STRUGGLING national airline Air Zimbabwe plans to acquire two new Embraer aircraft to service its domestic and regional routes as it seeks to turn around its fortunes, well-placed sources said this week.
AirZim board chairman Ozias Bvute on Tuesday told a parliamentary portfolio committee on state enterprises and parastatals the company was set to acquire smaller ranges of the Embraer aircraft for domestic routes but was not specific on numbers.
"We are in the process of acquiring Embraer planes by way of lease. They are more fuel efficient and will enable us to fly more regional routes and we hope we will be able to do that in the shortest time possible," Bvute told the committee.
The move is expected to cut down on ballooning operational costs for the domestic routes as the flag carrier has been using its 105-seater Boeing 737-200 that has less fuel efficiency and has low load factors.
Embraer is one of the world's leading aircraft manufacturers. The Brazilian company manufactures its ERJ range which has a seating capacity of between 37 and 50 and is meant for regional and domestic commercial airline operators.
Bvute also said a team of Chinese engineers was currently working flat out with their Zimbabwean counterparts on servicing one of Airzim's MA 60s so that it starts plying the Harare-Bulawayo-Victoria Falls route soon.
"Contrary to popular belief, the MA60 is actually a good plane and it's more efficient. We can't continue using the (Boeing) 737," he said.
The MA60 has had a bad reputation in the country after it failed to take off for Victoria Falls from Harare International Airport in October 2011 and passengers aboard the Chinese-made aircraft had to be transferred to a Boeing 767.
The glitch was one of many following Zimbabwe's acquisition of two MA 60s from China in 2005 that led to another being presented as a gift to President Robert Mugabe a year later.
In July 2006-and barely a year after the planes were brought from China- one of the aircraft reportedly burst two tyres during landing after a forced turn-back to Victoria Falls following a technical fault on one of the the engines.
The AirZim chief believes AirZim could regain its glory in the region and internationally.
In an update on operations, Bvute said Airzim's load factor had increased to an average of between six and 70% for the Harare-Johannesburg routes in the festive season last year.
He said the company was currently targeting a load factor of between 50 to 60% in the short-term while a major turnaround strategy was being implemented.
"We believe AirZim can still make it," Bvute told the parliamentarians.
He said there was progress on the airline's recent acquisition of two Airbus 320 aircraft, one of which had been deregistered and certified under Zimbabwe's ownership on a lease basis. The certified plane should start servicing the Harare-Johannesburg route by April 1, 2013. The other one was expected to be certified within two weeks.
The two planes are meant to service regional routes, with plans to have daily flights for the Harare-Johannesburg route, while plans to resume the Harare -London flight by July are underway.
Air Zimbabwe has been incurring huge operational costs caused by operating big aircraft for its domestic routes after resuming the Harare-Bulawayo-Victoria Falls route recently.
At regional level, the airline is currently plying the Harare-Johannesburg route and plans to have daily flights on that route.
AirZim is currently reeling under a US$190 million debt, which is mostly owed to other parastatals.
The company also plans to pursue a retrenchment exercise which could see more than half of its 900-plus employees being laid off.