Problems weigh down Air Zim’s wings

 Itai Dzamara


THE prospects

of Air Zimbabwe regaining its pre-Independence lustre continue to recede because of severe undercapitalisation and the failure by the national carrier to forge alliances with regional and international players.


Analysts say alliances with international partners would help Air Zimbabwe improve viability. With only five planes and amongst the most poorly resourced airlines in the region, Air Zimbabwe would benefit from either regional alliances or from an international strategic partner.


At Independence Air Zimbabwe had 15 planes and was a major player on the regional and international scene. The fleet gradually wasted away during the 1980s and early 90s as the Zanu PF government wreaked havoc on the economy.


Air Zimbabwe has not been spared the problems afflicting other parastatals such as shortages of forex as well as hyperinflation. Service delivery at the Zimbabwe Passenger Company (Zupco) and the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) has sunk to record low levels. The Zanu PF government continues to abuse the transport parastatals for populist gain whilst failing to ameliorate their viability problems.


Of the five planes currently at Air Zimbabwe, two 767 Boeings operate the Harare-London route, presently the major source of income for the national airline. Air Zimbabwe is however unable to satisfy demand on the lucrative route which has seen British Airways operating a daily flight between Harare and London.


Two Boeing 737s operate local and regional routes whilst the fifth plane has been out of service for several months now due to failure to purchase spare parts.


Local and regional routes operated by Air Zimbabwe include Harare-Bulawayo, Harare-Victoria Falls and Harare-Johannesburg. But even on these limited routes service is erratic while scheduled flights are often cancelled at short notice to accommodate the wishes of the political leadership.


A visit to the Harare International Airport this week revealed low activity at the state-of-the-art facility which cost billions of dollars to construct. The airport is underutilised by Air Zimbabwe which has resulted in other airlines taking advantage to increase their landing frequency and capture the business opportunities missed by the national airline.


South African Airways, British Airways and Tanzanian Airways currently make frequent landings at Harare International Airport.


South African Airways operates local routes such as the Harare-Victoria Falls, especially during the high season, sources at the Harare International Airport said.


Finance minister Herbert Murerwa last year said there was need for parastatals such as Air Zimbabwe to revitalise their operations and become viable.


“The continued survival of Air Zimbabwe is critical for its operation, the promotion of tourism and national pride. It is therefore imperative that it charges economic prices for its routes,” said Murerwa.


The airline increased its fares last year as well as introducing a system of charging in foreign currency. However, highly placed sources this week said the move had failed to solve the airline’s viability problems.


Plans muted more than two years ago for Air Zimbabwe to penetrate the Asian markets and forge strategic alliances with established airlines have withered in the bud. The national airline has instead experienced a steady decline in business as regional competitors such as South African Airways, Ethiopian Airways, Kenya Airways and Egypt Air seize opportunities.


South African Airways, with about 150 planes that operate routes across the world, has strategic alliances with Airlink, which comprises individual operators as well as British Airways, among other international airlines. Egypt Air has an alliance with Kuwait Airways.


Air Zimbabwe managing director Rambai Chingwena admitted in an interview with the Zimbabwe Independent last September that the national airline was losing to regional airlines. He however said that hopes were pinned on plans to forge strategic alliances and penetrate new markets.


But Chingwena’s efforts are yet to yield results. Instead, the national airline has for the past six months experienced worse financial problems, culminating in its suspension from IATA last month. Workers at Air Zimbabwe last week went on a brief work stoppage over salary and wage increases as they turned down a 20% increment offered by management. The workers are demanding a 300% increase.


“The situation is worsening here,” said a senior source at Air Zimbabwe this week. “The airline is in serious financial problems and we understand that funds for the medical aid and pension scheme were being diverted into meeting operational costs.”


Permanent secretary in the Ministry of Transport and Communications, Karikoga Kaseke, this week acknowledged the huge challenges to improve Air Zimbabwe and the other parastatals in the transport sector.


“It is indeed a huge challenge,” said Kaseke, who was at the helm of the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe. “Air Zimbabwe needs to enter strategic partnerships with other airlines whilst at the same time we implement sound business policies. The same applies to Zupco and NRZ.”


Zupco entered a deal with South African-based bus manufacturer Scania two years ago for the purchase of 250 buses that would have turned round the fortunes of the parastatal. However, only 48 buses were delivered to Zupco, for which it failed to pay. The deal faltered and Scania is still trying to recover money for the 48 buses, less than half of which are still on the roads.


Zupco has been stuck in viability problems partly because of the “hire” of its buses by Zanu PF and government, which do not pay for the services.


At one time Zupco had a fleet of over 700 buses. But a visit to the Zupco depot in Harare this week revealed that most of what remains at the transporter are ramshackle “chicken buses”. Sources at Zupco said about 50 buses in total were on the roads countrywide.


NRZ has also not been spared either. Hopes of a turnaround were raised two years ago after the introduction of the blue train to operate routes linking major towns and cities across the country. However the parastatal was hard hit by the introduction of the populist freedom train, which blew a big hole on the company’s finances.


NRZ this week reverted to the ancient steam locomotives in the face of acute shortages of diesel. The shortage of locomotives and wagons has also seen NRZ failing to move heavy goods, especially coal from Hwange.