Friday, August 29, 2008

Our Chopped Wings

This was supposed to be a year of celebrations, that Air Malawi’s wings have been in the skies for 40 years. But that is not the case. Instead, the airline is seeing its last days.

Flying Gets Better at 40, says Air Malawi of its 40 years of existence. Or put with emphasis on past tense, said Air Malawi last year when it announced that it was two scores old.

But the picture on the ground is not that sweet, flying might be getting better but the future of the company is foggy. Instead of celebrating—the function has been cancelled, it seems—Malawi is debating the intended liquidation of the airline.

The airport was not that busy eight days ago. Air Malawi staff were not wearing their usual happy faces. The few passengers in the lounge looked tired.

At 5 pm, 45 minutes after the scheduled departure time for Dar es Salaam, two Air Malawi staff come into the lounge and their faces tell a story.

"Ladies and gentlemen," says the man, "I have a message." We all knew it was not good news. But we did not expect the worst: cancellation of the flight. We were supposed to fly out to Dar at 4:15 but we did not. At 5, a message comes that Air Malawi is using a chartered plane which, because of its nature, was delaying by 30 minutes on every flight.

"We will depart for Dar at 5:30," says the man. But we flew out of Chileka after six o’clock. What is happening with Air Malawi?

"Morale is down, here" one staff said weeks ago. "Even patronage on our flights is down. Talk about liquidation has not helped our business. It seems people are not sure of the future of the airline."

Of course. How can we be hopeful? Air Malawi was supposed to be celebrating 40 years of existence in March this year. Towards the end of last year, the airline invited essayists to write on airline business. The competition was in three categories: primary school, secondary school and university students. The winners were supposed to be announced in March during celebrations to mark 40 years of Air Malawi’s existence.

Nothing has been heard so far. The celebration is not there. How can there be celebrations when the airline is coming to an end?

My flight back to Malawi on Wednesday last week was not better but I was still happy. I was supposed to fly straight to Blantyre but ended up coming via Lilongwe. This happens anywhere in the world. It was a free-sitting flight because, as one cabin crew put it, "it’s not a full flight". Indeed. One could count the passengers. Perhaps not so many of us travel to East Africa.

But this was not the first time I have traveled on the Blantyre-Dar-Nairobi flight. I have been on flights that were full.

So, as we flew over Tanzanian skies I remembered that on January 27, 2006, Mutharika launched a new Boeing 737-500 in Lilongwe and challenged Air Malawi to operate like an airline, not minibus company. Former board chair Jimmy Koreia Mpatsa knew that the President meant his word.

"By our estimation, we should be able to break even at the very latest by the second year because as the President said, if we do not do so, he will convert our [airline] into a minibus company, so we do not want him to do so," said Mpatsa.

By July 2006 news was that Air Malawi was stabilising. Flights, 95 percent of the flights, were on time. Some form of profit was coming into the accounts of Air Malawi. The managers were happy, addressing press conferences with smiling faces.

There was a K43 million loss in 2004 and a whopping K854 million in 2006. That was sad news. But there was good news. In the first six months of 2007, Air Malawi made a profit of K32 million.

Then more sweet news followed. Air Malawi was 40 years old. It was formed on September 2, 1967, when the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland’s Central African Airways was dissolved.

"As we mark the 40 years in the airline business, the future of Air Malawi looks brighter," said Mchungula last year.

Not anymore. The airline planned to celebrate the 40 years in March this year. The essays were being submitted, I think. But as that was happening, government was planning something else. Towards the end of last year, Comair of South Africa was rumoured to be taking over Air Malawi. Later, government changed, saying the negotiations did not materialise.

The beginning of this year was bad news as well. Air Malawi was suspended from the International Air Traffic Association (IATA) for nonpayment of funds. In April, government announced liquidation.

"There have been some thoughts over liquidation.... The picture they [Air Malawi management] continuously presented has not really been part of reality," said Henry Chimunthu Banda.

So, Air Malawi managers were not telling us the whole reality? Of course, they cannot. But it seemed the airline was getting better than before. Malawians were flying on their own airline. I resolved to fly Air Malawi, always, and the slogan the airline coined, Flying Gets Better at 40, was making sense. Now it stands meaningless.

As we flew from Lilongwe to Blantyre, I gazed at the land through the window and saw houses, small as shrubs. The descent to Chileka International Airport was like a descent into an end of something.

The land was hilly, with small rivers flowing, most of them dry. Once there was water in some of the streams. Now they are dry. Why do things come to an end? I asked myself. Of course, you can repeat or play again a song or a film. But the end still comes again. The more you play, the more the end comes. It’s just part of life that things, even love, come to an end.

Government is now sure of the end of Air Malawi. The airlines staff can smell the end. This is clear on their faces. How do they reconcile the good news of profit and the bad news of the end?
Not long ago, they were working hard to turn around the company. The marketing department was clearly creative, coming up with a lay bye system of payment. What else did people want? Cabin crew was getting better, everyday. Services were improving, slowly, not as fast as some wanted, but still improving.

Now that the liquidation is for sure—I want to believe that it is for the good of the country—what else can we do? I am not traveling a lot nowadays because I am busy. But I hope to be there on Air Malawi’s last flight and do a story tentatively titled, Our last flight.

If I will not be traveling on that day, I hope to fly by invitation. My love goes with Air Malawi.

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