Controversial new airline Zimbabwe Airways’ recently received Boeing 777 has already cost hard-pressed taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars even as the wide-bodied aeroplane remains grounded at Robert Mugabe International Airport, the Daily News can report.
Well-placed sources said last night that the plane — whose operator Zim Airways is linked to the family of former president Robert Mugabe — has raked up a bill of more than $100 000 in parking, maintenance fees and crew hire alone in the short two weeks that it has been parked at the airport.
The government took delivery of the plane on April 11 as part one of the opaque deal that will see a total of four wide-bodied planes eventually being sourced from Air Malaysia for Zim Airways.
The purchase of the aircraft has attracted widespread criticism as the company which supposedly owns them, the Zimbabwe Aviation Leasing Company (ZALC) — which all along was said to be fronted by Zimbabweans living in the Diaspora — is now said to be a government entity.
Aviation sources also told the Daily News last night that the 20-year-old jetliner that has already been received is yet to be certified to fly, causing it to remain grounded — and costing the government nearly $60 000 to date in parking fees alone.
Although officials from the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (Caaz), which operates the country’s airports, refused to comment on the issue yesterday, it was learnt that the plane was likely to cost the fiscus much more in the coming weeks and months as there was no “ready plan” to fast-track its going into service.
According to the Caaz website, a plane of this size pays $130 in parking fees in the first hour that it docks, after which it attracts an extra charge of $40 for every $15 minutes thereafter.
“A commercial plane is designed to constantly keep flying … due to the high costs associated with in its lease or purchase, as well as maintenance.
“Indeed, for every minute a plane is on the ground, it loses money. Therefore, when a plane does get grounded for whatever reason, the costs it incurs by not flying are enormous, as is the case with this plane,” one of the sources told the Daily News.
The delay in flying the ‘‘new’’ plane has apparently been partly caused by the fact that Zim Airways has no qualified captains to fly it, and will thus have to fork out even more money to hire expatriate pilots.
“Unfortunately, if the delay in organising everything continues, the costs of maintaining it will keep ballooning, especially considering the fact that it is not making any money — which all raises more questions as to how we have ended where we are,” another source said.
In the meantime, the government is set to bring in five more planes — encompassing the other three Boeing 777s and two Embraer jets — raising more concerns about the Air Malaysian deal and the government’s seeming lack of preparedness for the planes.
“Firstly, no one wanted those old planes and so they should have cost us much, much less. Secondly, Zim Airways clearly has no capacity to operate those aircraft, as they have no trained pilots and engineers for them.
“This means that we will need to hire expatriates to fly the planes, and the going rate for a B777 captain is at least $20 000 per month which is unaffordable in this market, where you don’t even have the passengers to justify the investment.
“You require at least three sets of pilots per aircraft, although you can even go up to five if you have 15-hour flights and above,” another aviation expert told the Daily News on the day the government received the 777 jetliner which was flown by a set of five Malaysian pilots when it landed at the Robert Mugabe International Airport.
Investigations by the Daily News have also revealed that the Malaysian planes are part of the 12 which were manufactured on order by Boeing in 1994, and which were delivered to Malaysian Airways three years later in 1997 — where they have been operating until they were retired.
The purchase of the aircraft has torched a storm, especially after the government claimed to be the owners of ZALC, which it insisted was formed to bust the punitive sanctions which were slapped on Mugabe and his administration.
Speaking in an interview, Transport minister Joram Gumbo has claimed among other things that the government had kept the deal to register Zim Airways under wraps to evade the seizure of the planes by former commercial farmers whose land was seized during the 2000 agrarian reforms.
As a result, Gumbo and Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa have been hauled over the coals on the Zim Airways deal, with the public accusing them of “misrepresenting facts” to conceal crucial information pertaining to ownership and the full cost of the aircraft.
Gumbo has maintained that everything was done above board, claiming further that international audit firm Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) had advised them that it was unwise to reveal who was buying the planes as they would be attached in Malaysia once the former white farmers learnt of the purchase.
“That was a very straightforward deal. I don’t know why you should be having problems with us there. We have come out clearly to say that they are government planes. We never took any cent from it. We actually did not get enough money to buy the planes that we want.
“When we started negotiating for the Boeing 777ER planes from Malaysia, we were doing it for Air Zimbabwe and in the process, when we were about to pay for the first aircraft, we were then advised by the PWC who were the negotiators with Air Malaysia that if these planes are bought for Air Zimbabwe, they were going to be impounded by some former commercial white farmers whose land was acquired by government under the land reform programme,” Gumbo told the Daily News.
Asked why the government was now claiming ownership of the planes when it still owed the former commercial white farmers compensation, Gumbo said the new dispensation had “nothing to hide”.
“President Mnangagwa has pledged to compensate those farmers, and in line with the current thrust to re-engage with the world, we realised that there is nothing to hide anymore and we are setting the record straight,” he said.
He also absolved the Mugabes of any wrongdoing, saying the nonagenarian’s son-in-law Simba Chikore was “only carrying out a task given to him by government” as he helped Zim Airways.
“There is nothing amiss about his involvement in this deal. We asked him to resign from Air Zimbabwe in order to concentrate on Zimbabwe Airways and we are really grateful for the job he has done. We needed his knowledge and his connections in the aviation industry and that has really helped us,” Gumbo said.