It can be argued that Air Zimbabwe, operating just one plane, is effectively grounded.
At some point last year the national airline didn’t have a plane good enough to fly. That was after the two that were in service then were, in quick succession, involved in mid-air mishaps — one hitting a flock of birds and another developing a tail pipe fire.
We reported last month that Air Zimbabwe was operating one aircraft, a Boeing 737-200, on the Harare-Bulawayo and Victoria Falls routes, as well as Harare-Johannesburg and Harare-Dar es Salaam regional routes. It has two Airbus A320-200, two Boeing 767-200, two Boeing 737-200 and British Aerospace 146-200 among others which were grounded due to some deficiencies.
Saddled with a huge debt estimated at US$380 million, little investment into operations and equipment and mismanagement, Air Zimbabwe has been in trouble for a long time.
However, little by little, the national flag carrier is getting back into the skies.
A 50-seater Embraer ER145 that flew into the country in April last year, two years after its acquisition, was on Thursday last week certified to fly after Air Zimbabwe received the know-your-customer (KYC) certification, a culmination of a standard, rigorous process that seeks to demonstrate an airline’s capability to maintain and operate a plane. It also covers traceability of the aircraft and the standing of the operator, as well as showing the competence of its cabin crew, among other requirements. The airplane is expected to start working within three months.
On January 20, one of the two Boeing 777-200ER planes bought by the Government from Malaysia landed in Harare. The second one will follow shortly. The Boeing 777-200ER should be undergoing the processes that the Embraer ER145 has undergone and is undergoing before it can take to the skies.
We consider these two developments over the past three weeks — the delivery of the new bigger plane from Malaysia and the certification of the smaller one — as encouraging not only for the national airline, but for the country and its people also.
Both developments indicate that Air Zimbabwe is slowly but surely on the route to recovery thanks to the efforts by the Government working with the administrator, Grant Thornton. The Embraer ER145 is seen taking over domestic and regional routes which are being serviced by the Boeing 737-200, a much larger plane, thus ordinarily not suited for short domestic and regional flights. When it gets its KYC, the new Boeing 777-200ER will get Air Zimbabwe back on long haul routes, probably Harare-London and or Harare-Beijing.
There is no reason why Air Zimbabwe should be flying just one plane yet other airlines — small and big — are viable running a good number of planes servicing the local market and in the process of increasing frequencies as well as routes. For example, Fastjet Zimbabwe is introducing two new direct routes — Victoria Falls to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (KMIA), Nelspruit, South Africa, and a return direct domestic flight from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls effective 6 July this year.
Speaking at the event to welcome the Boeing 777-200ER last month, Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga stressed the Government’s commitment to continue supporting Air Zimbabwe.
“Receipt of this Boeing 777 aircraft,” he said, “is clear testimony that we are taking concrete steps to capacitate our national airline, so that it plays a role in promoting economic growth, creating jobs and facilitating international trade and tourism. As Government, we remain ready to support the airline where necessary.”
The Government will continue supporting the airline by re-equipping it, we expect, securing fresh investment as well as finding a way to clear its debt among other important matters.
We reported in December that Air Zimbabwe had completed adjudication of bids submitted by three investors that expressed interest in acquiring shares in the company. Grant Thornton said it had made recommendations to the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructural Development based on the bids that it had received and also the business models that it considers will help in turning around the airline.
Minister Joel Biggie Matiza should be busy studying the papers now and hopefully a decision will soon be made on which of the three prospective investors is the best to take forward the work that the administrator and the Government have been doing to revive Air Zimbabwe.
Capital from an established, financially secure private investor appears to be the only sustainable way to get the airline up. This is so because the other possible source of funding, which is the Government, may not be an option this time as Treasury has always indicated an unwillingness to spend too much on items that can attract private capital.
It has to be pointed out though that getting the company successfully back in the skies will not be easy. It will take much money, effort, skill and patience.
However, we are confident that can be achieved.