in Features / Airports

Improving, from the ground up

Posted 6 September 2021 · Add Comment

Jonathan Lewis, managing director at NAC2000, Zambia’s largest independent ground-handler, tells Keith Mwanalushi about how the pandemic not only created unique challenges, but also pockets of opportunity.

Jonathan Lewis: “We went from an average of 80 flights a week across our four stations to one flight a week in Lusaka.” Picture: NAC2000.

The Covid-19 pandemic created significant challenges for small but growing aviation markets like Zambia, putting crisis management to the ultimate test. For ground-handlers, it has been an exceptionally tough year.

“The pandemic really had an impact on our business. We went from an average of 80 flights a week across our four stations to one flight a week in Lusaka at the start of March 2020,” explained NAC2000 managing director, Jonathan Lewis.

NAC2000 is a Zambian private company incorporated in the year 2000. It was born out of the liquidated Zambia Airways cargo subsidiary, National Air Charters (NAC).

The company provides ground services at the country’s four main international airports – Lusaka, the capital, Ndola in the Copperbelt, Livingstone (Victoria Falls), and Mfuwe.

NAC2000 handles a broad spectrum of special flights, from VVIP, presidential, and royal travel all the way through to tourist and cargo charters of all sizes.

Lewis feels his company’s reputation has cemented its position as the ad hoc handler of choice within the Zambian handling, import and export community.

“We deal with all the ad hoc charters and scheduled airline services, and also offer cargo warehousing supporting key economic activities for both imports and exports,” he said.

Prior to the pandemic, NAC2000 was handling most of the charter business and around 70% of the country’s private traffic. However, with travel restrictions and the closure of Mfuwe, Ndola and Livingstone airports, this meant operations had to be suspended. “Initially things seemed bleak, as we had demand for export perishable products but very little available capacity,” he said.

“Thankfully, due to the influx of import freight and medical PPE cargo, we were able to facilitate both import and export demand.”

Lewis indicated that cargo volumes overall year-on-year have dropped. However, while scheduled flights plummeted, there was some glimmer of hope with private charters from business travellers and the transportation of essential people and goods including, for instance, the movement of Zambian troops into peacekeeping countries by the UN and equipment coming into the copper mines – “those are the kind of handlings we do.”

According to International Air Transport Association (IATA) guidelines, there are no specific measures recommended for handling of baggage and cargo during the pandemic. However, general biosafety measures should be practiced as appropriate against the potential risk of infection.

Consequently, apart from all the standard Covid-19 preventative measures, like using PPE and social distancing, NAC2000 also had to adapt to other operational changes. Cargo in the cabin, for example, presented new challenges, with standard operating procedures having to be adjusted promptly.

“This included the need for more trained ramp agents for manual off-loading, and moving a considerable number of cargoes by hand rather than relying on ground support equipment that could have done the work in a quarter of the time,” explained Lewis.

The MD attributes this ability to adjust quickly to both close client communication and cooperation, and the positive mindset of his management and staff.

NAC2000 now takes extra precautions to ensure its personnel have access to full PPE kits when handling sensitive cargoes, like human remains and, or, medevac flights.

“We do what we can to ensure our most valuable resource – our employees – are adequately protected,” said Lewis. “Planning has also improved as we reduce the need for different shifts to mix with one another and, where possible, some staff have been able to work from home to reduce any possible transmission of the coronavirus.”

He said the company has used some of the available ‘downtime’ to review procedures and documentation, as well as online training. “We carry out frequent fumigation of our cargo and premises and have, so far from a sickness perspective, been relatively fortunate with no serious infections,” he reported.

Several years ago, the Zambian Government embarked on a programme to improve the infrastructure at all of its international airports. This is being done in collaboration with private sector participation.

The Zambia Development Agency (ZDA) has reported that infrastructure remains a major challenge to growth, economic diversification and human development in Zambia. As such, its development is one of the current government’s priority areas.

The new airport development at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport (KKIA) in Lusaka is due for completion this year, as is the Copperbelt International Airport in Ndola.

Taking a hit: Cargo volumes overall year on year have dropped. Picture: NAC2000. 

NAC2000 has recently opened a new multipurpose cargo facility at Lusaka and plans to roll out new facilities at other locations as soon as market research demonstrates the demand. The Lusaka facility compliments the new terminal and other airport infrastructure due to be commissioned later this year.

“We are confident that, as we get past the recovery from the pandemic, the new terminal will certainly boost the profile and capacity of Lusaka as a whole and facilitate a world-class travel experience for both normal and transiting passengers,” said Lewis.

The new terminal at Livingstone Airport has also ensured that tourist visitors arrive and leave with great impressions of the country, encouraging further visits.

Lewis believes the new Ndola Airport will offer an experience not previously available to the region and will allow for wide-body and airline freighter operations. “All of these infrastructure developments are welcome for the advancement of the aviation sector, not only in Zambia, but also the region, and we hope to play an integral part in their development and success,” he said.

As Zambia’s economy and population grows and, as the country implements its commitment to the Yamoussoukro Decision (YD) and launches its own national airline, Lewis reckons the market will inevitably see growth. When this happens, he feels NAC2000 is well prepared.

Certainly, increased connectivity within the region will play a pivotal role in rebuilding and generating growth in the movement of cargo and goods.

In March this year, the ZDA said the country’s recent ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) was a step in the right direction and would help boost Zambia’s economy by harmonising trade liberalisation at a continental level.

Greater intra-African trade could foster a more competitive manufacturing sector to create opportunities for industries, including air freight and the associated handling.

The potential is there, but clearly underdeveloped. For example, the ZDA recently disclosed that exports to neighbouring Angola over the past five years had averaged around $5 million.

Given the combined gross domestic product (GDP) of $100 billion and a 50 million consumer base for both countries, this is extremely low – especially considering several investment opportunities had been identified since a bilateral trade agreement was signed between the two countries in 2016.

It is expected that carriers like Ethiopian Airlines will continue to add cargo capacity into markets like Zambia, as the airline’s CEO, Tewolde GebreMariam, suggested in March.

Speaking at the delivery of a passenger-to-freighter converted 737-800, he said the aircraft was a significant addition to the airline’s freighter capacity and that the frequency would enhance Ethiopian’s capability to serve short-haul destinations in Africa more economically, including the transportation of the much-needed medical supplies and vaccines.

In the meantime, NAC2000 seems geared up for a recovery armed with the only IATA safety audit for ground operations (ISAGO) certification in the country.

The bible for all cargo ground-handling operations, the ISAGO manual is a hefty tome that is updated annually to reflect best practice in the industry. With that in hand, it should add up to a business advantage.

Lewis is certain he is steering the corporation to proactively ensure it has a solid network of clients to handle flights in Zambia.


 

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