A popular pastime for small children in Harare is to go to the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport to watch planes taking off and landing. When I was growing up, my mum would take me to the viewing balcony at the old airport, where we would enjoy a drink and make an afternoon of it.
Those days, we would see planes from all over the world, including Air France, Qantas, Lufthansa, Bulgarian Airlines, British Airways, KLM, among many other airlines. It opened up my scope, to see planes coming from so many different countries, making me realise how big the world is.
Nowadays, I see groups of little school kids who visit the airport in wonder, with their teachers hoping to see aeroplanes, but they can sit at the Robert Mugabe International Airport for hours without seeing a single plane taking off or landing.
Only eight foreign airlines fly into Zimbabwe these days, including South African Airways (SAA), Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airways, Rwanda Air, FastJet, Air Namibia, Emirates and British Airways, which is operated by Comair. Former president Robert Mugabe’s policies managed to destroy the Zimbabwean economy to an extent that very few tourists and businesspeople travel to Zimbabwe, while so many airlines stopped flying into the country.
The local carrier, Air Zimbabwe (AirZim) is still limping on with only a handful of planes. It has one flight a day to and from Johannesburg, which is notoriously inefficient.
To say that AirZim is inefficient is an understatement. The last time I bought a ticket for my cousin from AirZim, I was told to call the day before to find out what time the flight would actually be taking off because it varies from day-to-day.
The last time I flew AirZim was during easter in 2017 when I was going to Johannesburg in South Africa. I had a friend working at the airline, so I called ahead to secure my seat on the flight. It is good that I called because when I got to the airport, most passengers were told they could not fly that day because their 100-seater plane had developed a fault, so they had leased a 50-seater plane instead.
I had to be sneaked in through to immigration because the remaining passengers were about to riot. Besides the local flights to Bulawayo and Victoria Falls, AirZim now only flies to South Africa, Zambia and Tanzania.
According to the Zimbabwe Independent, AirZim now flies 230 000 passengers per year. I flew AirZim to Dar-es-Salaam in December 2016 and they were on time on the outbound flight, but there was a five-hour delay on the return flight, during which all the holiday makers bonded while stranded at the airport.
Last Christmas we flew to Victoria Falls as a group, with some of our party on FastJet, while I flew AirZim and I actually got a better deal because I paid US$236 for a round-trip with one checked 20-kilogramme bag, while my friends were furious to find out that they paid US$500 on FastJet with only hand luggage allowed for free.
FastJet was great at the beginning when they charged US$100 each way to Johannesburg, with two free checked bags, then they got a smaller Embraer plane that allowed one checked bag, but now they charge the same as saa, but you still have to pay extra for luggage.
I fly the Harare-Johannesburg route every month, so I am very sensitive to price. I fly SAA most of the time to collect Voyager miles, but ever since they changed their loyalty system and demoted me from Silver, I became disgruntled because I cannot check in three bags anymore.
Surprisingly, British Airways is often the cheapest carrier on the Harare-Johannesburg route, but there is a heavy price war with SAA.
I love a good bargain when I fly, but there is a point when common sense has to take over. FastJet is supposed to be getting a new plane and they also need to sort out their luggage policy if they want to entice me back.
Since there are few airlines flying to Zimbabwe now, the Harare-Johannesburg route is the connection that most people use when they are flying anywhere around the world, so the pricing is crucial for both visitors and locals.
Zimbabweans are scattered around the world, as they left the country for economic reasons and they frequently travel back home, usually via Johannesburg. Emirates, Ethiopian and Kenya Airways supply the other hubs for travellers to and from Harare. Victoria Falls is an important tourist destination and many airlines now bypass Harare altogether by flying through there. Kenya Airways has a flight from Nairobi to Victoria Falls, then Cape Town. Air Namibia has a similar route. SAA has direct flights to Victoria Falls.
Another growing trend in Africa is religious tourism, where religious groups travel to other countries for church events. Kenya Airways is a popular carrier for the followers of TB Joshua and Christ Embassy going to Lagos. Pastor Bushiri in South Africa also attracts followers from Zimbabwe, including my mother, who go to his prayer mountain in Pretoria. Mostly, South African travellers come to Harare on business, representing South African companies.
The final bizarre twist in the airline industry was Zimbabwe Airways (ZimAirways), the brainchild of Simba Chikore, the son-in-law of Mugabe, who had been made chief operating officer of AirZim despite his questionable experience. The government owns the Zimbabwe Aviation Leasing company, which bought two second-hand Boeing 777s delivered with much fanfare.
The planes were supposed to be leased to ZimAirways, but the new airline does not have a licence yet, so the plane is idle despite the fact that it can be leased to generate income. It disappeared for maintenance before it was even put into service. Then there is an AirZim Airbus A320 that has been sitting at Oliver Tambo Airport in Johannesburg for quite a while.
It was supposed to be serviced by SAA, but they wanted payment upfront, which did not happen, so the plane is there gathering dust. The word is out in the international aviation industry that AirZim does not pay its debts, hence nobody wants to provide it with services.
Maybe that is why the idea of ZimAirways came up, but I am just speculating. We are looking forward to new airlines like Qatar, adding Zimbabwe to their routes and bringing new arrivals. The return of European airlines or the addition of new carriers will have a direct impact on tourism and the local economy.
Zimbabwe has been isolated for too long and our tourism industry has been decimated. I spent last Christmas in Victoria Falls at a five-star hotel, which was barely full. I remember Victoria Falls in the old days when the shuttles from the now bankrupt United Touring Company (UTC) were going back and forth to the airport all day ferrying tourists. Victoria Falls felt like another country and we need that vibe back. And the foreign currency!
Peters is a business and investment consultant. She can be contacted on Twitter:@debbienpeters and email: deb.n.peters@gmail.