14 February 2013

Zimbabwe: Time to Put an End to Airzim Woes

Air Zimbabwe has continued to be a problem child for a number of years now, putting this great nation's name into disrepute. It is about time that sustainable solutions were sought once and for all to bring it back to life.

A heavy burden of huge debts, poor funding, periodic strikes by its workforce and poor management in some instances, have weighed the airline down.

It has become a mere shell of its former self.

We are aware that national airlines the world over do not necessarily make a profit and are usually bankrolled by Government as has been the case with such airlines as the South African Airways, but the story with AirZim has been a very sad one.

The high turnover of chief executives over the past decade or so has been symptomatic of the challenges at AirZim which not a single one of the executives has managed to overcome.

This also reflects how deep-rooted the crisis is. And yet it is a national airline that should be carrying the country's flag high.

The airline has only been back in the skies in the last three months after several months in the wilderness. It is struggling to find its place but all hope is not lost. The situation is still redeemable.

It is against this backdrop that we hope the proposed turnaround blue-print now on the table and the appointment of a new board next week should do the trick for an airline that has clocked more hours in the hanger than in the air in recent years.

Its current debt of US$188 million, is certainly no small figure, while threats to remove it from the international aviation system due to non-payment of some debts need to be taken seriously.

Secretary for Transport, Communications and Infrastructure Development Mr Munesuishe Munodawafa this week conceded that the situation at AirZim was dire saying the huge debt overhang was scaring away potential partners and investors.

We hope viable proposals in this regard have been made in the blue-print prepared by Ernst and Young.

Streamlining of operations, staff rationalisation and other operational issues will need to be done as a starting point in the turnaround process.

Presently AirZim is operating at very low capacity, only going as far as Johannesburg four times a week, while locally, it is operating at a huge loss on the Harare-Bulawayo-Victoria Falls routes as confirmed this week by acting chief executive Mr Innocent Mavhunga. Contrast this with SAA's four flights a day on the Harare-Johannesburg route.

Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, Emirates and others are making a killing on the market while AirZim is stuck on the runway. A 100-seater plane on the local routes has had to make do with between 30 and 70 passengers per flight. This is not healthy although it is certainly better than not flying at all.

AirZim provides a critical service for this economy and it needs to play its role effectively to help turnaround the fortunes of this country. Next door, SAA has also not been performing well, registering a loss of R1,25 billion as reported last October.

SAA is also moaning inadequate support from treasury while it is mired in a management crisis that has seen the suspension of its acting chief executive Vuyisile Kona, who replaced the former chief executive Size Mzimela, who left in a huff last October.

This resonates well with challenges back home but the big difference is that SAA's operations have remained somewhat intact.

Its presence on the regional or international airspace has not been compromised at all.

The new board coming to AirZim must get down to business as soon as all the appointment formalities are done to bring lasting solutions to the challenges confronting the otherwise viable national carrier.

The UNWTO general assembly is almost here, with less than six months to go. AirZim would not want to be found wanting.

This is the time for the national carrier to be at its best and demonstrate to the visitors that this country has reliable air transport.

Six months is not too long a time for the airline to spruce up its performance but certain things can be done to help it operate at reasonable capacity.

We should begin to see results once the new board and management get down to business. Reports of an impending delivery of two A320 Airbuses and smaller jets for the local routes should augur well for the airline.

We want to emphasise the fact that to perform optimally, the board should be given free latitude to do its work professionally, without interference from "interested" parties that were previously accused of putting spanners in the works at AirZim.

A country cannot function effectively without a reliable airline hence the need for urgent redress of the state of affairs at AirZim.

The potential in the national carrier has been lying dormant for too long and its about time this story changed.

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