LUSAKA, Zambia – While tourism in Zambia is slowly recovering from last year’s dramatic slump in arrivals, one of the country’s industry stalwarts is continuing a success story that began 22 years ago.
When former Zambian Airways pilot Tony Irwin took the bit between his teeth, left his “steady” job and launched his own airline, he knew he was taking a risk, albeit a calculated one. He knew the business was out there, and the prospects for success looked good and so Proflight Air Services, as it was then known, was born, operating charters within Zambia and occasionally outside its borders.
By 1997 Tony had launched a service to Mfuwe, helping to grow the burgeoning safari industry in the South Luangwa National Park by linking up with incoming international flights, ferrying tourists from all over the world to what was then Zambia’s only internationally recognized tourism destination.
Seven years down the line Proflight got an injection of capital from new investors and diversified, forming Proflight Commuter Services which immediately began offering scheduled flights to the Copperbelt – Zambia’s biggest business and corporate destination – as well as to the Luangwa Valley and two of the country’s fast emerging tourism hotspots – Livingstone and the Victoria Falls and the Lower Zambezi Valley, home of the Lower Zambezi National Park.
Today, Irwin’s dream of being Zambia’s number one private airline, servicing every major destination inside the country with scheduled flights and offering first-class charter options anywhere else, has been more than realized as Proflight now flies its first international route to Lilongwe in Malawi.
It’s not been an easy ride, and one fraught with problems, not the least of which has been the collapse of Zambia’s two national carriers – Zambian Airways and Zambezi Airlines, both of which linked with Proflight’s internal services, forming the backbone of the airline’s local trade. However, with South African Airways offering four flights a day to the country’s capital of Lusaka, and with British Airways, Emirates and Kenya Airways driving the bulk of international arrivals, Proflight has managed to not just weather the storm but actually come out on top of it.
With no real competition, Tony’s “baby” has more or less cleaned up and now operates the largest fleet of aircraft in Zambia with virtually every route that matters covered, and those that aren’t offering charter opportunities. With its first Boeing 737-200 now ferrying passengers between Lusaka and the busy Copperbelt and Lusaka and Livingstone, Proflight Zambia, which now encompasses the schedule and charter divisions of the company, is also the country’s most successful, and long-lived airline and has been heralded by the country’s tourism minister, Sylvia Masebo, as being pivotal in Zambia’s tourism growth over the last decade. “Without Proflight,” says Masebo, “Our tourism would not be where it is today; they have made such a great contribution.”
Indeed, the only real drawback to Proflight’s continued command of Zambia’s skies is the crippling cost of fuel and the consequently relatively high price of fares, which are now added to by Zambia’s departure and security taxes, and the National Airports Company’s infrastructure and development tax which was introduced in June. This means that the cost of return flights to a popular tourist destination like the Lower Zambezi, a short 25-minute flight from the capital city, can cost as much, if not more, than a return international flight from Johannesburg to Lusaka.
To counteract this and help to promote the growth of domestic tourism inside Zambia, Proflight has introduced a popular series of special offers on major routes like Lusaka to Ndola and the new Lilongwe route, offering a “Fly500” special for K500 return plus taxes, as well as special early bird rates on certain routes.