Editorial Comment: Zim aviation industry needs overhaul

Zimbabwe’s aviation industry is in a bit of a quagmire, a culmination of decades of mismanagement and neglect. It’s a sector that is a key driver of any economy insofar as it generates economic growth, creates jobs, and facilitates international trade and tourism.

The country’s aviation industry is three-pronged: Air Zimbabwe, the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (CAAZ) and National Handling Services (which was split from Air Zimbabwe in 2012).

The three divisions have their problems and challenges, but all things being equal, they should be well oiled and working hand-in-glove for an efficient aviation sector.

A recent tour of three entities by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Transport and Infrastructural Development was an eye-opener as to the challenges facing the sector, and what needs to be done.

Perhaps, most importantly, we need to get the airline itself operating. Air Zimbabwe — which was placed under reconstruction in October last year — is currently grounded.

The administrator’s “considered opinion” is that “Air Zimbabwe can be restructured and re-organised in order to operate as a viable and sustainable business.”

The goal of the administrator then is to implement short-term business turnaround measures, which include the development of a robust domestic and regional route network and connectivity that is supported by narrow-bodied aircraft.

To some extent, steps towards this end have been taken with the airline acquiring a 50-seater Embraer aircraft that is “suitable” for domestic routes, although its operationalisation has been stalled by know-your-customer requirements.

Such a move will form a strong foundation to support the re-introduction of international routes and connectivity.

Outside facile revival of the national airline, what will make Zimbabwe’s aviation industry even more vibrant is a national airports system with efficient and appropriate infrastructure.

Enter CAAZ. As the agency responsible for aviation infrastructure in the country, CAAZ should consider improving the capacities of the country’s smaller airports such as Kariba Airport, the Hwange National Park Airport, Mutare Airport and the Masvingo Airport, to mention just a few.

Some of the areas, especially the tourism destinations, have grown in economic significance beyond the capacities of the local airports. That is why the re-development of the Victoria Falls International Airport was a welcome and long overdue move.

For instance, a significant deficiency are the short runways of most of these airports, which means that they cannot accommodate larger planes.

But, above all CAAZ needs to invest in new radar and air traffic control systems in order to move in line with global aviation standards. This is a project that should be given top priority outside the ongoing development and expansion of the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport, although CAAZ management has said the broader project will have positive consequences on the airport’s airspace management systems.

Zimbabwe arguably is one of the countries with the longest runways in the world. However, we want the country to develop handling facilities such that even huge aircraft like Airbus A380 can safely land and be properly serviced. Tourism, without doubt, is one of the low hanging fruits that has the potential to provide quick-wins towards the revival of the country’s economy and achieving the country’s aspirations of becoming a middle income economy by 2030 with a per capita income of over US$3 500.

This is of particular importance because dilapidated airspace management systems compromise the safety of passengers and workers at the airport(s). And this is right under its purview as CAAZ and is responsible for the safety oversight of civil aviation activities in the country.

The other critical arm of the local aviation industry is National Handling Services (Private) Limited. Since 2012, NHS has been operating as a separate company directly under the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructural Development and Galileo Zimbabwe (Private) Limited ceased to operate when it lost its global ticketing franchise from Galileo Inter- national.

NHS took over the operations and assets of the handling services business unit from Air Zimbabwe (Private) Limited at the time of the unbundling.

And although the entity has shown itself to be profitable, management has lamented capital constraints, particularly with Air Zimbabwe still owing NHS US$24,6 million.

There is need to resolve the “incomplete separation” between Air Zimbabwe and NHS as revenues expected from the former average US$243 000, which is not paid and therefore the profitability of NHS has been reduced by the same while costs are incurred in  handling the airline.

The revival of Zimbabwe’s aviation industry requires strategy and capital . . . but it also requires unity of purpose!

We need the NHS to be equipped with state-of-the-art facilities that detect all forms of subversive materials and contraband. If they do not have scanners and other sophisticated equipment, illicit drugs can find their way into the country. Therefore the country’s aviation sector is critical and it requires the attention it deserves.