Air passenger volumes rise but still below pre-COVID levels

Air Botswana plane. PIC: KENNEDY RAMOKONE
Air Botswana plane. PIC: KENNEDY RAMOKONE

The number of air passengers reported at the country’s airports rose by 44% in the first three months of the year compared to the same period last year, although longer trends show arrivals and departures are still below pre-pandemic levels.

Activity at the country’s airports is generally linked to tourist activity, with the third quarter of each year experiencing higher passenger volumes in line with the peak tourism period. The fourth quarter is also traditionally busy due to festive season activity.

Figures made available by Statistics Botswana recently indicate that despite recent improvements in post-pandemic air passenger volumes, the aviation industry is still at a level of activity below the levels in 2019.

Between January and March this year, air passenger volumes reach 140,675, compared to 97,279 over the same period last year. The country lifted its ban on international travel in November 2020, although the lower global economic activity still impacted travellers, while the mothballed local tourism assets, gradually warmed up.

Additionally, other COVID-19 entry requirements, particularly around quarantines and vaccinations, presented further uncertainties, especially to tourists who had patiently deferred their bookings during the pandemic travel restrictions.

Statistics Botswana’s figures show that in 2021, the first full year after the lifting of the travel bans, air passenger volumes peaked at 109,706 in the fourth quarter, rising to a peak of 207,931 in the third quarter of last year.

While positive, the latest trends in air passenger numbers will be cold comfort for Air Botswana, which continues to struggle with cash flow issues stemming from a historical loss-making position that was only worsened by the pandemic-era travel restrictions.

The national airline’s poor operating position has forced it to rely on government for frequent bailouts, including a P168.6 million injection under the 2023–2024 budget.

In 2019, Air Botswana tried to cut its coat according to its size as it planned a downscale mission to trim down to 210 employees from 450 with the majority of departures headed to a new subsidiary, allowing it to focus on its core mandate.

In previous years, the troubled airline also retrenched in 2016 and 2017, while also getting rid of the old planes and refleeting. However, it has suffered running losses since 2008, due to an ageing fleet, high maintenance costs, equipment failure, route redundancy, and pressure from competition.

Government has attempted to privatise Air Botswana four times – in 2003, 2006, 2008, and 2017 – each time failing either due to investors withdrawing or Cabinet rejecting the terms offered.

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