THE newly announced partnership between 1time airline and a Zimbabwean company, Nu-Aero, could face a major test as the Zimbabwe government has revealed plans to relaunch the operations of its defunct, debt-ridden national carrier, Air Zimbabwe, which was forced to suspend operations in February.
Fresh Air, the new low-cost airline resulting from the 1time-Nu-Aero partnership, battled for about five years to get the permits required to start a domestic airline in Zimbabwe that would in effect compete with Air Zimbabwe.
The country’s permanent secretary for transport, communication and infrastructure development, Munesu Munodawafa, said the government was "working on a plan to resuscitate the airline that is focused as a regional player with selected international routes".
Mr Munodawafa said the government could choose to be a partner to help with the revival of the airline, but he declined to elaborate.
Fresh Air will initially service the Johannesburg-to-Victoria Falls route, with the addition of Harare to the route expected in the coming months, 1time CEO Blacky Komani said last week.
"We have to have that triangle to make money (on the route), but first we have to prove ourselves on the Vic Falls route," Mr Komani said.
1Time would suspend its service to Livingstone, in Zambia, which is close to the Victoria Falls, next month in favour of Victoria Falls.
Reports vary on how much debt Air Zimbabwe is carrying, with amounts varying from about $100m to as much as $312m. Mr Munodawafa declined to confirm how much the carrier owes its creditors. "We have engaged a consultant to get to the correct figure," he said.
In December, one of the airline’s Boeing 767-200 jets was held at London Gatwick Airport for a $1.2m debt owed to American General Supplies. In the same month, SA’s BidAir, a subsidiary of Bidvest, delayed the departure of one of the airline’s aircraft because of debt.
"We temporarily delayed its departure because of money owning to us at the time," BidAir director of sales and marketing Bob Gurr said this week. He declined to say how much the company was owed.
"The debt has been settled, they don’t owe us any money any more," Mr Gurr said.
In June, the International Air Travel Association, which represents about 200 airlines globally, gave the airline 90 days to comply with a mandatory safety audit or have its membership suspended and access to foreign airports halted.
Zimbabwe’s underserviced demand for air travel has created opportunities for outsiders.
Earlier this year, Dubai-based Emirates started offering a tagged service through Lusaka and Harare to Dubai to stimulate the market and provide greater connectivity in the region. And in March, Air Namibia started flying between Windhoek and Harare.
The chairman of the Civil Aviation Association of Zimbabwe, Jacob Mudenda, confirmed at the weekend that Dutch carrier KLM will be offering direct flights between Schipol airport in the Netherlands and Harare from October.
The vacuum left by the ailing Air Zimbabwe business must have been a cause of great anxiety for the Zimbabwe government, which, along with Zambia, has been selected to host the United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s 20th general assembly at Victoria Falls, a world heritage site.