The first time I visited the Democratic Republic of Congo at the turn of the millennium, I was struck by the country’s lackadaisical attitude to aviation safety.
Candid Comment,Brezhnev Malaba
In Kinshasa, I came face-to-face with the frightening phenomena of “flying coffins” and “widow-makers”, rickety old aeroplanes, which mostly comprised ancient Antonovs dumped in Central Africa by the Soviet Union. There was no flight booking system — an arrangement I found utterly bizarre. You would just pitch up at the airport, search for an available plane and allocate yourself a seat — that’s if there was any seat in the aircraft, in the first place.
Most of the planes, former military behemoths, were not outfitted with seats, and passengers would cling on to ropes or nets inside the fuselage. Once settled in the aircraft, you would then buy your ticket. It was incredible. I remarked that the “chicken buses” at Harare’s Mbare Musika had a better ticketing system than the Congo’s bogus airlines.
Almost 20 years after my maiden trip to that part of Africa, the “flying coffins” are still crashing with alarming frequency in the Congo’s dense rainforest. By my reckoning, planes there are eight times likelier to fall out of the sky than elsewhere in the world. The banality of death in the jungle.
The grotesque irony of my trip to the Congo is that, by some strange twist of fate, I found myself aboard an ultra-luxurious jet previously owned by the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. The plush aircraft was outfitted with all the creature comforts under the sun: whiskey bar, leather banquettes, gold-plated furnishings, jacuzzi, cinema, customised bedroom suites, the works. In a banana republic, extreme deprivation lives alongside obscene opulence. Sounds familiar?
But I digress. Let’s get to the nub of today’s column. The “flying coffins” of the Congo are banned from flying into Europe and North America. Air Zimbabwe joined the rogues’ gallery on Tuesday this week, following an announcement by the European Commission and the European Aviation Safety Agency that the flag carrier had flouted air safety standards.
The blacklisting is a very serious development. Incredibly, Transport minister Joram Gumbo says it’s a small issue. He goes on to claim that the ban affects only two planes. With all due respect to Gumbo, either he doesn’t understand the gravity of the crisis or he’s blatantly misleading the nation.
I’ve scrutinised annexure “A” of the EU statement and it is crystal clear that Air Zimbabwe is expressly prohibited from European airspace. The only way in which Air Zimbabwe can now dream of flying into Europe is under wet lease, which means it would have to hire a plane — complete with crew, maintenance and insurance cover — from a certified carrier.
My sources in European aviation circles told me it takes, on average, not less than a year for a blacklisted airline to be readmitted. This is not a political issue, but a purely technical one.
Make no mistake; the banning of Air Zimbabwe is a catastrophic setback not only for the airline, but also for the tourism sector and the nation as a whole. Here is my big question: If AirZim is unfit to fly into Europe, how fit is it to fly domestically?