Much has been said and written about the resource-starved and financially-troubled national flag carrier, Air Malawi. This is a business entity wholly-owned by the Government of Malawi.
It is a fact that Air Malawi is facing turbulence. It is struggling to survive. Several options have been put forward on how to resuscitate Air Malawi and make it â€˜Africaâ€™s Friendly Airlineâ€™ it is supposed to be with an added value of dependability.
For an airline that once upon a time regularly flew as far as Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and sometimes to London, Air Malawi is today a shadow of its former self. It is less reliable and only flies thrice to Johannesburg in South Africa, a route that accounts for about 60 percent of its revenue. Previously, Air Malawi flew in and out of the city of gold daily. Besides, the thrice a week flights to Joâ€™burg are being serviced using leased equipment.
The lease arrangement is meant to keep the airline afloat and retain customer confidence regarding its presence. However, it is coming at a huge cost as those who lease us the aircraft usually use own cabin crew and captains. Here is a rough picture of the cost: Despite its financial squeeze, Air Malawi is spending about $40 000 (about K12 million) to charter the Boeing 737-300 it currently uses to service the Johannesburg route. Each member of the cabin crew (there are four on each flight) get $100/day (about K30 000) as an allowance, translating to K120 000 per day whereas the captains get about $140 (about K42 000) per day.
These are unsustainable costs for a business seeking to return to winning ways. Any wonder why Air Malawi keeps posting losses? With Joâ€™burg flights only on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, it means that the foreign crews are paid four days a week for basking in the sun in hotel pool-sides or simply relaxing in their paid-for hotel rooms.
Currently, we are told, Air Malawi has a debt of about K5 billion accumulated over a seven-year period. In its quest to restructure the airline and get a strategic equity partner and perhaps reduce its stake to 61 percent or thereabouts, government has pledged to honour all debts and liabilities of Air Malawi.
In my view, Air Malawi can be turned around if it were run like a business. It should cease being a charity or some welfare organisation, so to speak. This business thinking should start with open and competitive recruitment of key staff, especially in management. There should be no political appointees… Thereafter, the exercise can spread to other sections of the airline, of course with the exception of the pilots or captains who are some of the highly qualified in the industry; hence, our captains are most sought after by other airlines. The cabin crew too has rarely disappointed.
Whereas building customer confidence is critical, I will believe Air Malawi is now a business if it stops flying one passenger from Lusaka to Lilongwe. That is more charity than business… I understand that for the Boeing 737-300 series currently in use (and flown by foreign pilots with own cabin crew), the break-even-point to make business sense is half the 108 capacity which is 54 passengers. The ball is in the court of Air Malawi sales and marketing team to fill the empty seats. Yes, those seats can be filled! Why not? How do the other airlines plying the same routes manage to be overbooked?
Keep politics out to fly Air Malawi high.