I have received interesting responses on the Air Zimbabwe crisis with many stressing that something definitive should be crafted so the airline stops being a drag on the fiscus. No doubt Zimbabweans feel the airline should be rescued
so it can continue to carry the national flag higher and higher into the skies.
Some suggested that no blueprint will do wonders unless political interference was kept at bay as they suggested that there was too much interest and influence from "politicians" on the airline's operations.
Yet others felt that Ernst & Young, the crafters of the proposed blueprint, were professional and credible enough to provide long-lasting solutions to the struggling airline. Others felt Airzim was terminally ill and nothing could bring it back to viability.
These were opinions expressed by readers across the globe.
In this regard, this week I have decided to give space to a former aircraft engineer with Air Zimbabwe.
Herewith are his submissions:
Many articles have been written on how Air Zimbabwe can be assisted for it to turn around. This article is also an attempt at adding to the call for Air Zimbabwe's fortunes to improve and become a great airline as it used to be after independence.
Most solutions to Air Zimbabwe's nagging debt, obsolete equipment, loss of skilled personnel and loss of lucrative routes cannot be solved using theoretical frameworks.
Air Zimbabwe comprises a number of stakeholders, both internal and external, who are important in the perceived turnaround. There is need to embark on a sustained effort to identify measurable outcomes of action plans and functional activities that will unlock stakeholder value. A rationalised diversification process needs to be initiated in order to review the strategic direction and focus of the airline. The review will cater more for the internal dynamics and later the external issues.
The airline needs to review its structure, systems of governance, shared systems (culture), skills base, style of management and the staff calibre Air Zimbabwe is a specialised technological establishment and ignoring technical input at the highest level of decision-making would render redundant any perceived turn around strategies.
The internal stakeholders that assist in the airline to maintain flight safety and airworthiness are the highly skilled pilots, engineers and civil aviation experts.
During the liberation struggle the leadership of the liberation movements embarked on a planned programme to get Zimbabweans trained as pilots, civil aviation experts and aircraft engineers.
The bulk of our pilots and engineers at Air Zimbabwe and the air force were trained in Ethiopia while others were trained in Nigeria, Libya, the United Kingdom, United States, Ireland, Russia, China and Romania.
At independence very few knew there was this repository of knowledge that had been trained to assume the reins of power in the aviation field.
Such good planning assisted in a smooth transition of power from whites to blacks at both the airline and air force. Soon after independence many apprentices were also trained by Air Zimbabwe in various aviation fields such as power plants and accessories, hangar maintenance, line maintenance, avionics and instrumentation and others as pilots.
Those who were trained during the war were sent for further training abroad at KLM in Netherlands, Lufthansa in Hamburg, Germany, and Boeing in Seattle, United States. Air Zimbabwe boasted highly skilled technical personnel for all its essential units. The flight safety record of Air Zimbabwe was second to none and the flagship enjoyed brisk business.
Major problems began to emerge internally due to pressure from external dynamics and the airline began to experience huge financial losses and lost some of its lucrative routes as some of its aircraft aged and needed replacement.
The airline then embarked on a voluntary retirement to downsize its bloated workforce. This resulted in the flight of highly trained and skilled personnel who received retrenchment packages.
Most of them were immediately absorbed by other airlines in the region and abroad. To train an aircraft apprentice takes five years and those who had been trained during the war had also accumulated a wealth of experience. An arbitrary voluntary retirement programme in my view was ill-advised and it created a yawning gap that still needs to be filled to this day.
Some of the engineers that did not go abroad are lecturers at universities; some are now farmers while others are entrepreneurs.
Pilots are a rare breed and are immediately absorbed by airlines that value Zimbabweans as hard workers and diligent professionals. The other major challenge was that those at the highest levels of decision-making lacked aviation training and experience.
Like Zesa, their CEO has mostly been an engineer who understands the dynamics of managing a purely technologically based entity.
As mentioned earlier, remedies for the turnaround of Air Zimbabwe need a clinical review or audit of the current structure running the airline, the systems of governance being employed, the shared systems which is the culture of the airline, the skills base remaining, the style of management and the staff calibre of the entire airline locally and at its stations abroad.
The highest decision-making structure of the airline is the board and for it to function efficiently and effectively in a highly specialised technical entity it needs to retain in its fold a number of aviation skills.
While lawyers and economists are needed to provide oversight for most entities, for an airline you need pilots and engineers to be represented in the board to provide technical support. Decisions when they are made they should not first be referred to management where you normally find the experts, they must be made at the highest level of the board with direct input by the aviation experts.
Such a model will give direction to the lawyers, economists and administrators in the board when discussing flight safety, airworthiness, suitable routes, when deciding on type of aircrafts and spares to procure.
The aviation experts are the main stakeholders of the airline. They should not be relegated to the lower rungs of management. The systems of governance in the airline must take into account that most decisions to be taken would need consensus and allow for participation at the lowest levels.
The culture of the airline should be one that empowers and retains skills across the board of their employee base.
A recall of the younger skills might be necessary from wherever they might be. The style of management must be one that prioritises the technical divisions over the management discipline that are purely administrative. In other words, reward systems must be set to adequately compensate for specialised skills.
It is demoralising for someone who spends five years training to earn the same salary as administrative personnel with one or two years training. The calibre of personnel must be aviation oriented with clear distinction to ensure profitability, flight safety and airworthiness of aircraft.
It is my humble submission to Air Zimbabwe that when the board is being selected the head of flight operations, who must be a captain and the head of engineering, be included as aviation experts and a repository at the board's disposal.
If that is not possible then an "Aviation Expert Think Tank" by experienced aviation personnel of various disciplines be set up to act as a repository of the board. While efforts are being made to pay off Air Zimbabwe's debts and new routes identified, it is important that the audit recommended be looked into.
Retaining engineers, pilots and civil aviation experts in the board together with lawyers and economists will not only bring value addition, but will also build the much needed value. Failure to involve these important stakeholders at this level will breed a disease called "paralysis" in the airline's operations.
A recall of younger skilled pilots and maintenance personnel will also build value for the airline. Ethiopian Airlines, which is one of the best in Africa, makes sure that the person at the helm of their flagship is either a pilot or an engineer with administrative and management training.
Air Zimbabwe can be turned around and what I have contributed could be galvanised and enriched by other recommendations from elsewhere to create needed impetus for the airline.
In God I Trust.