BY SHAME MAKOSHORI
AIR Zimbabwe administrators have pushed for the return of two Airbus 320 (A320) jetliners leased from the Isle of Man about eight years ago to prop up the troubled airline’s flagging fortunes, saying they have become an unnecessary drain to the cash-strapped carrier’s meagre resources.
The airline slipped into administration in 2018 as the government battled to protect it from creditors who were owed over US$350 million.
It emerged this week that soon after administrators at Grant Thornton took charge of the airline in October 2018, one of their first actions was to advise the government to get rid of the two aircraft.
This would enable AirZim to make extensive cost savings.
The planes had largely been grounded in Zimbabwe and South Africa since their arrival in 2012 because of technical faults and a shrinking route network.
In a 130-page confidential report obtained by businessdigest this week, Grant Thornton laid out a radical transformative strategy that would see government, which controls 100% shareholding in AirZim, decommissioning or disposing of almost all of its fleet of 10 aircraft and replacing them with better aircraft leased from other sources.
In the plan that has not been implemented two years on, the administrator said the Airbuses complicated and added an extra burden to the airline’s balance sheet as it lacked the expertise to maintain and repair them.
The year 2018 marked four years since one of the two aircraft, code-named the Z-WPM had been parked at Oliver Tambo International Airport in South Africa where it had gone for repairs to a faulty landing gear auxiliary power unit.
It was to also due to undergo a US$750 000 C-Check
The confidential report, prepared for the Ministry of Transport, says as of November 2018, AirZim required US$5 million to get the process completed.
In 2019, the other jetliner went out of service after the airline failed to access the software to perform necessary repairs to the planes.
The US$5 million required in South Africa could explain why the airline has failed to fly back the aircraft to the Isle of Man, a self-governing British Crown dependency in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland also referred to as Mann.
This week, Transport minister Felix Mhona could not explain if the A320s would be flown back.
Two “special purpose vehicles” known as South Jet One and South Jet Two are said to have leased the A320s before the deal mutated into a court battle in 2019, with the lessor demanding US$50 million in leasing fees.
In the report, Grant Thornton advised that the planes must be returned.
“Given AirZim’s fleet size, the airline runs a varied fleet of aircraft incorporating Airbus A320, MA60 and Boeing 767/737. This presents maintenance and operational challenges since engineers and pilots are trained and licensed to a specific brand of aircraft,” the report reads.
It said following a series of negotiations with government, “Air Zimbabwe was allowed to lease out two Boeing 767 aircraft to support the immediate turnaround, lease to buy one Embraer ERJ190/B737-700, lease to buy one Embraer ERJ145 and lease to buy B737-700”.
The AirZim fleet consists of the two A320s, two Boeing 737-200s (B737), three Modern Arch (MA60) planes acquired from China in 2005 and two Boeing 767 (B767) jetliners which landed in Zimbabwe in 1989 and 1990.
In short, Grant Thornton said: “A320 ZWPN and ZWPM (return to owner), B737-200 ZWPB (decommission and dispose of), B737-200 ZWPC (decommission and dispose of), MA60 ZWPL, ZWPJ and ZWPK (decommission and dispose of, B767-200 ZWPF (lease out) and B767-200 ZWPE (lease out voetstoots (as is) or convert to cargo plane long-term”.
Grant Thornton’s report becomes one of the most elaborate papers demonstrating that after failing to replenish its fleet for decades, the airline’s planes have deteriorated, all of them unfit to fly passengers.
In a separate interview this week, top airman Captain Alex Makanda, one of the first three black pilots to fly AirZim, acknowledged that planes were now too old.
“They are quite old now and what keeps them flying is our brilliant engineers,” Makanda told businessdigest.
“They can take it apart and put it back together again. I used to watch them do the C-Check so I have all the confidence in our engineers. You should see them take it apart and put it back together again.”
But the A320s have courted controversy since arriving at the airline in 2012.
In 2019, AirZim was up in court to fight for ownership of two aircraft, which had barely been used yet.
While the lessor said AirZim had to pay for their service, the carrier maintained that they were donations and that South Jet needed to release their paperwork to allow them to undergo repairs.
South Jet insisted that they were leased from them and AirZim had failed to pay leasing fees.