TENSIONs between senior Air Zimbabwe officials, the Transport ministry and Zimbabwe Airways (ZimAirways) are mounting after minister Jorum Gumbo recently blocked the convening of a disciplinary hearing against three engineers accused of moonlighting for the rival airline.
By Bernard Mpofu
As government pushes for the closure of AirZim, whose operations continue to face increasing threats, it has since emerged that Gumbo last week ordered AirZim management to stop any disciplinary proceedings against Martin Gwafa and two other engineers who were instrumental in the controversial purchase of two Boeing 777 aircraft from Malaysia Airlines. The planes were bought for ZimAirways.
AirZim, according to sources, argued that the three were in violation of their employment contracts by assisting a rival airline whose ownership structure is murky.
“Gumbo summoned AirZim officials to his offices last Thursday and said the airline should pay the engineers for the period they were in Malaysia because they were on government business. He said no disciplinary action should be taken against them for facilitating the ZimAirways project,” a source said.
The developments come at a time government has opened up traditionally viable routes for AirZim to rival airlines. Sources said the debt-ridden airline’s woes have also worsened in recent months after ticketing service providers switched off their services due to a US$1,3 million debt.
“Tickets are now being bought online after AirZim was cut off by Travelport and Amadeus. Government appears reluctant to settle this debt as its focus is now on ZimAirways.”
AirZim immediately requires US$45 million to be operational, according to AirZim’s Strategic Turnaround Plan (2018-2020). The airline requires US$26 million to settle its foreign debt; US$6 million to buy three Embraer ERJ145; US$4,6 million for International Air Transport Association (Iata) clearing house joining fees, among other financial obligations. Official documents show that as at December 2017, AirZim had local debt totalling US$341 million.
Among some of its weaknesses, according to the plan, are a shaky balance sheet, debt overhang, antiquated equipment, thin route network, high litigation, low level of automation and an absence from the Iata clearing house.
Meanwhile, government, according to aviation industry sources, is working on regularising ZimAirways’ company structure as required by the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe.
“ZimAirways has plans to fly to Beijing and government is working round the clock to ensure that the bird takes to the sky,” another aviation source said.
Last year, the Independent reported that Gumbo and former AirZim chief operating officer Simba Chikore, who is former president Robert Mugabe’s son-in-law, have been assisting in setting up the private airline at the expense of the flag carrier, AirZim, which fell under their purview and supervision, raising a serious conflict of interest on their part.