Emirates jets in as Air Zim crashes

2012-02-04 14:40

The Emirates airline launched its maiden flight into Zimbabwe this week, four years after its request to fly into Harare.

The Zimbabwean government, keen to protect the monopoly of the state-owned airline, had declined the United Arab Emirates-owned carrier permission to fly into Harare.

Now Air Zimbabwe, riddled by a debt crisis of $140 million (more than R1 billion), a salary dispute of $35 million owed to workers and an aged aircraft fleet, is teetering on the brink of total collapse and was last week placed under judicial management.

Officials close to the process say placing the airline under judicial management was a precursor to declaring Air Zimbabwe bankrupt.

Already, international and regional flights to London and South Africa have been suspended and this has paved the way for the dominance of South African Airways (SAA) in Zimbabwe’s airline market.

The Zimbabwean Civil Aviation Authority in a 2010 report noted that SAA “accounted for the lion’s share of the Zimbabwe airline market with 29.3%, relegating Air Zimbabwe to second position at 22.1%”.

A parliamentary portfolio committee set up last year found that most senior government officials opted to use either SAA or South African Airlink, and shunned Air Zimbabwe—a “huge embarrassment” for the national airline.

Expectations were now high that Emirates’ entry into Zimbabwe’s airline market would mark the return of top international airlines to Harare, after a number of airlines pulled out in 2000 in response to Zimbabwe’s deteriorating political situation.

International airlines that aviation officials were optimistic would return to Harare “very soon” were Lufthansa, Qantas, Air France, Swissair, Air India and TAP Air Portugal. In the southern African region, Air Namibia said it would resume flights to Zimbabwe in May, after it left in 1999.

Meanwhile, a secret deal meant to save Air Zimbabwe by China’s largest private airline, Hainan Airlines, has failed to take off.

It is understood from an aviation authority source that the government was keen on privatising Air Zimbabwe and allow for a new company to be formed in its place.

But when quizzed by City Press this week on plans to privatise the national airline and the botched Chinese deal, State Enterprises and Parastatals Minister Gorden Moyo would not elaborate on the matter.

“It’s not true that we are seeking to privatise Air Zimbabwe. I can’t reveal what ongoing negotiations we are having”, said Moyo.

It was understood that the failed negotiations with the Chinese stemmed from Air Zimbabwe’s debt, which the Chinese would be compelled to clear on beh alf of the parastatal.

Economist Eric Bloch said: “Air Zimbabwe must be significantly privatised. Those acquiring a stake in it providing it with working capital, access to modern aircraft to service existing and additional routes, and with technological inputs”.

He added: “But no investor will do so if there is a $140 million debt overhang. Government indirectly caused the debt by its failure to provide adequate capital and therefore it should assume full liability for debt settlement.”

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