Zimbabwe’s beleaguered national airline Air Zimbabwe is almost completely grounded after a weeklong pilot strike shows no signs of being resolved. Pilots are striking over unpaid wages, an issue which also resulted in strike action last year.
When Air Zimbabwe pilots went on strike in September last year in an effort to get arrears paid, they only received a fraction of what they were owed. Continued dissatisfaction resulted in pilots beginning another strike last Tuesday. Salaries and allowances owed to pilots apparently are worth more than US$9 million.
“The pilots were not getting full salaries since February 2009 after they had entered into an agreement with management that these were to be paid later as Air Zimbabwe was facing serious cash-flow problems,” a senior member of the Zimbabwe National Air Workers’ Union told The Herald.
Air Zimbabwe Board Chairman Jonathan Kadzura told ZBC News that so far the national airline has not been able to agree with the pilots on the way forward as it is unable to pay salary and allowance arrears owed to them.
According to News Day, Kadzura wants striking workers to return to work even if there is no money to pay them, as the airline desperately needs the revenue from flight operations. “The only way forward is for them to get back to work because there is no money. That is the reality,” Kadzura said.
“I do not have the money and I hope they understand and get back to work because the fact of the matter is that the airline does not have the money at the moment” he added.
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. It has around US$94 million of debt.
The first flights to be affected by the strike were domestic and regional flights but the lucrative Harare-London route was cancelled last Wednesday, leaving passengers stranded in Zimbabwe and the United Kingdom. However, in a statement on Saturday Kadzura said, “we have resumed operations on the Harare-Johannesburg-Harare route and will be operating on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday with normal timings until further notice.”
According to The Herald, passengers going to Lusaka in Zambia and Johannesburg were being transferred to other airlines.
At the moment, there are no Air Zimbabwe flights from London Gatwick and there are reports that passengers have not been booked on other airlines and will have to wait at least six weeks for a refund.
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.
The strike comes at a bad time for Zimbabwe, as tourist numbers are increasing. According to the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority’s Tourism Trends and Statistics Report 2010, tourist arrivals reached 2 239 165 compared to 2 017 264 the previous year, resulting in an 11% increase in tourist numbers.
The tourism industry brought in US$634 million last year compared to US$523 million the previous year.