The coronavirus pandemic and the grounding of South African Airways (SAA) are proving a boon for Air Zimbabwe as it is being overwhelmed by inquiries for charter flights to China to pick up testing and personal protection equipment (PPE).
Entities in South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have approached the national airline for urgent charter flights to Beijing.
The Ministry of Health and Child Care has also “joined the queue” with a request of its own. Air Zimbabwe has brought its only serviceable aircraft, the wide body B767-200 ER back into full service, but only for the charter services.
However, both Singapore and Beijing have imposed strict restrictions as conditions for the Air Zimbabwe charter flights.
The flight has to make technical stopovers at Singapore’s Changi Airport en route to Beijing and on return flight to refuel and crew change.
The Singapore and Chinese officials have banned Air Zimbabwe crews “from so much as stepping outside” the plane during stop-over act Changi and the hours long loading at Beijing.
They have not even been allowed to fill in regulatory flight plan and get weather briefings.
They have to file flight plan by ground handling agents and the en route weather is brought to the pilots.
Sources said the long haul trips, which Air Zimbabwe crew used to love, takes a physical toll on the airmen.
Under normal circumstances Air Zimbabwe operations would position a full crew complement in Singapore who would complete the flight to Beijing, a trip that takes slightly over six hours.
This would give the other crew, who would have flown the 10-hour leg to Changi time to rest.
However, due to the restrictions, the second set of crew are having to fly “dead head”, resting and sleeping at the back and relieving the others who then also fly “dead head” from Changi to Beijing.
Air Zimbabwe had mothballed its only serviceable aircraft due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The airline was expecting to come back better equipped at the end of the shutdown with more aircraft flying as it expected one of its B737-200 to be serviceable.
The Embraer E-145 short range jet acquired last year under the ill-fated Zimbabwe Airways deal and later transferred to Air Zimbabwe, has now be cleared to be flown. It was flown to South Africa for servicing and will be ready for service soon after the lockdown.
The E-145, made in Brazil, is the backbone of FastJet, the other regular flights airline of Zimbabwe.
The availability of three aircraft at the same time to Air Zimbabwe, a first for the airline in a long time, will enable it to efficiently service its normal internal routes to Bulawayo and Victoria falls, and regional flights to Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg and Lusaka.
Airline authorities are even planning on adding new routes.
Air Zimbabwe is treating the charters “purely as business” demanding upfront payment before committing itself to undertaking any trip.
It would appear that the only other airline which is in the same business is Ethiopian Airlines which has almost cornered the business of special flights for Africans being evacuated from Europe.
The next Air Zimbabwe charter to Beijing has been booked for next week by a South African company.
Next in line will either be a DRC company or a charter by the Ministry of Health and Child Care.
Surprising though, the ministry is yet to come up with a framework on how and where to quarantine Air Zimbabwe crews and for how long.