In spite of a continuing pay strike by pilots, Zimbabwe’s struggling national airline, Air Zimbabwe (AirZim), has bought two new A340-200 Airbus passenger planes from France, the Mail & Guardian has established.
The deal is believed to have been financed by Mbada Diamonds, the company involved in the controversial Marange diamond fields.
According to Eads, the French aircraft manufacturer, a 340-200 Airbus passenger plane costs between $200-million and $250-million.
A source at the airline said this week a group of hand-picked pilots and air stewards had left for Madrid, Spain, on Sunday to undergo a month’s training on the new aircraft.
Another group is understood to have received similar training in Toulouse, France, last month.
Delivery of the planes was expected this week, but has been delayed. AirZim chairperson Jonathan Kadzura said: “Let’s talk about this next week. I am not yet in a position to comment about this.”
The conclusion of the Airbus deal and the training of new staff to run the aircraft is seen as the key reason for the government’s relaxed attitude to the pay strike. The suspicion is that striking staff members will be sacked.
A recent parliamentary report on AirZim’s operations found that the pilots’ demands were too high and that the national airline had a bloated workforce. Pilots earn between $1200 and $2 500 a month.
The government is hoping that the Airbus deal will reverse the fortunes of the parastatal, weighed down by debts of more than $100-million, a series of wage strikes by pilots and an obsolete fleet of three Boeing 737-200 planes.
Zimbabwe’s tourism sector, which brought in $634-million last year, up from $523-million in 2009, has been the biggest casualty of AirZim’s woes. Karikoga Kaseke, the chief executive of the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, said this week: “The main problem is that travellers have lost confidence in Air Zimbabwe. Those who have been inconvenienced have not been affected just once or twice but many times.”
The Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe grounded the airline’s Boeing 737-200 fleet earlier this year, saying that it had outlived its 20-year lifespan. South African Airways and SA Airlink have cashed in on the crisis, grabbing nearly 60% of Zimbabwe’s airline market. The cost of return flights from Harare to Johannesburg has doubled to $800 in line with the increased demand.
Zimbabwe Finance Minister Tendai Biti has repeatedly refused to bail out AirZim, citing the lack of funds to do so and a $700-million black hole in this year’s budget.
Mbada Diamonds has increasingly taken on a parallel role of financing the country’s cash shortfalls, a sore point with Biti who has called for the remittance of diamond revenue directly to his ministry.
Mbada is also understood to have financed recent salary increases for public servants in July, although it has denied sidelining the treasury.