May 6, 2015 / 4:30 PM / 4 years ago

Congo's new national airline promises safer flights after June launch

KINSHASA, May 6 (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo’s new national airline on Wednesday promised cheaper and safer air travel in a country long known for its notoriously poor transport infrastructure.

Air travel in Congo has been dogged by lax safety standards, frequent crashes and poor service. All domestic carriers are banned from operating inside the European Union for safety reasons.

Congo Airways, whose launch is set for June 30, will aim “to relieve the pain of Congolese” and its first plane, an Airbus 320, is being painted in preparation for the inaugural flight, the airline’s director general Claude Kirongozi said.

Negotiations over the purchase of a second Airbus should be concluded within a week, he added.

“The air travel organised by the companies that have preceded us was not safe,” Kirongozi told Reuters in an interview. “These planes will be maintained. We are going to respect the maintenance programme.”

The two Airbuses will initially serve eight Congolese hubs, including the capital Kinshasa, the eastern city of Goma and the copper mining centre of Lubumbashi.

The airline expects to buy more planes in the next two to three years to expand its coverage to 54 domestic airports and foreign destinations, said Kirongozi.

With few paved roads in a country the size of Western Europe, essential services often depend on airplanes belonging to the large U.N. peacekeeping mission while traders must navigate long and expensive routes combining river, road and rail travel.

Kirongozi said tickets on Congo Airways would be cheap enough for ordinary Congolese to purchase, and he decried prices on private carriers that can run as high as $900 for a two-hour flight from Kinshasa to Goma.

Only a handful of companies fly between Congo’s major cities.

Congo’s last national airline, Air Zaire, went bankrupt in the 1990s.

The company’s investors, which include state-owned mining company Gecamines and Congo’s freight management office, are all public entities but Kirongozi said the company intended to open itself to private investment as it expands its operations.

Ethiopian Airlines’ chief executive told Reuters in January it was in talks with Congo to purchase stakes in a national carrier, but Kirongozi denied that Congo Airways had ever had discussions with the company. (Editing Daniel Flynn and Gareth Jones)

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