Zim airline 'will not fold'

Harare - Zimbabwe will not shut down its bankrupt state airline, an official said on Wednesday, and is seeking foreign partners to rescue the debt-ridden service after it was grounded by a series of crippling strikes that saw it lose thousands of customers.

Air Zimbabwe's collapse is blamed on mismanagement and three crippling pilot strikes in the past 10 months over unpaid salaries and allowances.

The airline resumed flights on Friday after the latest strike by its 49 pilots. Officials said one weekend flight carried only one passenger. They estimated it would take six months to restore confidence.

Thousands of passengers have been stranded this year and have not received refunds.

But Tourism Minister Walter Mzembi said the government-owned airline is the country's symbolic flag carrier and cannot be dismantled without bruising the southern African nation's ego and damaging Zimbabwe's image worldwide.

To abandon the troubled airline, he wrote in an opinion piece in the state-run Herald newspaper on Wednesday, "is self-destructive and morally wrong."

He said the airline owed at least $100m and was looking for another $500m to upgrade its aging fleet. He said the recently ended strike is estimated to have cost $8m, and also had a severe impact on tourism revenues.

"This is not readily available, especially when the airline cannot even pay wages and salaries," Mzembi wrote.

He also said the bloated airline has 184 employees for each of its eight aircraft, compared to a world average of 80 staff for each aircraft.

He said other African airlines had outside help from "serious, cash-rich and committed" investors.

But loyalists of President Robert Mugabe's party have sharply opposed hiring white or expatriate managers to run loss-making state enterprises. The government imposed rules that require all businesses to be majority black-owned. 

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