Eric Bloch Column

Air Zimbabwe’s commitment has flown

FOR many years, Air Zimbabwe loudly proclaimed its “commitment to excellence”, although passengers who frequently had occasion to suffer delays of many hours were understandably sceptical as to any such commitment ex

isting.

More recently, with the national airline’ acquisition of two new aircraft from China, Air Zimbabwe has been trumpeting that Zimbabwe is crossing the threshold to better, passenger-conscious air services.

In heralding a new era for Zimbabwean commercial air traffic, the national carrier has been strongly supported by the government, with the president and his ministers eulogising China, which is striving vigorously to become the new master of the Zimbabwean economy. They have waxed eloquently on the role that Air Zimbabwe will now be able to play in bringing about recovery for the tourism sector, and resurrection of the economy.

In this, the politicians and the airline have been very greatly assisted by the state-controlled media, with headlines such as “Zim air travel will never be the same again”. (Of course, that could mean that it will be even worse, but undoubtedly that was not the intent of the headline).

There was and still is great credibility of the claim of a “commitment to excellence” insofar as Air Zimbabwe’s flight crews, check-in personnel and other airport ground staff are concerned. The cabin crews have for years, with virtually no exception, been professional, cheerful and smiling, while being exceptionally attentive and helpful to all passengers, especially in the case of the aged, disabled and others in need of assistance and minor children. The cabin stewards and stewardesses unhesitatingly seek to be friendly and to address all their passengers’ needs.

The same can be said about the cockpit crews, who have evidenced their intense concern for the safety of their passengers and to keep passengers informed on any significant matters. There has been clear evidence that they place safety above all else, refusing to take off on any flight if there is even the slightest suggestion of any technical fault, howsoever minor it may be.

And an equal awareness of the need for customer care is exhibited by the mechanics on the ground, determined to allay the concerns of the pilots by expeditious and effective attention to the causes of those concerns.

Similarly, the willing helpfulness of the airline’s check-in personnel is a demonstration of a “commitment to excellence”. With a cordial greeting for all, they strive to deal with the processing of passengers efficiently despite having to cope, more often than not, with computer failures, and notwithstanding the irrascibility of many passengers frustrated by flight delays, although those delays were not occasioned by the check-in staff.

Unfortunately, however, that “commitment to excellence” has not permeated into those who man the desks at Air Zimbabwe’s head offices. Over the years there have been countless examples of an arrogant disregard for passengers and their needs.
That disregard has ranged from a studious failure to respond to correspondence to inadequate endeavour to ensure availability of all normal and usual passenger service needs. As for the former, this writer has failed to elicit responses to several letters over a period of time, while the latter is apparent by the frequency of there being no soap in aircraft toilets, extraordinarily limited selection of beverages — even in the business class — and either no newspapers, or day-old local papers only, for issue to business class travellers, and by the non-availability at some airports of benefits to which Rainbow Club members are entitled.

But, with the introduction into service last week of the new MA60 aircraft, Air Zimbabwe’s head office has excelled in abandoning its “commitment to excellence”, for it is beyond doubt that the only consideration given to the new flight schedules was to achieve maximum aircraft usage over the greatest possible number of routes.

It is very commendable that the airline will be providing for greater route coverage than heretofore. Its domestic routes now cover Bulawayo, Victoria Falls and Kariba from Harare, and from those airports to Harare, while the much-expanded range of regional destinations includes Lilongwe, Mauritius, Johannesburg — interlinked with Harare, Bulawayo and Victoria Falls — Lusaka, Lumbambashi, Luanda, Kinshasa, Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam and Entebbe, and international destinations are London, Bangkok, Beijing, Singapore and Dubai.

It is, however, regrettable that at this stage the flight schedules do not include destinations of Hwange National Park, Buffalo Range, Maputo or Beira, Francistown and Gaborone, or any South African cities other than Johannesburg.

However, the overriding criticism that must be directed at Air Zimbabwe is that not only, in formulating the new flight schedules, has it failed to consult stakeholders — for it has been authoritatively stated that the airline did not interact with the tourist industry and with economic representative bodies such as the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries and the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce in order to ascertain the needs of the air travel market — but it particularly gave no consideration to its Bulawayo-based passengers requiring air services to Harare.

The new airline schedules provide for a daily flight departing from Bulawayo at 06.00. As passengers are required to check in at the airport not later than an hour prior to the scheduled departure, being 05.00, they must leave home at some time between 04.15 and 04.30, depending upon the distance from home to the airport. Allowing for time for normal daily ablutions and ancillary activities, they must rise from their bed no later than 03.30. The passenger then arrives in Harare (in the event that there is no flight delay) at 07.00.

It is unlikely that his first business engagement would be earlier than 09.00, and he must therefore while away the time, effectively “cooling his heels” unproductively for up to two hours.

That night, his flight departs Harare (other than on Tuesdays and Thursdays) at 20.00, and arrives in Bulawayo at 21.00. Therefore, after driving home, having dinner and completing evening ablutions, it is likely that he will retire to bed no earlier than 23.00, having been without sleep for at least 19 hours.

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