East Africa still make trips to Zambia and because of that, we will launch a Livingstone route,” said Masule.
Livingstone is the gateway to the mighty Victoria Falls.
Air Namibia definitely hopes, according to Nakawa, to tap from the clientele of beleaguered Air Zimbabwe; another US dollar market.
With Air Zimbabwe having indefinitely suspended servicing all its routes citing ‘viability challenges’, Air Namibia could take over the Victoria Falls route.
Currently, Air Namibia lands at the Victoria Falls resort about three times a week.
The major worry is that like Lusaka, with the exception of Ondjiva and the South African routes, chances are high that the return flights maybe empty.
In addition, the national airline has not been tested yet on its punctuality in the new structure. Travel agents over the years side-stepped Air Namibia because of its track record where travelers grew accustomed to delays and cancellations.
More so, as Air Namibia seeks to expand its regional footprints, the aptitude of stricken Namibia Airports Company also comes in handy, as the increase in regional routes means more business for the besieged airport management company.
Air Namibia has, over the years, not bothered discontinuing with low-cost operations like the Ghana route.
Namibia as proven by the lucrative Ondangwa and Katima Mulilo routes, has a huge middle class population in smaller towns that can afford to fly but there is no connectivity.
Just like domestic routes, regional routes can improve the market shares and revenues for the once perennial loss-maker.
Minister Erkki Nghimtina late last year told The Villager that; “Air Namibia will roll-out several new routes and frequencies in order to increase the economies of scale and air travellers can expect improved travelling experiences.
The Government has committed to help the company with financial resources in the next few years and it is expected that the subsidence of Air Namibia will eventually come to an end due to the anticipated positive performance in the near future.”