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Air Zimbabwe bookings suspended over unpaid IATA debt

altThe International Air Transport Association (IATA) has suspended Zimbabwe’s beleaguered national airline from flight booking services as Air Zimbabwe has not paid US$280 000 of the debt it owes the organisation.

In a statement released yesterday, IATA told travel agents to "immediately stop all ticketing and refund transactions" for Air Zimbabwe. The airline failed to pay US$280 000 for worldwide billing and ticketing fees.

Air Zimbabwe may use its own booking facilities but will supper a sharp drop in bookings by passengers who are not Zimbabwean nationals, New Zimbabwe reports.

David Mwenga, Air Zimbabwe's general manager for Europe, said yesterday that the bulk of the debt to IATA resulted from the nearly month long strike that ended last month.

Air Zimbabwe said it has “already engaged IATA to negotiate a payment plan,” and expects a swift resolution to the issue, possibly as early as today. "We have been engaged in discussions with IATA since last week, and we are very keen to get this resolved," Mwenga said. He added that more than 50 percent of the airline’s customers book through travel agents.

This is not the first time Air Zimbabwe has been suspended over unpaid IATA debit. In July last year, the airline was threatened with suspension if it failed to make at least a partial payment of US$2 million on US$4 million of overdue fees. Suspension would mean IATA would stop clearing goods and honouring Air Zimbabwe passenger fares.

In February 2004 Zimbabwe paid a US$1.3 million debt to IATA after the organisation had the airline suspended. Air Zimbabwe cited a lack of hard currency as the reason for not initially honouring its debt.

Air Zimbabwe is crippled with approximately US$100 million of debt and has just emerged from a nearly month long strike between March 22 and April 20, the second to hit the carrier in the last year. Pilots were protesting unpaid salaries and allowances dating back to February last year, amounting to approximately US$4 million.

The Zimbabwean government reportedly agreed to pay striking pilots 67% of what they are owed, The Herald reports. Total back pay and allowances could amount to US$9 million.

Air Zimbabwe is in dire financial straits and its monthly losses are now amounting to US$3.4 million, according to documents obtained by The Herald. Towards the end of last year the airline was losing an average of US$2.5 million a month.

Air Zimbabwe has pulled out of 18 of its 25 routes and reduced the number of flights per week. While the carrier reduces the number of routes it flies, foreign carriers have been taking over these routes.

Statistics contained in a 2009 report entitled Tourism Trends and Statistics, produced by the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, indicate that five of the major airlines serving Zimbabwe (Air Zimbabwe, South African Airways, British Airways/Comair, Air Namibia and South African Airlink) take up 93% of the airline market share in the country. The three South African operators take up 87% of the market.

“There is no doubt that Air Zimbabwe has let the tourism industry down,” said Tourism and Hospitality Industry minister Walter Mzembi last week. “In 1996 we had 45 international carriers servicing Zimbabwe from different international source markets. Today, we are down to less than 10 and the price of flights is too high.”
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