Zimbabwe's national carrier Air Zimbabwe has been grounded due to mounting debts after more than three decades in operation.
President Robert Mugabe was Air Zimbabwe’s only passenger when it flew for the last time this week after nearly 32 years in the sky.
Nicholas Goche, whose transport and infrastructure ministry has jurisdiction over the airline, said this week: “President Mugabe is the only one who has made Air Zimbabwe fly because he charters an aeroplane and he pays before flying. Even just last week he chartered an Air Zimbabwe aircraft to Bulawayo for the council of chiefs meeting and is unlike ministers like myself, who you find either on South African Airways or British Airways.”
Air Zimbabwe Holdings, the country’s flagship carrier, was disbanded this week to make way for Air Zimbabwe Private Limited, a new carrier. A $150-million debt, an ageing fleet and constant strikes by pilots and its 1 360-strong workforce brought the business to a standstill.
Government to partner a foreign airline
It is understood the government will announce a foreign partner in the new venture later this month. It is keen to have a domestic airline operating before the United Nations World Tourism Organisation summit set for Victoria Falls next year.
The severity of Air Zimbabwe’s problems were highlighted by the suspension of international flights last December because of growing debt, which, in turn, led to the suspension of both regional and domestic flights. Last year, Air Zimbabwe’s long-haul Boeing 767 plane was impounded by American General Supplies at London’s Gatwick Airport over the non-payment of $1.2-million owed for spares.
Consequently, regional creditor Bid Air of South Africa also threatened to impound one of Air Zimbabwe’s aircraft over a $500 000 debt, which put pressure on Goche to cancel all regional flights to avoid seizures.
Air Zimbabwe has five aircraft—three Xian MA 60s and a Boeing 747 and a 767. According to media reports, the airline recently acquired an Airbus 320 to complement the fleet, but Goche told a parliamentary portfolio committee this week that it needed at least nine aircraft to remain competitive.
South Africa rules lucrative route
SAA now dominates the lucrative Harare-Johannesburg route and has consolidated its grip on the neighbouring market by operating an Airbus 330-200 to meet the increased demand. According to the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe, by the end of last year SAA was flying 21 flights a week to the country, up from 14 in 2010.
Observers are warning of a possible price war as more international airlines make a beeline for Zimbabwe. Emirates launched a maiden flight to Harare last month and Air Namibia started flights to the country this week. Air Namibia sales executive Ireen Schroder said the development had been prompted by the unprecedented and renewed interest in Zimbabwe among travellers.
“We used to fly two times a week into Victoria Falls, but we are now going to be flying to Harare four times a week, starting from March 15,” Schroder said.
Tanzania moving in
Precision Air of Tanzania has also shown interest and has held talks with the government about starting flights in May.
The announcement of the disbandment of the national carrier has not evoked any regret.
Economist Eric Bloch said: “I am pleased that this is the end of an era for Air Zimbabwe and that the government is finally doing something to deal with the airline after repeated calls to privatise it. Business suffered greatly as road travel had become the mode of transport for businesspeople, which was a time-consuming and expensive exercise.”
Tour operator Misheck Ncube said: “It doesn’t mean anything, really. The government just wants to be seen to be acting, but this won’t do anything. What will help that airline is debt relief, new investment and a new fleet that flies reliably.”
Despite its problems, Air Zimbabwe has never had a major air disaster, save for an accident in 2009 when an aircraft crashed into five warthogs on the Harare International Airport runway.