By Xavier Zavare | Air travel, the phenomenon that connects the spheres of this earth, enabling the peoples of this world to keep commerce going and physical interactions of humans living far away from each other possible. Travelling by air is an essential aspect of our modern lives in a world so globalised. The convenience of being able to be on the other half of the world within half a day or less to conduct business, move lifesaving, essential cargo, important travel to support sick relatives, bury a loved one or just leisure moments with family and friends is now an integral part of our lives. And this has all become possible due to airline travel.
Those responsible for manufacturing aeroplanes have also introduced comfort to air travel, particularly on long haul flights with main commercial flights manufacturers, US based Boeing and European based Airbus competing to provide unprecedent speedy and comfortable planes for air travellers. The average Boeing Dreamliner plane has luxurious things such as onboard Wi-Fi even for travellers in the infamous Economy class, so does the Airbus A380, which has also increased leg space for the comfort of a long-haul traveller. Some journeys have also become shorter, such that it is now the norm to travel from London to Johannesburg in about 11 hours 10mins, a journey that used to be 15+ hours.
As air travel has increased, many governments have recognised how having reliable air connectivity is essential for boosting their economies. Captains of industries want the ability and convenience of being able to travel for business, covering ground as quickly as possible, get on the plane back to their bases or to another country for more business opportunities.
Thus, we witness countries such as United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Ethiopia investing in modern fleets of aeroplanes. Through their airlines namely, Emirates Airlines, Qatar Airways and Ethiopian Airlines respectively, these countries have spread their wings, with routes that cover over half of the major cities of the world such as London, New York, Dubai, Beijing, Shanghai. In fact, almost European and African major cities have one these three plying their skies. Add to that British Airways, part owned by the British Government, KLM by the Dutch, and Lufthansa by the Germans.
Whereas there are arguments that by and large, commercial airlines business is not that profitable, particularly for long haul flights, there is also a justified recognition of the enormous economic advantages and benefits derived from having a reliable airline in one’s country.
With President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government placing emphasis on economic development and growth as espoused in the Vision2030 policy, it comes as no surprise to see his government appointing a new substantive board at the nation’s flag carrier Air Zimbabwe as reported in the Herald of 1 August 2022. We should be in no doubt, the new board has its work cut out in this very competitive and ever evolving air travel industry. It will take a while for Air Zimbabwe to go back to what it was once famous for, efficiency with its motto of, “A tradition of caring”.
However, there are some low hanging fruits for the board which can restore confidence in the airline’s name even as it technically boosts economic activities.
At the height of its success, Zimbabwe’s national airline dominated the domestic, regional, and international air travel market. It was an airline of choice for many destined for Zimbabwe or London in the era of British Airways, Qantas of Australia, KML and Lufthansa Germans Airlines. Air Zimbabwe was hospitable, professionally run and had tasty food supplied by Catercraft, a company which employed thousands of people. It had a competitive reputation for safety and reliability. One would expect that the new Air Zimbabwe board will be able to quickly identify that the country has a population which is very ‘air-mobile’ hence the likes of Emirates, Qatar, Kenyan Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and RwandAir regard Zimbabwe as a lucrative destination worth investing in. Some of these airlines have increased their services to the country and extended their operations to one of the best tourist resort places in the world, the Victoria Falls.
Zimbabwe’s diaspora population based in Dubai or London is making these airlines profitable, leading to the expansion of their operations. Air Zimbabwe board would do well to explore how the airline can benefit from a combination of resident Zimbabweans’ enthusiasm to travel for business and leisure to cities such as Dubai, London, and Beijing.
A quick market survey and feasibility study would inform the airline that Zimbabweans are in desperate need of their airline to service routes such as the Harare to London, London to Harare with a direct flight.
The London to Harare and reverse journey, professionally run, would be the springboard of the Air Zimbabwe’s long-awaited revival. Currently, investors from London or Zimbabwe’s strong diaspora population numbering over 500 000 according to the last UK census of 2021 are having to endure an average 20-hour flights to reach Harare. A journey to Dubai or Qatar from London is about 7 hours while going almost an opposition direction to Harare.
Yet a direct Air Zimbabwe flight would average about 10 and half hours from London to Harare and vice versa, reducing the journey time by half. Imagine how convenient it would be for someone coming from London to catch a flight that arrives in Harare in the morning, for example at 6:00am as what used to happen. Conduct their business and be able to travel back in London the next day, or even be on the same day 7:00pm flight to Qatar or Dubai for business or leisure. Such is the convenience of a direct Air Zimbabwe flight to the lucrative route between Harare and London or Dubai, currently the most popular destinations for Zimbabweans.
Even a small country with a population less than 300 000 such as Barbados has direct flights to its capital from London, and the Caribbean country benefits immensely from such. How much more would Zimbabwe benefit from the amount of travel by its own citizens and those travelling for tourism from other capital cities of the world.
Passengers’ numbers in all classes, business/first class and economy have been on the increase between London and Harare. So too has been export cargo, with exporting and importing Zimbabweans as well as the much-courted foreign investors having to depend on Ethiopian Airlines or Kenyans.
Airways for their cargo movements or faster flights to Harare. Even those, take about 16 hours to reach Harare.
The new Air Zimbabwe board would do well to think seriously about what makes the airline relevant and profitable again. Start with a weekly or twice a week direct flights on the routes that used to be oversubscribed for the airline and continues to reward the foreign airlines currently operating, albeit with frustrating stopovers in Addis Ababa- Lusaka for Ethiopian Airlines, Dubai- Lusaka for Emirates and Doha-Lusaka for Qatar and Nairobi with Kenyan Airways.
There is no need for an open for business country to make investors be they foreign or its diaspora population to endure such torturous long journeys via these cities. Air Zimbabwe has a ripe and ready market, the country’s ever increasing, travel loving diaspora population. The land reform farmers who are now producing for the export markets, need an airline that takes their fresh produce etc to world markets quickly. And Air Zimbabwe is the missing cog in the economic recovery led by His Excellency President Mnangagwa.
There has been a mistaken belief that Air Zimbabwe cannot travel to London as it faces being ‘attached’ or impounded due to un-serviced London Gatwick debts. A simple enquiry from Gatwick airport authorities confirms that Air Zimbabwe long cleared its debts.
In fact, an Air Zimbabwe senior staff member privy to the matter confirms that the former Chief Executive and now Board Member Mr Edmund Makona lead the debt restructuring negotiations that resulted in Air Zimbabwe initially paying a one of payment of £700 000, with subsequent monthly payments of £140 000 over a 6-month period leading to the nearly £1.6milion debt being paid off. There is no plausible reason, why Air Zimbabwe cannot fly into London or Europe apart from attracting pilots who have enough skills, experience, and requisite hours to fly the type of planes needed for long haul flights. Air Zimbabwe currently have none and needs to rectify that urgently.
The only debts, Air Zimbabwe has is to travel agencies who are still to take advantage of the payment arrangement plan the airline put in place a few years ago. And those debts have no meaningful effect on the airline’s operations.
Competition or Saboteurs
As with any business, Air Zimbabwe will have to contend with competition from other players already plying key, lucrative routes. However, it is intra- saboteurs that it should worry the most about. At its best, Air Zimbabwe can compete with any other airline out there. For the airline to be competitive, it will have to be thorough in its recruitment of both ground staff and cabin crew members.
There is no room for nepotistic recruitment or having impolite staff who think passengers must curtsy to them, whereas the opposite should be happening as without these important travellers, there are no jobs for them, there is no Air Zimbabwe. Providing excellent, professional customer service should be the hallmark of the country’s flagship airline. A tradition of caring should be revived from the office cleaners to the most senior member of the board of management. No excuses, delays and cancellations should be minimised to less than zero percent.
The board should also be careful of potential sabotage from other internal airlines as well as international ones who already know that an efficiently run Air Zimbabwe with direct flights to strategic, lucrative international destinations such as London is a force to reckon with in the air travel industry.
With innovative thinking, sound management, strong, meaningful government support such as given to Emirates, Qatar Airways or Ethiopian Airlines, the skies can be Air Zimbabwe again. And Zimbabweans, both abroad and at home, are ever ready to take pride in their national airline once again. Best wishes to the New Board of Air Zimbabwe.