AirZim: Piecemeal solutions just won’t do

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HARARE International Airport, which at the height of the country’s economic malaise had become a white elephant owing to the scarcity of landings and take-offs from the facility, is fast getting busier with more regional and international carriers returning to Zimbabwe.

Report by Stewart Chabwinja

This week alone Air France–KLM and LAM Mozambique resumed flights to the country, bringing to 13 airlines currently touching down at the biggest local airport.

The scramble –– if you can call it that –– for Zimbabwe’s runways is certainly auspicious, as it is yet another signal the country is inching out of the woods as its rehabilitation continues.

But there is a serious damper: grounded national airline AirZim remains in a parlous state, weighed down by a plethora of woes whose panacea remains elusive.

It has been reduced to a mere spectator, only servicing a limited number of domestic routes.

AirZim’s crisis, wrought by, among other factors, mismanagement, corruption, lack of fleet renewal, high operating costs, flawed business decisions and a debilitating US$150 million debt, has serious implications for the country’s economy, struggling to find its feet again after a decade-long meltdown.

The non-servicing of domestic routes adversely affects business between cities as, for instance, executives who would otherwise fly to Bulawayo for important business are forced to travel by road which is time consuming and tiring.

Stakeholders have routinely lamented AirZim’s troubles are bleeding local tourism –– potentially a key driver in the country’s economic revival –– as timeous access to destinations is compromised.

Road travel is hardly an option over longer distances as time is money for tourists and businesspeople. Hotels have suffered cancellations of bookings, losing out on much-needed revenue.

As Tourism minister  Walter Muzembi recently pointed out; of the 980 million arrivals recorded in global tourism in 2011, 51% arrived by air, making a reliable national airline  indispensable.

Then there is the crucial matter of the United Nations World Trade Oganisation general assembly in Victoria Falls next year.

Air Zim needs to be up and running by then so the country can take full advantage of business that would be generated.

Economic Planning and Investment Promotion minister Tapiwa Mashakada this week appealed to KLM-Royal Dutch Airlines to partner AirZim struggling to court a strategic partner due to negative perceptions, not least of which is a recent suspension from the International Air Transport Association for failing to comply with global standards.

So desperate is AirZim for a partner that the minister signalled government was ready to relinquish 74% to a new investor contrary to the country’s controversial empowerment regulations.

Government must urgently address AirZim’s crisis but piecemeal solutions will just not do.

Part of the antidote is professionalism: A framework must be formulated to ensure there is no political interference, competent managers are hired and the airline only plies those routes deemed profitable. The state-owned carrier has been perceived as the “plaything of politicians”, with   officials ordering the hiring of incompetent cronies and securing free tickets for relatives and themselves.

That will have to stop.

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