THERE is always something exciting about the idea of an airline re-entering discontinued routes.
The hope is to pile pressure on existing competitors, increase frequencies and load factors, and recapture lost market share.
This feeling gripped Air Zimbabwe (AirZim) on Friday last week as the troubled airline reintroduced flights on the cash-spinning Victoria Falls-Johannesburg route, in yet another “baby step” towards expanding its regional sphere of influence.
Debt-ridden AirZim bounced back to the skyways in November last year following a dramatic collapse two years ago, fuelled by excessive government interference.
It had suffered a massive plunge in market share to 0,7 percent in 2012, from 8,8 percent in 2011.The market’s confidence in AirZim had fizzled out as its turmoil swept through.
But since May, customer trust has been rekindled, propelled by aircraft lease deals that brought an Airbus A320 aircraft and two Brazilian-made 50-seater Embraers, which have re-ignited interest in the national flag carrier.
Following a passenger exodus triggered by ageing aircraft, travelers have been slowly coming back, and on the Harare-Johannesburg route, which was reintroduced in May, AirZim has been recapturing lost ground.
Last week, it announced that it would be flying the Embraer on the new route, starting with two weekly frequencies.
“We will start with two frequencies a week on Fridays and Sundays,” spokesperson, Shingi Taruvinga told The Financial Gazette’s Companies & Markets (C&M).
“But we will continue to review the frequencies depending on what our clients want. We have re-launched the service in order to cater for increased air travel in and out of Zimbabwe. This is strategic because of the growth that we foresee,” Taruvinga said.
On a familiarisation tour of the Victoria Falls-Johannesburg route on Friday, I was unsure whether the Embraer would be able to take on two regional giants on the busy southwestern airway, which is always brimming with super-premium air services.
British Airways’ Comair and South African Airways (SAA) have built unequalled passenger loyalty there.
And AirZim would not easily swing passengers its way.
An SAA A320 rolled onto the tarmac just before the inaugural flight.
Proudly, it took its position besides the Embraer, dwarfing it in the process.
But minutes later, as it sliced through the dry air over the open savanna plains below, it dawned on me that the light aircraft had its own strengths.
For tourists anxious to combine the luxuries of travel in a more intimate aircraft and frequently zooming out to marvel on the arid landscapes, the Embraer would offer the chance.
The one and half hour flight into Johannesburg was a pleasant experience.
We flew over the land that was once ruled by southern Africa’s greatest kings — Shaka the Zulu on the southern banks of the Limpopo, and Lobengula to the north.
Virgin forests, untouched since time immemorial, sprung out, only being interrupted by sporadic meandering rivers, which offered a rare sense of relief in a generally difficult climate.
We took advantage of the Embraer’s low flying altitude, to get a glimpse of Zimbabwean hospitality even before touchdown.
“We are making baby steps,” Taruvinga said.
“There is already talk that some airlines will park their planes because of a promotion that we have been running,” she said.
She knows, however, that the ability to attract passengers and remaining strong would be imperative in the next few months.
Flip-flopping has previously cost AirZim.
Chairman, Ozias Bvute, who was recently thrust into the hot seat to save the airline, has admitted that the task ahead would be tough.
“The next step of our journey is to develop our route network and develop this route network in such a way that we do not rush to provide a service that we cannot sustain,” he told C&M recently.
The last time AirZim attempted to re-launch flights on that route was in June 2010.
But then, its financial crisis mounted and it plunged into a comma that ended with the arrival of the A320.
It is easy to see why AirZim has decided to take yet another baby step.
It is about establishing a presence at the right place at the right time.
In less than 30 days, Zimbabwe hosts the United Nations World Tourism Organisation general assembly.
This would be an immense opportunity for AirZim to convince the market that it has resurrected.
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