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Air Zimbabwe resumes flights

altAir Zimbabwe has resumed domestic, regional and overseas flights after solving an impasse that saw Zambezi Airlines withdraw the aircraft it was leasing to the trouble carrier.

Air Zimbabwe Acting Chief Executive Officer Innocent Mavhunga yesterday said the routes that had been affected by the withdrawal of the aircraft are now operational, Into Zimbabwe reports.

Air Zimbabwe’s flights came to a halt on May 18 as the aircraft it was leasing from Zambezi Airlines was withdrawn over an unpaid US$460 000 debt. In March Air Zimbabwe leased a Boeing 737-500 from Zambia’s Zambezi Airlines. "Yes, there have been problems with Zambezi Airlines, but we are negotiating with our partners," acting CEO Innocent Mavhunga told New Zimbabwe last week.
On May 15 the International Air Transport Association (IATA) suspended Air Zimbabwe from flight booking services as Air Zimbabwe had not paid US$280 000 of the debt it owes the organisation. Air Zimbabwe continued flying, using its own booking facilities. More than 50 percent of the airline’s customers book through travel agents.

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

A further setback came when Zimbabwe’s civil aviation authority (CAAZ) grounded the airline’s three Boeing 737-200s, saying they had reached their flying limits. The aircraft serviced the Harare-China and Harare-London routes. The CAAZ said the aircraft were a public danger as they had reached their limit of 34 000 cycles (complete flights), VOA reports. The aircraft have an average of 30 000 flight cycles and more than 31 000 flight hours.

However, in a letter to Air Zimbabwe obtained by The Herald, Boeing said the airline could continue to fly its 737-200s. Nevertheless, Air Zimbabwe’s fleet has been criticised as being old and prone to failure by the CAAZ.

Air Zimbabwe’s only other remaining aircraft is a Chinese-made MA60 turboprop. One other MA60 remains unserviceable while another was damaged after hitting warthogs on the Harare runway and has not been repaired.

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$9 million. The Zimbabwean government reportedly agreed to pay striking pilots 67% of what they are owed, The Herald reports.

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 is facing pressure from workers who have not been paid April salaries and there have been reports of staff picketing outside the airline’s offices, according to The Zimbabwean. It has been common for staff to only receive half pay, something that has led to numerous strikes.

As Air Zimbabwe’s services grind to a halt, British Airways is considering re-instating its Harare service. South African and other African carriers have been taking over from Air Zimbabwe’s local routes over the past several years.

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.”

Secretary for Tourism and Hospitality Dr Sylvester Maunganidze said in an interview with The Herald last week that he was saddened by the situation at Air Zimbabwe. "Without a functioning airline it will be very difficult to achieve the results we want to achieve. We have engaged the Ministry of Transport, to open up the skies. Unless we go back to the pre-1999 levels, when we used to have plus or minus 46 airlines flying into Zimbabwe, we will not be able to compete with the best in the region."

"What is happening at Air Zimbabwe is totally unacceptable," Rainbow Tourism Group acting chairman Godfrey Manhambara told The Herald. "Other airlines should certainly come on board. Imagine that in such countries as Kenya you have 10 daily flights between Nairobi and Mombasa and here we are struggling to fly from Harare to Victoria Falls."

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