THE country’s aviation system is under serious threat of a possible mid-air disaster as the government through airport management authorities are failing to replace the old and dilapidated navigation system.
The development comes after delays and re-scheduling of planes that were expected to land at Bulawayo’s Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo International Airport last week due to fog amid indications of a faulty airport navigation system.
This is the third time in six months that airport authorities have either stopped, re-scheduled or diverted planes amid rising concerns that flying to Bulawayo or any other airport without a functional radar system could end in disaster.
In the latest incident, sources revealed that Air Zimbabwe and FastJet scheduled flights for the morning of May 9, 2022, were diverted due to a navigation system that was not functional while bad weather also compounded the situation.
Speaking to the Independent recently, affected passengers said morning flights were advised to come back later in the day when the fog had cleared.
“Imagine rushing to the airport early in the morning and you are told to come back at 4:30pm because there are no flights allowed in and out of the airport,” a passenger said requesting anonymity.
The passengers also complained on how information pertaining to the delays was never relayed by authorities who resorted to deploying security guards to turn away passengers without explaining the reasons.
“The security guards were either told not to say anything or they were also in the dark but this is not only bad for business but people will stop using the air travel to Bulawayo if this situation is not resolved,” another passenger said.
The passengers also revealed that they were only advised of the delays after putting pressure on the flight crew.
“The only time we were told the truth was when some pilots told us that there was no navigation system to help them land at the Bulawayo airport and the fog had made the situation worse. We were delayed for eight hours,” the passengers added.
This is not the first time flights in and out of the Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo Airport have been delayed, suspended or re-routed after two aircraft were unable to land at the airport because airport guidance systems failed in December last year.
The problems at the airport affected flights from Harare and South Africa.
In January this year, another FastJet flight was unable to land at the airport as the facility did not have electricity due to load shedding, according to reports. There was no backup generator for the aircraft to make a safe landing and it was, subsequently, turned back to Harare.
Airport manager Passmore Dewa told the media in January that the navigation equipment that aids airplanes to land developed faults due to thunderstorms.
Dewa, however, failed to respond to enquiries by the Independent as he was attending a family bereavement this week.
Airports Company of Zimbabwe chief executive Tawanda Gusha referred all questions to the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe.
“We are only responsible for the airports and CAAZ will be better placed to comment on the radar systems at the airports,” he said.
CAAZ is the custodian of the airport navigation equipment at the facilities across Zimbabwe.
Efforts to get a comment from Transport minister Felix Mhona were in vain after his office said he was unavailable this week.
Questions sent to his email were not responded to by the time of writing.
The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Transport in December last year expressed concern that Zimbabwe’s airports were operating without radar systems.
In a meeting with officials from the Transport and Infrastructural Development ministry, committee chairperson Oscar Gorerino expressed grave concerns over the continuous change and cancellation of contracts to tender winners to install the radar systems.
Radar systems consist of traffic communication, which enables traffic controllers to communicate with pilots. The radars also improve surveillance of civilian airspace.
In a brief interview on Wednesday, Gorerino said his committee had not heard anything from government officials since the meeting in December last year.
Private aircraft were reported to be sneaking in-and-out of Zimbabwe’s airports without detection due to poor surveillance.