HARARE – The recently-commissioned $150 million Victoria Falls International Airport has insufficient capacity to meet burgeoning air traffic demands, spurring a problem of congestion and delays.
As traffic continues to grow with airlines jostling to introduce direct flights to Victoria Falls, the problem is worsening.
This issue has become a major concern of airport authorities and innovative means of accommodating the ever increasing airline traffic are being sought.
Zimbabwe Immigration Department principal director Clemence Masango said immigration officials were having a torrid time containing traffic as the airport’s arrivals section was too small to contain the deluge of visitors.
The airport was refurbished at a cost of $150 million. The airport’s expansion began in February 2013 and was carried out by a Chinese firm China Jiangsu International Group through a concessionary loan by the China Export and Import Bank. It was commissioned in November 2016.
It had been expected to smoothly handle around 1, 5 million passengers annually up from 500 000, but is now struggling to contain the huge volume of traffic.
This comes after BAComair is now operating larger aircraft on the Joburg-Vic Falls route, and over the coming months will be offering double daily flights on several days of the week.
The BAComair daily schedule is operated by a B737-800 aircraft, which accommodates 162 passengers in a business and economy configuration. The airline is also licensed to operate these three additional services per week year-round as required, should there be demand.
South African Airways is operating an Airbus A330-200 with 222 seats, which is 88 seats more than their previous aircraft capacity.
In addition, Victoria Falls has new airlines servicing the destination, namely Ethiopian Airways and Kenya Airways, linking Victoria Falls to North and East Africa. Both airlines have their own hubs and networks for better connections and packaging.
Kenya Airways fly on from Victoria Falls to Cape Town, creating a much-needed route linking the three iconic African destinations of Cape Town, Victoria Falls and Kilimanjaro.
The latest arrivals into Victoria Falls Airport are SA Airlink, offering the Cape Town to Victoria Falls route six days a week, and Fastjet, which has now added Johannesburg to Victoria Falls three times a week to their schedule.
In the domestic air space, Air Zimbabwe and Fastjet are now both operating 7 days a week, which has been a boost for domestic tourism.
As a result, tourism players had raised complaints about the airport capacity chaos at a tourism briefing last Friday.
“We are aware of this complaint. We are doing our best with what is there,” Masango said, adding he had engaged the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe to find a solution.
“I want to point out that although that airport is new, the plan was not drawn yesterday. The plan was done many years ago and when it was developed, I think close to 20 years later, many things were not right.
“That arrival hall, many of you travel around the world, that arrival hall is far from being an arrival hall. In other airports, it’s just a lounge. It cannot take more than 600 passengers.
“And that’s the nature of the volumes we deal with. Three planes if they come fully loaded carrying on average 200 passengers, that’s 600, we can’t sustain. And that’s why you see some passengers spilling onto the tarmac. Then any inconvenience experienced by travellers is naturally directed at immigration.”
Amid the airport chaos, hotel operators in Victoria Falls are reporting better-than-expected profits and raising their earnings forecast for the year, helped by a boost in business travel following the commissioned $150 million international airport.
Victoria Falls hotels’ occupancy levels are ranging in the “high nineties” (90 percent) since government commissioned the $150 million international airport. Apart from the falls, known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya or “Smoke That Thunders”, Zimbabwe can offer safari hunting, some of Africa’s largest game reserves, scenic resorts and the ancient Great Zimbabwe ruins, one of the most important archeological sites on the continent.
New businesses are opening across the industry in the region, with new lodges, hotel rooms, restaurants, bars, and new activities, all of which combine to enhance the draw of the destination, which is a hub for Hwange, Matobo Hills, the rest of Zimbabwe and the Kaza (Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area) region.
Kaza, which is made up of five southern African countries, boasts some of the most pristine and diverse wildlife areas left on the planet.