A lucrative deal that promised to generate business worth millions of US dollars to the beleaguered national airline, Air Zimbabwe, is tottering on the brink following demands by Beijing authorities that the airline’s charter flights must apply for special operations permits before being allowed to undertake any flights in Chinese air space.
Baffled Air Zimbabwe officials had first met with red tape at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade when they were refused by officials a diplomatic Note Vebale to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs supporting request for permission for the flights to be undertaken.
Air Zimbabwe only got the note following the personal intervention of Permanent Secretary Ambassador James Manzou.
Immediately upon receiving the note, Air Zimbabwe made the necessary representations to the Chinese authorities directly with copies to the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Harare and the Zimbabwe Embassy in Beijing. Two days ago Air Zimbabwe was told their request had been turned down.
However, there is a glimmer of hope that an application for “traffic rights” to China may rescue the potentially multi-million-dollar charter flights if granted.
That notwithstanding, Air Zimbabwe will still have to apply for a landing permit even if they were granted the traffic rights to fly in Chinese air space.
A South African company is reported to already have deposited more than US$1 million into the Air Zimbabwe account in Johannesburg initially for two charter flights to collect tonnes of coronavirus testing and PPEs, among others, for South Africa. It is reliably understood that other companies had hoped to also charter the aircraft, also to Beijing, to collect their own equipment.
Last week, The Herald was told that “a number” of companies based in the Democratic Republic of Congo” had also made inquiries to Air Zimbabwe regarding charter flights to Beijing for the same purpose.
Air Zimbabwe have already operated a charter flight to Beijing for the Government and crews have acquired valuable experience on how to operate under current restrictive situations flying into and out of Changi Airport in Singapore where they have to make a technical stopover, and into and out of Beijing where they collect cargo.
Crew members told The Herald that conditions for the flight were that they were not allowed to step outside the aircraft at the two airports. As a result, the flight crew that would normally take over the flight at Changi for the 12-hour round trip to Beijing had to fly “dead head” as passengers and the aircraft also had to take catering cabin crew since the handling agents at the two airports were not allowed to bring food to the crew.
The Chinese are arguing that they were happy to swiftly permit the first flight because it had been chartered by the Zimbabwe Government.
“They are arguing that the conditions are different now,” a Air Zimbabwe official told The Herald yesterday. “They are claiming this is a commercial flight although the Government paid for the charter in a normal commercial transaction.”
Air Zimbabwe officials are optimistic they can still rescue this deal thereby sending strong signal to other potential customers in South Africa that they are up to the challenges. Air Zimbabwe flights are all grounded. It normally operates just this one aircraft, an aging B767. However, two other aircraft, a B737-200 and a Brazil-built short range Embraer ERJ145, which has only recently been cleared to fly.
The business of ferrying equipment from the main manufacturing source to Africa is dominated by Ethiopian Airlines. The airline, by far the biggest and most successful in the continent, has also been operating special charters ferrying stranded nationals from abroad to various African countries. While most airlines in Africa, notably South African Airways and Kenya Airways, have grounded their fleets, Ethiopian Airline have partially opened its passenger flights. – Herald