The Sunday Mail
AIR ZIMBABWE has to move mountains for it to be commercially competitive again. There are new entrants, especially budget airlines, in the aviation industry that are re-writing the rules and redefining the game. All this is negatively impacting on its efforts to get back on the rails, or, more accurately, to take to the skies.
It is estimated that US$1 billion will suffice to rehabilitate the entity. The Sunday Mail Business reporter Africa Moyo talked to Transport and Infrastructural Development Minister Dr Joram Gumbo to get an insight into Government’s plans for the flag carrier.
Q: What is Air Zimbabwe’s game plan given that Fastjet is now plying the Harare-Johannesburg route, which, traditionally, was its cash cow?
A: There is no need to worry about that route; we need many players so that the airport becomes busy. There is nothing wrong.
They do not just start plying a route, they get them from us. Air Zimbabwe and Fastjet will be going to South Africa on different days and times.
So, if we have many routes, which bring in many people, we are growing our tourism industry, the CAAZ (Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe) is getting money; so there is nothing wrong with Fastjet plying that route.
What we only do is to ensure that Air Zimbabwe and Fastjet have different times – just like buses – so that passengers can travel freely at the time they want.
Q: But the coming of Fastjet on the Harare-Johannesburg route comes at a time when Air Zimbabwe is weak?
A: No, that is a wrong conception. Competition is good; people should fly any airline of their choice.
As Government, we protect our airline, we support it so that it remains in the air but we don’t block other airlines; that is what is called BASA (Bilateral Air Service Agreement) which allows other airlines to ply routes they wish…
There is nothing wrong in that. Anyway, we ply the same route to Victoria Falls with them and at times we go to South Africa with virtually no passengers…
So, I think it is okay for Fastjet to ply the Harare-Johannesburg (route), but in business, there should always be competition otherwise even those companies with buses on the Harare-Johannesburg route may as well abandon the route given the number of buses on the same route.
So you just need to improve your service and get more clients. . .
Look at it from different perspectives: The airports that we build and the CAAZ that we have, they want money and for that money to be available, we need to handle many aircrafts.
The likes of National Handling Services also want money that comes from having many aircrafts. As a country, we can’t construct an airport as big as Harare and not have aeroplanes there.
If you remember well, we previously had many airlines plying the Harare-Johannesburg route and we actually have a few of them now.
So we need many more so that people can travel…
People must fly as is done in other countries. They just fly and park their small aircrafts when they arrive. Do that; let us change our mindset. Let us fly.
Q: How far have you gone in reviving local aerodromes?
A: We have already started. At Buffalo Range we have already partnered companies such as Tongaat Hullett and improved the airport.
In Kariba, we want to refill the airport and, in Mutare, we want to work on Prince Charles so that it regains its glamour. And even in Gweru so that people can access every part of the country.
The tourism industry must be improved and must be encouraged in Zimbabwe through our own people. That is what we want to do.
So, protectionism is not good. Protect by giving a person or company the right implements so that they are able to take care of themselves…
If Air Zimbabwe stops flying today, they should get into Fastjet and so on. I will continue to protect Air Zimbabwe. There is a route that is lucrative that I am aiming to revive, that is the Harare-London route. That one is not plied by many airlines and it is wanted by many players.
I am inundated by many airlines wanting to get into the Harare-London route. That one I am still protecting.
Q: Can you tell us some of the airlines that have expressed interest in the route?
A: There are many, I can’t even mention them. Some are top international airlines that tell me that they want to partner us and ply the route.
The likes of Fastjet and others have been applying for the Harare-London route.
Q: Many passengers say they want to use Air Zimbabwe when going to London because it flies directly…
A: Yes, yes, many people will come from many African countries, including Zambia, to Zimbabwe so that they fly to London directly.
We want to have long-haul airplanes from here going to London and other places in Europe and have other small aircrafts such as FlyAfrica, Fastjet and Air Zimbabwe, which fly regionally so that Harare becomes the connecting international airport.
So you can’t do that and prevent other airlines from coming here; you will be failing. Make the place attractive; make the place usable to many people.
Q: So is there a budget set aside to improve Harare International Airport and other smaller airports?
A: The small aerodromes that I told you about, we are working on them on our own. The likes of Kariba, there is very little to do there; Buffalo Range has already been commissioned, so we are doing that slowly with the little resources that we have.
But for bigger airports, like any other projects that we have such as making roads and railway lines, we go into partnership with others.
Regarding Air Zimbabwe, we have plans to make sure that it gets new planes that are modern; you will see us in the air.
Q: But the issue of getting a new fleet of aircraft for Air Zimbabwe has been in the pipeline for a long time. What concrete steps are there now?
A: What you need to know is that Air Zimbabwe has debts and other problems, plus when you are engaging potential partners, you don’t just spring the issue of partnerships; you must negotiate and see what is good for you.
When you talk about aeroplanes, you need to understand that the airline business is doing very badly at the moment. There is no doubt about that no airline isdoing very well.
South African Airways is now being run by government. Any other airline you may speak of, such as Ethiopian Airways, they are surviving because they have contracts with Boeing – otherwise they also have problems.
Even Kenyan Airways, you name it, not just African airlines but also European airlines, they are not doing well.
The airline industry is not doing well and I must say I am happily surprised that Air Zimbabwe is performing the way it is, knowing the situation that we are in as a country.
Q: During budget consultations last year, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Transport said Air Zimbabwe requires about US$22,5 million to refurbish aircraft, pay off foreign creditors, for new routes and other issues. How do things stand?
A: Some of the issues you mentioned about new airplanes, I have already said we are still in negotiations because the best way for Air Zimbabwe is to get into partnership with others so it cancels off the big sums of money you are talking about.
The other small ones, those are the challenges that I said are being faced by the entire airline industry, whether it’s Air Zimbabwe or anyone.
Those are the problems we have in the industry, they are not unique to Air Zimbabwe … but we are still carrying on and Air Zimbabwe is still flying.
Some of the little things you are talking about, we deal with them as we go on… we will address them at our pace.
If you look at the National Budget, it cannot cover everything for us.
As a country, we have a budget of US$4 billion, which is not enough to solve the problems we have in various sectors.
So those key institutions or enterprises like mine which are still working, we will also be doing the bit we can until we get somewhere.
Q: But how far has Government gone in addressing Air Zimbabwe’s legacy debt?
A: I don’t know what language I can use to respond to this now. I said the airline industry worldwide is not doing well.None of the airlines are liquid, but no one has stopped flying, so we are not the only ones.For your own information, the Air Zimbabwe debt, which comes to about $3,3 million; if you want to know how it is like, about half of it is employee wages that could not be settled, hence the retrenchment.Otherwise, Air Zimbabwe on its own is a viable entity but the industry is failing to perform worldwide, so it is not something that we can fail to address.It will take time – like it is taking time with everybody in many industries – but it is not insurmountable.