Newly delivered Air Zimbabwe plane takes off in 3 weeks, but a turbulent journey to recovery still lies ahead

Air Zimbabwe
Air Zim's Embraer: The airline hopes smaller planes will help it service lucrative regional and local routes, but the plane still grounded by registration delays

With just one plane in service, Air Zimbabwe is keen to get its newly delivered Embraer ERJ145 in the air as soon as possible. Delivered on Tuesday, the plane will go into service within the next three weeks, the airline says.

But beyond its decimated fleet, it is a long-haul flight to recovery for Air Zimbabwe; the airline must overcome a poor reputation with travellers, get government to take over its $380 million debt, and find an investor daring enough to agree to a joint venture.

For now, the airline says the light Brazilian-made plane is just what it needs; it is widely used for short hops due to its reputation for efficiency, a better option than the larger wide-bodied aircraft initially ordered under the hazy Zimbabwe Airways deal.

“The 50-seater jet is expected to go through the local registration process as well as all mandatory checks, tests and certification before it enters into service within the next 21 days,” Air Zimbabwe said in a statement after the plane’s delivery from the United States.

“All crew and engineers licensed for the aircraft have been drawn from within the current human capital pool, a sign of the high level of competent skills available in Zimbabwe.”

Two incidents within two-days of each other involving Air Zimbabwe’s current sole working plane, the Boeing 767-200ER, shed stark light on the airline’s dire need for more planes. An “engine surge” on lift-off from OR Tambo on Sunday night, which followed a bird-strike in Bulawayo just two days earlier, forced the airline to suspend flights.

Air Zimbabwe said the Embraer would be key to its strategic turnaround plan (STP). The airline says it needs smaller planes more than expensive, bigger ones.

“The company also requires to procure the right sized equipment for the current and planned route network. The first phase of the STP requires narrow bodied aircraft such as the Embraer ERJ145 to ply the domestic and regional routes with increased frequencies for the convenience of the travelling public as well as feeding into the planned international routes. This expanded route network will see the procurement of wide bodied aircraft in the second phase.”

Aviation experts said while the Embraer is a good step for Air Zimbabwe, it will need more frequent routes and flights to be profitable. The airline has flown the Embraer before; it operated a similar plane under lease from Solenta between 2013 and 2014.

Air Zimbabwe also plans to sell off idle assets – from planes to spares – to help raise money for new equipment.

“Air Zimbabwe has tabled a proposal for the disposal of redundant and obsolete equipment which includes aircraft and spare parts for equipment which is no longer in service. The disposal is expected to raise the much needed funds for recapitalisation and procurement of additional equipment,” said the airline.

In November last year, a month after placing the company under administration, government floated a tender for a new investor in the airline, an almost impossible ask given the company’s $380 million debt and its bad reputation for flight delays and chaotic scheduling.

In its Tuesday statement, Air Zimbabwe said the bulk of that debt is to “government and government related institutions hence the urgent need for an assumption of this debt and a reconfiguration of the balance sheet. This will allow the company to service the remaining debt owed to private companies and individuals as well as meet its current operational expenses”.

If Air Zimbabwe gets its way, this would be only the latest parastatal burden thrown on the taxpayer. Most recently, government assumed Ziscosteel’s $500million debt, while TelOne recently said government is to pick up its US$383 million legacy debt.

Air Zimbabwe: Connecting flights?

Across the region, governments are having to relook how they manage their loss-making airlines. Mozambique in February had to guarantee part of the US$77 million debt owed by the national airline, LAM, to State entities. In Angola, President João Lourenço demanded a “more detailed study” of national airline TAAG’s recovery plan, cancelling a deal to buy 15 new planes from Boeing and Bombardier.

In South Africa, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni has recommended shutting down the loss-making South African Airways completely.

Zambia’s plans to relaunch its national airline, Zambia Airways, have been delayed since 2018. The airline last operated in 1994, and the new airline would be a partnership with Ethiopian Airlines, in which Africa’s largest operator would hold 45%.

Zimbabwe government officials have been trying to court Ethiopian Airways into a similar partnership, without making much headway. In February, President Emmerson Mnangagwa met Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremarian in Addis Ababa. The airline has US$18 million stuck in Zimbabwe and would be unlikely to have an appetite for more risk.

Ethiopian Airlines has operated and managed Malawi Airlines since 2013. Last year, Ethiopian also started talks to set up joint ventures to operate the airlines of Chad, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea.