BY SHAME MAKOSHORI
ALEX Makanda , one of AirZim’s first black airmen has seen it all. In 1980 he arrived at a strong airline to his shock — he and his two compatriots were the first to fly the former Air Rhodesia jets. On touch down at the Robert Mugabe International Airport from Ethiopia, Tommy Sithole, then editor of The Herald ran exciting headlines about the airmen’s arrival to transform AirZim. And they did. Soon, he found himself favoured by the President’s Office to fly the late former President Robert Mugabe on his endless international trips. This week Makanda told our Business Editor Shame Makoshori (SM) that his most memorable experience was being assigned to bring home brand new giant Boeing 767 (B767) aircraft straight from the assembly line from the United States of America in November 1989. But this doesn’t excite him anymore. Following his colourful career, Makanda is among hundreds of the airline’s staff who are being forced to accept Zimbabwe dollar payouts for US dollar terminal benefits. The government is using a draconian Statutory Instrument to do this. But Makanda says he is not surprised at all. It has been a decades old culture of force and manipulation. Everything has gone wrong, he says, noting that it is the government that has destroyed a once promising airline. Here is how their discussion turned up…
SM: In 2009 I interviewed former CEO, Peter Chikumba. He said in 1996 AirZim carried one million passengers. What has gone wrong?
AM: It is the airline that has changed. The 767 (Boeing 767 aircraft) put the airline on a worldwide standard when it arrived in 1989. We used to fly to London, Beijing and all these destinations. So it really changed the game for AirZim. Unfortunately we didn’t keep up with the world standards. We didn’t keep the service exactly the same as we started. For example the inside entertainment on the B767s was very poor. Other airlines were showing movies, we just had basic radio. So all these foreign flights passing through Harare, your Kenya Airways, Emirates, Ethiopian Airways (ET) are now taking passengers who could be ours. If today we went back and did the right thing, passengers would come back. They still like AirZim
SM: Talk to us about partnerships with other airlines. You have talked about ET
AM: That is the best thing to do. Those B777s (aircraft) that were brought by Simba Chikowore are still here and the Ethiopians fly exactly the same planes. So we need the Ethiopians whichever way they go because of those 777s. They can run and maintain everything. So we need the Ethiopians especially now. The first attempt of a partnership failed but we can still do it. We still have a chance to go into partnership with them. They are the best. South Africa Airways would be good but now it is difficult for them. They also need assistance. They are already in trouble. In Africa the Ethiopians are the best and Egypt is quite large. We also have Kenya Airways. Partnerships are always the best. With airlines anytime someone wants a partnership go for it. Look at what they have done in America. There are only about four large airlines. They are trying to do the same thing in Zambia and Malawi and already they have set this up in Togo.
SM: What is it that ET is doing that AirZim has not done?
AM: The difference between ET and AirZim is that when ET chooses a CEO (chief executive officer) they give him all the ropes. There won’t be interference from the Ministry of Transport. This is the fundamental problem that we have at AirZim. I spent four years in Ethiopia but I never saw the Minister of Transport at Ethopian Airlines. I didn’t even know the Minister of Transport because when they give a CEO the job, the airline is his baby. Today they still do the same. That is why ET is the most important industry in Ethiopia after coffee. ET is a billion dollar business.
SM: You actually went onto the board in 2013. I think you felt the way the government operates in terms of its influence over AirZim. What do they want?
AM: The biggest problem is they do not choose the board properly. Usually they will choose their friends. We had two ladies on the board. I remember one day we were celebrating the arrival of the two Airbuses. We had a meeting about that. So the guys at AirZim brought in a picture of the B767. I asked the chairman why they were bringing in a 767 when we were celebrating the Airbus.
The board members said captain you mean this is not the Airbus? They were clueless. Yet they were the ones who were supposed to make big decisions. That is the biggest problem. It is like taking me, an airline pilot and appointing me to the board of Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals.
But it was a very peculiar arrangement because I was still a pilot at the same time. But I was not the first pilot to do that. They used to stop paying me my salary and I would rush to the chairman to say they stopped paying me. It was a crazy arrangement because they were not used to it. Most board members were not employed by AirZim.
SM: Did the Ministry choose destinations for you?
AM: They didn’t choose destinations for us. But the board could not do anything without consulting the Ministry. There is a lot of running around. This needs to stop. The Ministry should know some things. But the AirZim CEO should not always run to the Ministry about operational issues. That’s sad. But that also depends on the skills of the chairman. During our time, our chairman Osias Bvute was very skilled. He was also a political activist.
The first thing he did when we came to the board was to reduce fares. The airline was getting unpopular, so he said let’s get people to trust us first. Let’s have people afford the flights.
Volumes went up and afterwards we started increasing fares. When we came in, we revisited many things because AirZim had completely stopped in 2011. They had started hiring airplanes from South Africa. They got to a stage where they couldn’t even pay for fuel because there were no passengers.
They were also using wrong equipment (planes).The 767 was a reliable, good plane. So they started using it for the Harare-Bulawayo route. That was the wrong thing actually. You can’t use a 767 to fly to Bulawayo (from Harare) unless you are overwhelmed and you want to carry 200 passengers. The airline needs appropriate planes. We need appropriate planes. The 737 is a good aircraft for Harare-Johannesburg, Harare-Nairobi. I was looking forward to flying to Addis Ababa but I never had the chance. ET would never let us.
The arrival of the Airbus was a big surprise. But it was a complicated aircraft we actually needed new spanners. We couldn’t use them so we concentrated on one. Even up until now we sent one to South Africa to get fixed. Until now it is not fixed.
SM: How old are the B767s
AM: They are quite old now and what keeps them flying is our brilliant engineers. They can take it apart and put it back together again. I used to watch them do the C-check so I have all the confidence in our engineers. You should see them take it apart and put it back together again. These are very young guys trained in Ethiopia. Some of them are being affected by the layoffs.
SM: What did you see when you went onto the board?
AM: You look at the airline from a different angle. When you are an employee you are more militant. But when you get onto the board you see how things work. There are some things you don’t have to scream about. Sometimes you just need to take it easy. But as an employee you want things to move fast.
SM: One AirZim executive told me that pilots can’t be good airline managers
AM: I don’t agree. If the pilots are to run airlines it will be an advantage. Pilots have never been given a chance at AirZim. Ripton Muzenda was here for a few months and Oscar Madombwe was the only CEO at AirZim to post a profit.
SM: In 2009 there was a huge layoff. About 440 people left. How did it feel?
AM: My name was on the list because they also wanted to retrench pilots, then they changed their minds. We actually ended up signing retrenchment packages and then they reemployed us until I left in 2015. It was bad because when you see some people go then you know you are next. My name was also being mentioned; maybe because I was the oldest pilot at that time.
SM: But you have been loyal to AirZim, why?
AM: You know home is best. I always liked to fly back and go home. I started at Ethiopian Airlines; I have flown in Kenya, Uganda…but I enjoyed my stay at AirZim as long as it lasted. Some airlines pay well but you know AirZim has had the history of not paying pilots well. We were famous for being underpaid. Even the white pilots were getting little money. They were getting nothing to shout about.
SM: In 2018 AirZim went into administration. What did it mean for you?
AM: You know administration means that whoever is running the airline has been unable to, they actually need assistance.
Business Reporter, Chiedza Kowo compiled this report