Air Zimbabwe’s flights came to a halt yesterday as the aircraft it was leasing from Zambezi Airlines was withdrawn over an unpaid US$460 000 debt. Its three Boeing 737s stopped flying last month. The most recent setback comes days after the International Air Transport Association (IATA) suspended Air Zimbabwe’s ticketing license over unpaid debt.
In March Air Zimbabwe leased a Boeing 737-500 from Zambia’s Zambezi Airlines but it was taken back on Tuesday. “Yes, there have been problems with Zambezi Airlines, but we are negotiating with our partners,” acting CEO Innocent Mavhunga told New Zimbabwe.
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. “The initial inspection threshold is 66 000 flight cycles and there is no requirement to perform inspections before that time . . . The threshold to begin these inspections is 66 000 flight cycles.” Many other 737s have performed more than 30 000 flight cycles. “The anticipated limit of validity for the Boeing 737-200 is well above the current hours and cycles on the ZMB [Air Zimbabwe] fleet, so even after incorporating in 2013, there will be minimal impact on the ZMB fleet.”
Nevertheless, Air Zimbabwe’s fleet has been criticised by the CAAZ. In a recent letter from CAAZ general manager David Chawota to the Secretary for Transport, Communication and Infrastructure Development Partson Mbiriri, he said, “The airline has failed to demonstrate that they have a current, updated pool of spare parts sufficient to support an evidently demanding aging fleet of airplanes such as the B737s.”
“There is evidence of robbing spares from one B737 to another and mostly from the ground aircraft. This has, often times, resulted in a fleet wide cross contamination of defective systems and components. One defect would appear on all B737 over a period of time, one aircraft after another.”
“Of even greater concern are fatigue cracks that may develop. These weaknesses in the airframe structure, if left undetected and unrepaired, may lead to catastrophic failure of critical structural members and even disintegration of aircraft in flight,” Chiwota said.
Air Zimbabwe’s only other remaining aircraft is a Chinese-made MA60 turboprop, which failed to take off yesterday to service the Harare-Victoria falls route, according to VOA. One other MA60 remains unserviceable while another was damaged after hitting warthogs on the Harare runway and has not been repaired.
Last week IATA suspended Air Zimbabwe over US$280 000 of unpaid debt. “We hope that it [Air Zimbabwe] will clear its financial obligations to return to participation in IATA’s financial systems in short order,” IATA spokesman Chris Goater said. IATA is demanding a surety bond of US$1.7 million from the airline to allow it to resume ticket booking through its 60 000 accredited travel agents.
The African Travel and Tourism Association (Atta) yesterday informed its members of ‘Air Zimbabwe chaos’, as no aircraft were flying. “We are telling members to take care and investigate thoroughly before booking Air Zimbabwe,” Atta managing director Nigel Vere Nicoll told TTG. “We absolutely encourage travel to Zimbabwe and the Atta has been fully supportive of the country’s recovery plan,” he added.
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. In September last year, pilots went on a two week strike and between March-April they went on strike for almost a month over unpaid wages and benefits.
Air Zimbabwe has approximately US$100 million of debt and makes a US$3 million loss per month.
As Air Zimbabwe’s services grind to a halt, British Airways is considering re-instating its Harare service, according to Nicoll. South African and other African carriers have been taking over from Air Zimbabwe’s local routes over the past several years.