BY TATIRA ZWINOIRA
EAST Africa’s rapidly expanding airline, RwandAir yesterday suspended flights to four southern African cities, including Harare, citing a deteriorating health crisis in a region where a dangerous variant of COVID-19 has been discovered.
The suspensions will hurt southern African economies following an exodus of key international carriers since the pandemic broke out in China at the end of 2019.
“In view of the global concerns on COVID-19 variants prevalent throughout southern Africa, RwandAir announces the suspension of its flights to Johannesburg, Cape Town, Lusaka and Harare, effective February 8, 2021,” the airline said.
“Scheduled flights will resume as soon as there is more clarity on the situation. Affected customers can rebook and fly at a later date at no additional cost — or request a refund.”
Johannesburg and Cape Town are South African destinations, while Lusaka is the Zambian capital.
The two countries are some of the region’s most affected destinations by COVID-19.
The World Health Organisation at the weekend said total South African and Zambian COVID-19 cases stood at 1 473 700 and 61 427, respectively.
On Sunday, Zimbabwe’s Health and Child Care ministry said total COVID-19 cases had reached 34 552, with 28 551 recoveries.
So far, 1 326 people have been killed by the scourge.
But there have been fears that the country could be hit by a third wave of the pandemic, unless government soon moves to vaccinate at least 80% of the population.
RwandAir’s move will be a huge drawback to its Zimbabwe strategy, where it has been looking at how to increase tourist traffic from its east African hub in Kigali following a tremendous rise in load factors since introducing connections in April 2016.
Twinned with this ambition, said RwandAir country manager for Zimbabwe, Ada Magezi in 2019, was a plan to expand the airline’s network into the resort town of Victoria Falls.
Zimbabwe’s premier resort has been a magnet for major African airlines since government completed the US$150 million expansion of the Victoria Falls International Airport in 2016, reconfiguring it to handle intercontinental jetliners.
While this plan may have been affected by the COVID-19 crisis, RwandAir has been one of the continent’s major airlines still offering services into Harare.
“We have been pleased with the levels of business on RwandAir services to Zimbabwe to date and we are hopeful of sustained business and increased levels of support in the coming months and years,” Magezi said then.
“We are very much part of the effort to increase the levels of business and leisure tourism into Zimbabwe, and it is our hope that the growth in interest in this destination will maintain its upward momentum during 2019 and beyond. We are hoping to expand in Zimbabwe. We are hoping to expand into Victoria Falls as well, although we are still a new airline in Zimbabwe,” he added.
With only two months into 2021, Zimbabwe’s fortunes have been missed on the aviation front.
Regional airline, Airlink said two weeks ago it would be launching Harare-Cape Town flights to March following new changes to Johannesburg’s lockdown regulations, and as a fresh wave of infections shook Zimbabwe.
“We will launch with three return flights a week, increasing to daily flights from April 1, 2021 to provide customers with more choices and greater convenience,” said chief executive officer Rodger Foster.
“Airlink had intended to commence the service in mid-January, but changes to South Africa’s curfew obliged us to revise its schedule, which unfortunately also pushed back the launch of the new service to March 3. We apologise to ticket-holders for the postponement and any inconvenience or disruption to their business and travel plans.
“We have been looking forward to launching this important new route, which will provide convenience to business and leisure travellers, saving them precious hours transferring via Johannesburg and also limiting their exposure to potential touch-points, which is a key consideration as we adjust our travelling habits during the COVID-19 pandemic.”