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The Dawn of a New Era in Zambia

Story and Photos by Ned Dawson

Page: 1/2

The Victoria Falls is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and their awesome beauty is something that can only be fully appreciated from the air. Working with resort developer, Sun International, On Air has introduced the most modern helicopters and brought a level of service to clients unprecedented before in Africa.

Straddling the borders of Zambia and Zimbabwe, the Victoria Falls serves as southern Africa's primary safari gateway. Over one mile wide (1.7km), it is the world's largest curtain of water - every minute dumping a staggering 555,000 cubic meters of water over the edge into the Zambezi Gorge, 351ft (107m) below. The falls have drawn people from around the world since David Livingstone saw them in the 1860s. It is a natural haven for tourists, and Sun International, one of the larger hotel groups in South Africa, took a punt and created tourist hotel complexes, the Royal Livingstone Hotel and the Zambezi Sun. Originating in South Africa, the resort and hotel conglomerate has expanded overseas with sites around the world including Dubai and Mauritius. In conjunction with Sun International, On Air is developing a world-class tourism helicopter service to answer the needs of today's tourist.

Opportunity Over four years ago, as a result of some major tourism investments and the problems arising in Zimbabwe, United Charter took over local charter operator, Dal Air and established itself in Livingstone, in Zambia. United Air Charter was then re-branded 'On Air' because, according to owner and managing director, George Poole, they "wanted to create a fresh tourism-focussed helicopter operation. 'United Air Charter' doesn't really say it like, On Air Helicopter Tours. According to Poole, the company's slogan has become 'Changing your point of view,' and we really wanted to change the customer's point of view from getting into a water bucket of a helicopter, such as they did in the past, to getting into a world-class machine that is technologically advanced and beautiful-looking - and for customers to have the flight of their lives." Poole explains that the decision to establish the company in Zambia was made after market research in which they examined historical statistics, and also because Zimbabwe was not making decisions conducive to tourism. "Thirdly, you stand in a place and have a look around and you get that gut feeling that says that you can make this work - especially if you find the right product and people."

Poole believes that the profile of the average tourist is changing in Africa, with many now wanting more than a 'backpacker' experience. "They [Sun International] did some incredible research on what they were going to achieve, and where they are going to invest here in Zambia. Their large investment encouraged us to make the big investment in facilities and the latest helicopters, including EC120 and 130s." Poole points out that Sun's thoughts and dreams about establishing themselves in Zambia have come to fruition with high occupancy levels and positive customer feedback from around the world. "I believe it was the right decision for them and it was the right decision for us to partner with them." Sixty percent of On Air's passengers come via the Sun hotels and the company is carrying on average, 1,500 to 2,000 passengers per month at Livingstone. Their average passenger load has risen from 4.9 when they first started to 5.5 now. "We run the helicopters with a minimum of four passengers; that way you fly fewer hours. We used to do a lot of flying and the income was less, but now the income is starting to grow and the flying is getting less. More bums on seats means we are more cost effective and efficient," quotes Poole.

Customer service is vitally important to On Air and to Sun. The company is randomly audited by Sun; which includes mystery passengers who are Sun management travelling incognito and reporting on the company's performance. Over the two-odd years since Sun International established its hotels, On Air has developed a good working relationship with the hotel chain. "They have realised that we are professional operators and we are now the preferred helicopter operator for Sun International." But it wasn't all plain sailing for the fledgling company. "There were a lot of hurdles, especially politics and bureaucracy, and dealing in a third world country. Unlike a first or second world country where things are so easily accessible, there are a range of negatives you have to keep working against -- whether it is buying anything for the helicopter such as adhesives or fuel, to even just trying to buy a broom! And it still happens right now. Ingenuity, initiative and networking is the way to overcome the problems."

Poole says that they are at a stage now where the operation has settled, got a pattern going, and has developed a good recipe for success. Now that the operation is bedded down, he believes that now is the time to start doing other tourism work such as picnics and flights up the river for fishing. He also wants to start a store and kiosk to start selling merchandising such as t-shirts. The heli-fishing looks promising having partnered with Angler Zambia, a local fishing company. "They are putting in a fishing camp about four hours driving, or 15-minutes flying time from Livingstone. Most rivers and lakes in Zambia carry good stocks of fish, but normally the angler must be prepared to travel long distances over rough roads, carrying his own camping equipment and finally making his camp beside the river he intends to fish. "The infrastructure in Zambia is not first world. It's not so much the distance but the state of the roads - you have to be careful or your vehicles won't make it," explains Poole. The best time for fishing and camping is around August and September when there is little chance of rain and the nights are warm enough to make camping pleasant. The visiting fisherman however must remember that the hippopotamus and crocodile are found in nearly all Zambian waters so wading in rivers can be dangerous.

Adapting What Poole and his team set out to do was establish an up-market tour helicopter operation that adapts the best of what other companies have achieved overseas to the local conditions. "It can be a bit drab and a little backward working here in the centre of Africa," explains Poole, "but we want tourists to see this fresh, dynamic, bright-looking helicopter business, and gain the impression that we're professional and that we know what we're doing." Dal Air and other companies have offered, and continue to offer, flights in Microlights, but while these may appeal to the adventurous backpacker, the more affluent tourists now arriving from Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand expect something significantly better and safer. This is the market that On Air is targeting.

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