Petros Gamuchirayi NDLOVU
The afternoon of Wednesday April 11, the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport in Harare was a bustle of activity as Zimbabwe took delivery of the first of four Boeing 777-200 ER series of airplanes. The aircraft, whose registration is Z-RGM, in honor of former president Robert Gabriel Mugabe is part of the new fleet of B777s and Embraersprocured from Malaysia under the banner of a shady company called Zimbabwe Airlines.
The aircraft touched down the Zimbabwean tarmac on a cool afternoon amidst pomp and fanfare and got a traditional water cannon baptism, much to the merriment of Zimbabweans.
This deal, which will see more aircraft fly in the near future, is being handled by a hitherto unknown company by the name Zimbabwe Aviation Leasing Company.
Whilst new players are welcome in the aviation industry, the deal which brought the aircraft appears to have been ill-advised by persons out to liquidate the existing national airline, Air Zimbabwe and replace it with another national airline, Zimbabwe Airways.
Whilst many countries have tried it before with mixed results, various conflicting explanations have been issued by the ministry responsible for transport for the transaction. The motives of the past government whose president presided over the idea will haunt the present as well as future governments if the transition process is not handled well.
The argument of the policy makers for the liquidation of the ghost of the bedeviled airline, Air Zimbabwe is that the perennial loss maker is lying in hopeless comatose and appears not to be in a position to be revived. And the doctors have lost hope in resuscitating it back to life.
However many experts say this argument for a euthanasia treatment for the airline does not hold water.
The coming in of the new air transport company has left the aviation industry players with no explanation of what is exactly currently obtaining. Management and general staff at Air Zimbabwe, which today employs hundreds of workers in various industries, are keeping their fingers crossed, as they are not sure whether they are going to be still employed by the end of the day tomorrow. That the airline has been underperforming and appear burdensome to the taxpayer cannot be an understatement. But, I personally feel that blaming the employees for the demise of the airline is an unfair practice hedging on misinformation.
Incessant bungling of human resources issues by an equally inept management at the behest of the partisan board have led to a perennial mistrust between the airline’s current and past employees, the management, the board and the parent ministry. Workers have been fired from the airline for flimsy reasons whilst the recent wave of retrenchments triggered by the Zuva case having seen workers being thrown out of the airline presumably as a cost cutting measure on the staggering wage bill.
In the last one year the airline has seen more appointments at very senior management level, where the new, inexperienced line managers are earning more than five times than their retrenched predecessors. The company retrenched managers in the Human Resources, Finance, IT as well as Marketing Departments, presumably to lighten the wage bill, but ironically went on to replace the retrenched workers with staff who earn more.
It is this same new management that has come under fire for not performing as expected. The present management seems to be at loss for strategies to revive the ailing airline, and appears to have been appointed simply to oversee the downward trend demise of the company. They appear to have been appointed without any clue of what they were expecting to see on arrival at the airline.
The new Zimbabwe Airways, if it is anything to go by, has a big mountain to climb in order to get registered before they start flying. The new airline has to be on the IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) registry, as well as meet stringent industrial requirements before they are allowed into the European and other lucrative markets. Air Zimbabwe needs $4.6 million for the IATA Clearing House amongst its financial obligations, a debt emanating from the time the airline was failing to meet its international obligations in the Zimbabwe dollar era. An airline that operates international routes cannot go forward without meeting these clearing house obligations.
What Air Zimbabwe needs today is a solid and rational corporate blueprint devoid of political meddling for it to rise out of its murky situation now. The national airline, once the pride of the nation, has been subjected to gross mismanagement by inept management boards appointed not on merit, but on political lines.
Today, the airline is well known for cancelling even domestic flights and haphazard scheduling of flights without explanation. From the peak of tens of flights per day in the eighties, the airline now relies on less than three flights per day being operated by a fleet of two aircraft. Other airlines, some foreign have taken advantage of the market niche created to capitalize on the local market. Poor marketing and operational strategies have been blamed for the loss of business by Air Zimbabwe to other airlines.
Aviation experts say, although it is saddled with debt, AirZimbabwe can be revived if the company’s strategic turnaround plan is implemented. Fortunately, the European skies have not shut the door in the face of Air Zimbabwe per se. What is required is only for the airline to pay the debts it owes to the creditors, including local and former employees, for it to find its feet again. As at December 2017, the airline’s debt overhang it at US $341 million. Some of this could be paid in installments as the airline operates, if the airline is given a chance.
It is common knowledge that the brand of Air Zimbabwe has been tainted of late. It is now going to be an onerous task for the management to revive the brand out of the mud it is currently in. It takes not only the management of the airline, but the government as a whole. There is need for a paradigm shift for the government in the new dispensation if it is to revive the ailing airline.
As we speak, the courts are straddled with labour issues emanating from disgruntled retrenched employees who are demonstrating against the new management and demanding their severance packages. The former employees, who are branded “terrorists” by the current management comprise of former managers of the airline, as well as shop floor workers. Buoyed by a vibrant labour union, these former employees employ dirty tactics, some of them bordering on sabotage, to try and bring the new management to the negotiating table.
The ministry is quoted as saying that the airline has been grossly mismanaged to a great extent. Why the same board of management that was appointed by the former president Robert Mugabe’s government is still being allowed to run the show is still baffling the minds of many. The government’s aloofness amidst the disparaging storm stinks of smelly fish. The government may have done better by addressing the problems of the airline and ensuring that it is brought back to its feet before unleashing it to the mercies of critics.
Whether the new airline is going to fill in the gap left by the retreating Air Zimbabwe will be seen. As long as the government maintains its tentacles in the control over this new airline by commandeering the aircraft off route for the presidential and other sojourns at the expense of the commercial passengers, siphoning it of foreign currency and not respecting the rights of employees, this new airline will still go down the drain and still be a waste of taxpayers’ money.
There is need to ensure that professionalism is brought into this new national airline by appointing the right persons on to the boards and management seats. The new government must be educated now that the era of gross disrespect for proper business etiquette and appointing of unprofessional persons to policy making positions of the parastatals must come to an end.
Zimbabwe cannot be open for business without the national airline.