ONGOLO Founder, Muloongo Muchelemba, is keen to support African airlines so that they can become the default choice for African travellers. However, this support must be earned, with airlines keen to receive and act on feedback from customers. This unsolicited review was submitted by an ONGOLO subscriber and recent passenger on Zambia Airways, who asked to remain anonymous.
I was excited to fly Zambia Airways 2.0, which was relaunched on 1 December 2021, more than 27 years after its predecessor was liquidated. Zambia has few domestic carriers and there is little competition, which makes for costly travel and time restrictions. What I look for in an airline is safety and cleanliness of the aircraft, courteous staff, and efficient travel. I would define efficient travel as ‘on time’ travel with good communication, easy access to information, notice if there are going to be delays or changes to the schedule, and an airline that strictly follows COVID-19 protocols.
Generally, when a new product comes onto the market, companies make every attempt to put their best foot forward. Zambia Airways 2.0 currently has the most competitive rates on the market, offering return tickets between the capital, Lusaka, and the main airport on the Copperbelt, Ndola, at the bargain price of $100 per person. That is one-third the price offered by domestic market leader, Proflight, who are charging $300 return for the same route. At these affordable rates, my husband and I decided to fly instead of making the long drive on terrible roads during the rainy season.
Our first experience of poor customer service was prior to the outbound trip when I had a question about our luggage allowance. I called the Lusaka office several times, but no one answered. I was fortunate to get through to the Ndola office and got the information I needed. The outbound flight was uneventful. We were only a few minutes late leaving Lusaka and arrived on schedule at the newly opened Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe International Airport in Ndola. It took a while to get our luggage and entertained ourselves by watching the luggage on the belt. The checked truck tyre, followed by the checked single umbrella really had me rolling! I guess the airline thought the umbrella could have been used as a weapon of some sort.
Our return flight was rather unpleasant. We arrived at the airport at 16:45 for an 18:15 departure. We returned our rental car, cleared security, and were the first people in the waiting area to board by 17:15. Thirty minutes later, there was still no sign of the Zambia Airways staff or plane. We patiently waited and our departure time of 18:15 came and went. They started boarding the 18:40 Proflight plane, and we – the bargain travellers - were still waiting. There was no communication and no apology for the delay. The people around me started saying, “What do you expect? Zambia Airways equals Zambian time”.
We eventually boarded the flight before 19:00 and sat at the front of the plane. We were thankful that we did not have any hand luggage to store above our seats because the plane was like an oven. People were trying to turn on the air, but the air vents didn’t work. The plane, which I failed to mention earlier, is dingy and looks tattered. The small pieces of fabric on the headrests are frayed and not hemmed, which makes the plane look unkept. The branding on the exterior of the plane says Zambia Airways, but inside things such as the safety cards are branded as Ethiopian Airlines. There were even two people on our flight wearing Ethiopian Airlines uniforms. First impressions are important. Doing things halfway and not taking the time to properly present your product is the first clue that you are not concerned about your customers.
We didn’t land in Lusaka until 1945. Then to top it all off, they crammed all the passengers onto a bus, not adhering to COVID protocols at all. We sat on the bus for a good fifteen minutes while they loaded every passenger from the flight. There were five ground crew and Zambia Airways staff within five metres of the bus, and not one person assisted an frail, elderly gentleman to get on. We made the long 100-metre journey to the terminal where we stood like sardines in a can waiting for our luggage. The ground crews played on their phones instead of asking people to space out and observe COVID protocols. My husband and I spotted the elderly gentleman and his wife standing outside the waiting area, and no one from the airline bothered to get him a wheelchair. We took it up on ourselves to hunt one down and assist them with their luggage.
This experience told me a few things. If we are going to take on the responsibility to have a national airline, shouldn’t we also be responsible to run it well? Excellent customer service should be at the top of the mission statement for any airline and there should be a semblance of national pride that permeates through the organisation and the customer experience. What we have is the classic work ethic of doing the bare minimum, poor customer service and no effort to communicate with customers. We all want Zambia Airways 2.0 to succeed but they have a lot of work to do.
Zambia Airways is 51% owned by the Zambian government and 49% owned by Ethiopian Airlines. It operates domestic flights to Ndola and Livingstone and international flights (operated by Ethiopian Airlines) to Harare, Kinshasa, Nairobi, Mombasa and Addis Ababa.