Zambia Airports Corporation Limited – Returning to the Air

Zambia Airports Corporation Limited saw its airport expansions and redevelopments slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but they are already looking to return to the skies bigger and better than before.

Zambia Airports Corporation Limited has been operating the country’s airports for over 30 years, ever since it was established by an Act of Government in 1989. The 100% government-owned company commenced operations on the 11th of September that year with a remit covering the operation, maintenance and development of Zambia’s four international airports and aerodrome. These airports are Kenneth Kaunda International Airport, (formerly Lusaka International Airport), Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula International Airport (formerly Livingstone International Airport), Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe International Airport (formerly Ndola International Airport), and Mfuwe International Airport. Each of them caters to the whole spectrum of business sectors, as well as tourists and all key sectors in the aviation industry.

The corporation provides work for 804 staff, with a turnover of $60 million. But talking to the corporation’s Director of Airport Services, Azzaam Bvulani, it’s clear that Zambia Airports Corporation Limited puts its value in quality, not quantity.

“The key qualities that make our airports stand out are their safety and security,” Bvulani tells us. “In 2018 Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula International Airport won the best safety award in Africa. In 2019 we were also awarded on the effectiveness of the implementation of security measures. We’re well above the African average and measure well against a number of global benchmarks. In terms of the airport service quality, we stand out in terms of courtesy and helpfulness because we have made high levels of customer service a key organisational objective.”

On top of the world-class levels of service, Zambia Airports Corporation Limited’s facilities offer, they are also emblematic of the diversity that makes Zambia the place it is today.

“Our staff come from a rich African culture which celebrates the diversity of the 72 ethnic groups which live in Zambia, as well as those from our neighbouring countries,” Bvulani says proudly.

Bvulani brings a wealth of experience to his role with a career that spans everything from engineering to finance.

“I’m an engineer by training. I studied in the UK and also undertook a graduate qualification in accounting,” he explains.

Bvulani has two MBAs, one in strategy, business transformation and the use of technology and the other in banking and finance. His career has spanned the sectors of management consultancy, integrated facilities management, ICT, business and investment, and now aviation.

This wide cross-section of knowledge has proved essential, especially given the ambitious development and expansion projects Zambia’s airports are undertaking.

Spreading Its Wings

Currently, Zambia Airports Corporation Limited is investing in several major upgrade projects. The first of these was for the terminal building at Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula International Airport, which was completed and commissioned in 2016. This was only the start of a much wider programme of expansion and refurbishment, however.

“We’ve rehabilitated the facilities and runways and we’re in the process of developing, through the administrative department of public infrastructure, a greenfield airport with the capacity for 1 million passengers,” Bvulani points out. “It will be an international airport that also covers the domestic market, a greenfield opportunity which will be launched sometime in 2021.”

At the same time, the corporation is carrying out an extensive upgrade at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport including a dedicated international terminal, cargo facilities, a transit hotel, stand-alone hotel and a major upgrade to the existing infrastructure. These facilities will be launched in 2021.

“It will build the airport’s capacity for domestic and international travellers to over 6 million,” Bvulani says proudly.

This level of investment is necessary, as the region has undergone a great deal of growth over the last few years.

“We have grown faster relatively than the region at large in terms of passenger numbers,” Bvulani observes. “We have taken a long-term view with regards to the strategic perspective. We’ve invested in projects for the future in order to develop the country as an aviation hub within the region.”

Indeed, Bvulani explains that Zambia’s airports have had lots of interest from major carriers, both those currently flying out of those airports looking to expand their operations and others which are considering operating out of those airports in the future as part of Zambia’s air service development strategic plan.

But the plan has encountered a significant obstacle this year, in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Covid has had a negative impact. Some international airports were closed during the months of April, May and June during which we had very little traffic and the international aviation market was pretty much closed,” Bvulani says.

Air travel is opening up again, but the goverment of Zambia is taking extra precautions to ensure that travelling is safe, instituting a number of measures in line with guidelines developed by Zambia Airports Corporation Limited alongside the Ministry of Health, Zambia Civil Aviation Authority and other organisations.

The procedures to protect the travelling public include serious health screening such as temperature checks on all arriving and departing passengers, hand sanitising and masking up, restricting access to terminal buildings and an enhanced check-in and security processes.

“From a work environment perspective, we also implemented rotation among our staff and continuity measures to manage any potential outbreak within our organisation,” Bvulani points out.

Bvulani and Zambia Airports Corporation Limited are already looking to the opportunities that lie beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The corporation has got ambitious plans in terms of developing the aviation and non-aviation sectors of the business,” Bvulani confides. “We hope to generate at least 20% of our revenue coming out of non-aviation-based services and that requires significant investment.”

The COVID-19, has, if anything, proven the resilience of the corporation.

“We are proud that we have successfully continued as a self-sustaining business, especially given the impact of COVID-19 in reducing our income to below 10% of our typical figures, and the relatively slow uptake and increase of passenger and aircraft activities to recover to pre-COVID levels,” Bvulani says. “We’re facing restrictions regarding our ability to generate the finance to fund our continued expansion. That is the biggest challenge, working with stakeholders to reduce our operating costs and optimise the investment that we need to keep up with international standards and requirements.”

Bvulani expects Zambia’s airports to reach 55% of pre-COVID traffic levels in the next 12-18 months and already almost all the airlines that were previously operating out of their airports have returned. Airlines are operating at reduced frequencies but capacity is expected to grow and pricing to be revised downwards to pre-COVID levels.

“We also expect more operators to start flying to Zambia, such as the new Zambia Airways that will commence in the next three to six months,” Bvulani tells us. “Expectations are high for 2021 with significant infrastructure projects as well as significant upgrades.”

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