British Airways to take advantage of Air Zimbabwe woes

THE British Airways is mulling to restore its direct flights to Harare with immediate effect as the national carrier Air Zimbabwe looks likley to collapse on the back of poor management and financial melt down as a result of political meddling from Zanu PF officials.

In 2007, British Airways stopped flying direct to Harare International because of fuel shortage, amid mutterings from supporters of Robert Mugabe that the pull-out had less to do with the collapse of its economy than a British government plot to unseat the Zimbabwean ruler.

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In seat 13H of the last flight, Cephas Msipa, a lifelong member of Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF, said he thought it probably was all a conspiracy but he was going to miss British Airways.

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“In these difficult times, Air Zimbabwe has developed what you might call a reputation for being unreliable,” he said at the time.

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Meanwhile, ticketing agents and operators across the World have been warned to “investigate thoroughly” before booking flights with ailing carrier Air Zimbabwe.

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The African Travel and Tourism Association (Atta) today issued an alert informing its members of ‘Air Zimbabwe chaos’, with no flights operated in the last 24 hours and many of the airline’s staff on strike.

“We are telling members to take care and investigate thoroughly before booking Air Zimbabwe,” Atta managing director Nigel Vere Nicoll told TTG.

“The current situation is extremely fluid – it’s changing by the minute.”

He added that Air Zimbabwe’s London-based station manager had not been informed if today’s flight from Heathrow to Harare would be operating.

The carrier is known to be in financial difficulties and debtors include IATA, which recently suspended the airline’s licence over unpaid booking fees.

But Nicoll stressed that Air Zimbabwe’s troubles should not stop the trade from booking the destination, which was served by several other airlines.

We absolutely encourage travel to Zimbabwe and the Atta has been fully supportive of the country’s recovery plan,” he said.

“Since the dollarisation of Zimbabwe, tourism has bounced back considerably, particularly to Victoria Falls.”

Nicoll added that British Airways was also considering re-instating its Harare service.

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The Embattled flag carrier Air Zimbabwe has cancelled all of its regional flights after a creditor took back a leased plane over a $460,000 unpaid debt, the airline’s boss said Wednesday.

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The move leaves the airline flying only one route between Harare and London, in addition to its two domestic routes, chief executive Innocent Mavhunga told AFP.

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The national carrier was leasing a Boeing 737-500 from Zambia-based Zambezi Airlines, but the lessor has withdrawn its plane, resulting in the cancellation of all of Air Zimbabwe’s regional flights.

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“Yes, there have been problems with Zambezi Airlines, but we are negotiating with our partners,” Mavhunga told AFP. “Only regional regional flights have been affected.”

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Last month, Air Zimbabwe retired three obsolete Boeing 737-300 planes after entering a deal with Zambezi Airlines to ply the regional routes.

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The latest crisis to affect the national carrier comes days after it was suspended by International Air Transport Association (IATA) over a $280,000 debt.

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IATA spokesman Chris Goater said Air Zimbabwe would not be able to sell tickets through local or foreign travel agents until the debt is settled.

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“We hope that it will clear its financial obligations to return to participation in IATA’s financial systems in short order,” he said.

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Air Zimbabwe, which once flew 25 routes, is saddled with a $100-million debt, an ageing fleet and high staff turnover.

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The airline’s problems have opened way for others such as South African Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways to take over routes that Air Zimbabwe used to ply.

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The national airline lurched into a new crisis on Tuesday after one of its planes was seized over a US$460,000 debt, forcing the airline to cancel all regional flights.

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The Zambia-based Zambezi Airlines withdrew its Boeing 737-500 which it made available to Air Zimbabwe on a long-term lease in March this year.

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The plane reportedly flew into Harare on a scheduled flight on Monday night, but it immediately turned back — throwing the airline’s schedule into disarray.

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The action came just days after the International Air Transit Association (IATA) ordered its 60,000 accredited travel agents to stop making bookings for the beleaguered airline over a US$280,000 debt.

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The loss of the plane leaves the airline flying only one route between Harare and London, in addition to its two domestic routes, chief executive Innocent Mavhunga told AFP.

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“Yes, there have been problems with Zambezi Airlines, but we are negotiating with our partners,” Mavhunga said. “Only regional regional flights have been affected.”

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Air Zimbabwe leased the Boeing 737 to fly domestic and regional routes after withdrawing its three 737s which are undergoing major service.

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The struggling airline, which reportedly paid a US$1,8 million deposit in March as part of the plane’s lease agreement, was this week also facing pressure from hundreds of workers who have not been paid their April salaries.

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The state-owned airline’s problems have built up over the last decade owing to mismanagement, ageing planes and delays in changing the airline’s ticketing policy from the worthless Zimbabwe dollar to the multi-currency system now in use since 2009.

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The Zimbabwe government’s failure to acquire new planes, say airline bosses, has given the advantage to its competitors.

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The airline, said to be making a US$3 million loss every month, was brought to its knees in September last year after pilots went on a two-week strike. A second walkout in March this year lasted a month.

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A senior manager at the airline said last night: “The strike last September was catastrophic for the already struggling company. We have been playing catch-up since, and the second strike this year made that job doubly difficult.”

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Transport Minister Nicholas Goche is said to be out of the country. Weekend reports said he was planning to appoint a new board and management team at the airline.

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