The future of our airline industry

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Mamvura’s Market Minute
The announcement that Rwandair is to use its fifth freedom rights to introduce a direct flight to Cape Town will be welcomed by anyone who regularly flies this route.

At its peak when flyafrica were also on the Johannesburg route, there were 11 flights a day to ORT, the world’s most poorly designed large airport.

Harare-Cape Town has for the past two decades been the most obvious potential route to anyone with half a brain outside the airline industry. Yet it took all this time — and by a vanity airline no less (Rwandair has the luxury of being funded by the UK taxpayer) — to pull it off.

Watch others scramble to follow as this route, never plied before, suddenly gets described as “lucrative”. The same is regularly suggested about Harare-London.

Why is no one doing it then? There certainly are lucrative routes (like London-Luanda on British Airways), but “lucrative” in the airline industry is a pre-1990s term — you only have to look at the US to realise how marginal the industry really is.

“Busy” is really the modern term, but how often is this missed? Consider that loss-making, state-owned SAA does not have a direct flight to London from Cape Town, but BA has two a day that are permanently booked up. No one wants to go to Joburg if they can avoid it.

Fifth freedom rights do not mean that the general “dog-in-the-manger” approach to landing rights in Africa is about to be transformed, but it is certainly a start. Only a few months ago, we had Air Zim complaining about how Air Namibia, Ethiopian, and Emirates had used these rights to “steal” their “lucrative” Lusaka route.

The truth is Air Zim just could not operate it properly and passengers became irritated with the constant delays, especially on Friday nights.

The Air Zim flight, early Monday morning, back Friday night was perfect for most business travellers and diasporans — all the other airlines flew midday — meaning Air Zim had a perfect comparative advantage, but no capacity.

Not only are there issues over landing rights, but oddly the obsession with “national airlines” remains with us — just look at Zambia, which is to relaunch its “flag carrier” with Ethiopian as its junior partner.

No surprise there — it has long been Mamvura’s prognosis that Ethiopian will quietly go about reforming Central African Airways through taking stakes in all three former Federation countries. Air Zim will be next. But you should manage your expectations. Ethiopian’s surrogate Malawian Airlines abandoned the direct Harare-Blantyre flight last year due to low passenger volumes. Back in the early 1970s, there were 40 flights a week between the two cities.

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