The Sunday Mail
As the nation celebrates 40 years of Independence, one cannot help but go down memory lane to the glory days of Air Zimbabwe (Air Zim), notably its fleet size, long haul intercontinental flights and various accolades for quality, safety and excellent service.
A myriad of challenges, however, bedevilled the national airline in recent years.
These include a depleted aircraft fleet and poor debt management, which impacted on service provision and schedule integrity, resulting in revenues taking a nosedive.
Air Zim got suspended from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) clearing house, and what ultimately remained was a battered image and loss of market share.
However, as they say, life begins at 40, there is now a renewed thrust towards revival of Air Zim.
Government, under new political dispensation, felt challenges being faced by Air Zim could be adequately addressed by placing the national airline under reconstruction.
This is in terms of the Reconstruction of State-Indebted Insolvent Companies Act, which came into effect on October 14, 2018.
Mr Reggie Saruchera of Grant Thornton was appointed the administrator, while Mr Tinashe Mawere and Tonderayi Mukubvu — also of Grant Thornton — were appointed as assistant administrators.
Top on the list of priorities for Mr Saruchera and his team was to stop the bleeding, review operations for sustainability, address going-concern issues, restructure the balance sheet and position the airline for recapitalisation to ensure it is strengthened to compete.
A strategic turnaround plan was developed, which took into account the return to viability and profitability through development of a robust domestic and regional feeder route network, supported by an appropriate fleet of narrow and medium-bodied aircraft.
Subsequently, this would lead to re-introduction of long-haul international passenger flights into the European, Middle East and Asia Pacific regions.
In recent months, global economies and normal livelihoods have come to a standstill due to the Covid-19 pandemic and no business has been spared from its devastating effects, including airline operations, due to closure of airports and airspaces to curb passenger movements in a bid to curtail spread of the highly contagious disease.
Air Zim acting chief executive Mr Joseph Makonise believes the airline has positioned itself competitively for special passenger repatriation and cargo charter flights, which will enable the national airline generate revenue to support resumption of operations after the pandemic.
“We cannot just look in despair at the devastation caused by the pandemic to business and livelihoods, hence our thrust into the special charter flights guided by the relevant health and safety protocols. This revenue will support the implementation of our re-launch plan post the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown,” said Mr Makonise.
During the lockdown period, which began on March 30, Air Zim successfully completed a scheduled maintenance check (D-check) on the B737-200 (Z-WPA), affectionately named after a heroic liberation struggle icon “Mbuya Nehanda”, which joined the fleet in 1985 as a brand new aircraft from the Boeing production line.
The scheduled maintenance check, carried out every 20 000 flight hours, involved full structural inspection, repairs, modifications, replacement of parts, among other key tasks.
It is meant to ensure conformance with airworthiness integrity and structural requirements.
Against all odds and biases which favour foreign over local expertise, this huge technical success is thanks to a team of seasoned local engineers who are fully trained, licensed and approved to manage the B737 aircraft.
It was all joy and smiles of satisfaction for the team as they watched the “bird” taking off on its three-hour test flight.
Engineer Phillip Zvasiya, Air Zim manager (engineering), could not hide his joy as he praised his team for its dedication and commitment to tenets of quality, safety and expertise.
“I am proud of the team,” he enthused.
“We still have capacity in local manpower and facilities to carry out such maintenance on Boeing aircraft.
“Most importantly, I am happy that we have a balance of gender in our team, female engineers who work at par with their male counterparts, carving a path for future generations of women leading the aviation industry.”
The team of female aircraft maintenance engineers included Josephine Mashavane, head of base and line maintenance, who was also directly in charge of the D-check project; Fungai Ngundu (engines and airframes); Ronica Yasini (cabin interiors and safety equipment); Diana Zimvumi (non-destructive testing), among others.
The teams also included apprentices such as Joan Makwavarara and Marian Marime.
Air Zim engineers meet international qualifications and standards and have in the past maintained either Boeing or Airbus foreign airline operator aircraft like British Airways, Lufthansa, Air Mauritius, South African Airways and Egypt Air.
In 1999, Air Zim received commendations of excellence from Boeing and became the first airline in Africa to successfully execute a Strut Improvement programme on the B767-200ER.
Post-Covid-19 pandemic, demand for air travel is expected to grow, albeit at a slower pace, hence the plan by Air Zim to continue its focus on building a robust domestic and regional route network operated by the B737, ERJ145 and other possible lease-ins in response to demand, while the B767 will operate mainly charter flights.
A piece of good news for day-trippers in business and tourism is that Air Zim will reintroduce the evening sector on the domestic triangle Harare-Bulawayo-Victoria Falls-Harare, as well as the 7am return flight to Johannesburg, South Africa.
Dar es Salaam flights will have a return connection to Bulawayo and Victoria Falls via Harare on the same day three times a week.
Additional routes on the cards include Lusaka, Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Cape Town and Dubai, among others.