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Eric Bloch Column

Air Zimbabwe flying high, but . . .

Eric Bloch

THERE is so much that is bad in Zimbabwe today that most of the population, including the business community, can perceive of nothing good and are imbued with almost exclus

ively negative views of virtually anything and everything.

This Zimbabwean characteristic of the 21st century (for it did not exist previously) is especially pronounced on any issues relating to parastatals. That it is so is, to some extent, understandable, for an overwhelming number of Zimbabwe’s parastatals are continuously deficient in their service delivery, are achieving naught by astronomically great losses, and are major contributants to Zimbabwe’s distraught economic circumstances.

The Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (Zesa) and the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (Zinwa) are prime examples thereof, as is the Agricultural and Rural Development Authority (Arda), but these are but a few of many incapable, incompetent, and counter-productive parastatals that worsen the circumstances of the beleaguered Zimbabwean economy, and the oppressed and afflicted Zimbabwean people.

However, that does not mean that there are no exceptions, and that none of the parastatals have anything to commend them, but many (if not most) are convinced that that is so.

Certainly, until two years ago, the vast abundance of outspoken critics of Air Zimbabwe had every justification to be critical. A timeous flight was the exception to the rule, and that was but one of the innumerable faults of the airline.

But as one who avails himself very extensively of that airline’s services, this columnist states categorically and unreservedly that the airline has markedly and remarkably improved. That is not to say that the airline is faultless, but compared to that which it was not very long ago, its transformation is spectacular.

Of my last 274 flights, 267 have departed and arrived either exactly on scheduled time, or within 10 minutes of that time. Five of the flights had delays exceeding 10 minutes, but less than 30 minutes. One was delayed for a little over an hour, and one (due to a technical fault) sustained a delay of approximately two hours.

If departures and arrivals are within a 10-minute parameter of schedule, that can justly be regarded as schedule compliance, and any airline in the world can be proud of a 97,4% positive achievement.

Admittedly, the airline has experienced some considerably greater delays, which this columnist was fortunately not a victim of, but they have nevertheless been the exception to the rule, but that has not deterred many from vitriolic castigation of the airline.

The greatest such delays have occurred on international routes. Invariably that has been because of the gross inadequacy of Air Zimbabwe’s fleet of long-haul aircraft, comprising only two 767s. If one of them is out of commission, whether due to a technical fault or maintenance service requirements, or has been “expropriated” for presidential services, all international routes punctuality becomes an impossibility.

The reality is that the airline has always been grossly undercapitalised. It must have a lesser equity base than any other national airline. As a result, it cannot operate aircraft fleets necessary to meet its needs on a continuous basis. Concurrently the inadequate capitalisation burdens it with excessively great, costly debt, further hindering operations.

But, despite these constraints, and those of foreign currency scarcity, Air Zimbabwe has in many respects a highly commendable, but widely unrecognised, performance. That is not only that it has a far greater punctuality record than most are prepared to acknowledge, but also in other respects.

Foremost thereof is that it has demonstrated strongly (although many dispute it) that its overriding concern is passenger safety. No matter how minor a fault, the crews consistently require rectification before flying, and there is incontrovertible evidence that those crews are complying with airline policy.

As highly commendable is the attentiveness of both check-in personnel and cabin crews. They are always helpful and caring. A smile is clearly part of the uniform, for they are virtually never without it. And that is so whether on the domestic flights on the small MA60 aircraft, regional flights on those aircraft or on Boeing 737s, or on the long-haul, international routes. That is also so of almost all of the check-in personnel outside of Zimbabwe, be they in Johannesburg, London Gatwick, or elsewhere.

Although so much of the efforts of management, ground staff, flight crews and all others at Air Zimbabwe is to be commended, nevertheless much must still be addressed, including upgrading and enhancing the fleet, replacement of endlessly out-of-commission computer equipment and systems, consistent availability of certain foods and beverages, regular publication of timetables, more frequent publication of onboard magazines, equitable remuneration of staff and the like.

Much is required to achieve this, but probably first and foremost is adequate capitalisation, and of probably equal importance, elimination of political interference.

Both of these needs would be satisfied if government would finally proceed with privatisation of the airline, provided that it was implemented with a sound strategic partner, and with those who can contribute to and assure the enterprise’s wellbeing, instead of vesting ownership in the avaricious and politically well-connected.

Also necessary is that government and the National Incomes and Pricing Commission adopt a realistic stance to charges that Air Zimbabwe is permitted to raise. As a very, very, frequent flyer, this columnist obviously wishes air fares to be as low as possible. But they should not be so low as to jeopardise the airline’s viability and operations.

With real inflation being considerably in excess of 100% per month, and inflation attributable to domestically sourced imported products being even greater, the airline cannot operate effectively with unrealistically low air fares. While the airline must seek to minimise fares to as great an extent as reasonably possible, nevertheless it must also be enabled to charge that which it necessarily needs.

The impressive recovery of Air Zimbabwe over the last two years has raised it from a horrendous low, but much has yet to be done, for a viable, efficient airline is one of the prerequisites for Zimbabwe’s economic revival, and ongoing economic wellbeing.

Privatisation, recapitalisation, fleet development, necessary upward fares movement in the present hyperinflationary environment and effective policies for skills retention are all essentials for Air Zimbabwe.

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