A FORTNIGHT ago, the CEO of Air Zimbabwe, Dr Peter Chikumba, addressed a parliamentary committee, unreservedly and very frankly disclosing the extremely constrained financial circumstances of the national airline.
With equally great transparency, he unhesitatingly made known many of the other major limitations confronting the airline and the vigorous endeavours of Chikumba and his management team to enhance its operations and establish ongoing viability.
His unequivocal disclosure of the airline’s parlous financial state, and of the magnitudeÂ of the prevailing hindrancesÂ to viable operations, were irrefutable evidence of the indisputable justification of the recognition given to him in recent months by the Zimbabwe Institute of Management, and the Zimbabwean Tourism Authority, as a foremost ZimbabweanÂ public sector executive.
In like manner, recognition should have been accorded him, and his management team, by way of commendation and support, for being so unhesitatingly open and devoid of evasiveness in his presentation to the parliamentary committee.
However, a national daily newspaper’s editor clearly has a view diametrically opposite to that, for on Wednesday last week that newspaper’s editorial was naught but a scathing attack upon the airline. That editorial suggested that “astute management would have taken Air Zimbabwe out of the woods…….”, and suggested that the recurrent changes by government of the airline’s chief executive was in order “to find someone who can manage the airline properly”.
This damning diatribe against Air Zimbabwe’s management, and in particular against those presently in office, is unfounded and unjust in the extreme.
I do not seek to fulfill the role of apologist for Air Zimbabwe and its management, and have unhesitatingly criticised the airline, in this column and elsewhere, when I considered such criticism justified.Â
However, as unhesitatingly as one should voice criticism when due, so should one commend when commendation is due, and stand up against unfair, and prejudiced and partisan outpourings.
The condemnatory editorial contends that “Government has battled for years to make Air Zimbabwe a success.”
The reality is diametrically the opposite.Â In all probability, no other airline servicing national, regional and international routes is as under-capitalisedÂ as Air Zimbabwe has always been,Â wheresoever in the world such airlines are situate.
Air Zimbabwe has never provided the requisite equity capital to fund an effective fleet of aircraft, to fund the engineering, administration, marketing and other necessary support infrastructures, and to finance operational working capital requirements.Â
Instead, one government after another has required the airline to fund its needs by recourse to borrowings and access to credit. This, on the one hand, burdened it —— for many years —— with. excessively great, unsustainable, finance charges and, on the other hand, precluded its accessing the aircraft required for wholly effective and profitable operations.
The condemnatory editorial in last week’s daily misleadingly states that government has backed the airline by supplying it with appropriate aircraft.
The mind boggles at this contention, for the airline’s entire fleet comprises two Boeing 767 aircraft which are over 22 years old, three Boeing 737 aircraft which are more than 19 years old, and 3 MA60 aircraft, purchased from China, the entire liability for payment for those aircraft being borne by the undercapitalised airline (with some of the purchase price yet to be paid).
Government has neither supplied the airline with any aircraft, nor has it provided any substantive funding for aircraft. Five of the airline’s minimal fleet are extremely aged, with not only recurrent maintenance needs, and attendant costs, but devoid of state-of-the-art fuel efficiency developments, which are a key requirement for airline viability in view of the generally high cost of fuel. Â
Moreover, those aircraft are facility and amenity-wise uncompetitive against the aircraft used by competitor airlines. It is, therefore hallucinatory or deceptive, in the extreme, to contend that government has supplied Air Zimbabwe any aircraft, let alone such as enable the conduct of profitable operations.
Whilst sticking his millions of needles into his Air Zimbabwe voodoo doll, the daily’s editor was myopically oblivious to the many positives of which the airline can be justly proud. In contrast, with the undoubted exception of some of Zimbabwe’s political hierarchy, this columnist must be one of that airline’s most frequent flyers. Some of the very real achievements of Air Zimbabwe include:
- A punctuality rating of 95%. The world-over, passengers have a tendency to remember whensoever a flight is delayed, but have conveniently defective memories of the occasions when the flights are wholly timeous. Unavoidably, Air Zimbabwe experiences flight delays, but nevertheless 19 out of 20 flights depart and arrive on time, and most airlines of the world must be envious of such a record.
- Air Zimbabwe is one of only 14 airlines in Africa to have attained the world-recognised safety registration and status of IATA Operational Safety Standards compliance.
- Â Few airlines can justly boast having such an attentive, friendly and efficient personnel as has Air Zimbabwe, be it cabin or cockpit crew, check-in-personnel, ground staff, or others.
What Air Zimbabwe needs is adequate funding, an effective and modern aircraft fleet, and access to state-of-the-art airline operational technologies. To achieve that, government needs, first and foremost, to relieve Air Zimbabwe of its very considerable accumulated debt, which it would not have had if past governments had adequately and realistically capitalised the airline.
Secondly, Air Zimbabwe needs to be devoid of all too frequent governmental interference, by civil servants and ministers who have little, if any, real and practical knowledge of airline operations. The existence of such interference has been recurrently evident from diverse ministerial parliamentary statements.
Knowledgeable and experiencedÂ management must be able to manageÂ without hindrance,Â provided that they do so within the parameters of corporate polices prescribed by the airline’s directors.
Most of all, the airline needs to be adequately funded, to settle its debts, to acquire necessary aircraft, and fund operations. As government is bankrupt (as recently disclosed by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai), it cannot provide the funding, and debt financing would not address Air Zimbabwe’s needs, as irrefutably demonstrated over many years.
Therefore, to access the necessary capital, Air Zimbabwe should be privatised and government contended in its Short Term Economic Recovery Programme (STERP) an intent to progress partial or total parastatal privatisation. That privatisation should ideally encompass part ownership being acquired by an appropriate strategic partner, with many regional and international airlines having voiced interest, in the past, in such partnership.
A further part of the privatisation should be by facilitating share acquisition by management and staff, which would be a considerable motivant, and would enhance prospects of personnel retention, and shares in the airline should be listed on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange, as soon as the airline has been effectively restructured for viable operations. Doing so would also advance Zimbabwe intents of indigenisation and economic empowerment.
Pursuing these strategies would achieve the only thing that the daily newspaper’s editor did say correctly, and that is that “Airzim needs to stand on its own”.
BY ERIC BLOCH