Mack Air (MKB, Maun) is planning to enter Botswana's scheduled passenger services market and would have done so earlier this year had it not been for the COVID-19 crisis.

A spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority of Botswana (CAAB), Modipe Chris Nkwe, told the Sunday Standard newspaper last week that Mack Air, a privately-owned charter specialist, was licensed in late 2019 to carry out scheduled flights between Maun, near the Okavango Delta, and Windhoek Int'l in Namibia and between Kasane, in Botswana's extreme northeast, and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Notwithstanding the COVID-19 pandemic, MackAir would have launched the 3x weekly flights using Cessna (single turboprop) 208B EX Grand Caravans in April but all have since been postponed indefinitely.

According to the airline, its Desert Express-branded flights came amid significant demand from several key clients looking to offer seamless link safaris between Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. Air Namibia (SW, Windhoek Int'l) used to operate the Namibia-Maun route but terminated it in 2016 citing low passenger loads.

Mack Air has also applied to enter the scheduled domestic market which the Botswana government has sought to encourage given state-owned carrier Air Botswana (BP, Gaborone) lacks the gauge of aircraft needed to service many of the country's smaller towns. At present, Air Botswana operates two ATR72-600s and one E170. Domestically, it serves Francistown, Kasane, and Maun from its Gaborone hub. To help encourage more of the country's passenger charter airlines to start regular flights, the government in a recent draft of its 2020-2023 Economic Recovery and Transformation Plan (ERTP) even suggested CAAB expedite approvals and ensure that they do not depend on Air Botswana's consent.

"There is still an opportunity in this market for other operators. CAAB calls for increased participation in this market," Nkwe said. "Mack Air is currently the only applicant for the scheduled domestic route and its Air Transport License (ATL) has been approved. However, the only pending process is that which require the operator to undergo certification process in order to vary their operator certificates from Charter to scheduled operations. This requirement has been communicated to Mack Air."

To alleviate Air Botswana's concerns that it is not looking to go head-on with the ailing national airline, Chris Dekker, Mack Air's Manager (Quality and Performance), told the CAAB in an interview earlier this year that it plans to complement rather than compete.

"I must make a note, as it's been frequently asked, that no, we will not compete with Air Botswana, rather, we are actually in a position to benefit and feed our nation's airline," he said. "This is integral to us, and it should be for every Motswana. Step by step, we may greatly assist in connecting Southern Africa's unique but isolated tourism hotspots. It's our hope that by directly and affordably connecting each nation's tourism gems, that we'll see all Southern African tourism sectors flourish and Botswana will be the central hub to this growth."

Established in 1994, Mack Air currently operates a fleet of over 24 aircraft which, aside from the Caravans, includes a Cessna Citation M2 for medevacs and charters. It specialises in passenger charters throughout the tourism-dependent north of Botswana.

Botswana caps foreign ownership of its airlines at 49%.

Mack Air was not immediately available for comment.