Air Zimbabwe on the mend

Kuala Lumpur
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Air Zimbabwe group chief executive Peter Chikumba is pursuing a four-pillar strategy to get the ­airline off the critical list.

Chikumba says Air Zimbabwe is now in "intensive care", but he is working on the airline's routes, equipment, people and finances to move it to "an open ward". This should happen within three months. After that he says it will be 12-24 months before it is allowed "home". Once achieved, the airline will pursue its goal of becoming a network carrier, with partners, a new fleet and a revamped ownership structure.

Since becoming chief executive in 2007, Chikumba has worked to restore safety, customer confidence and introduce modern technologies such as e-ticketing. But he says: "Recession came. We are in intensive care and under our latest strategy I need to do a number of things."

He says loss-making routes must be cut, and others rationalised with lower-capacity aircraft.

Air Zimbabwe has slashed its Boeing 737-200 operations by 60%, owing to high maintenance costs and fuel consumption. It has also slimmed its 767 operations and stepped up routes served by its Chinese-made Xian Aircraft MA60s. "As soon as we come out of intensive care and are able to breathe, we need to be ready with fleet replacement recommendations," he says.

The airline is "definitely overstaffed", says Chikumba. He is introducing shorter working hours, but is avoiding pilot and engineer cuts in preparation for recovery. He is also in talks with the government to ring fence the airline's $25 million operating debt in preparation for equity or strategic partnerships post-recovery. Chikumba believes the government will be willing to cede up to 60% of the carrier.

He is also aiming to mould Air Zimbabwe into a network carrier, expanding its reach in Europe and Asia. But he adds: "A good airline should be able to at least break even in Africa."

In 2008 Air Zimbabwe posted a $49 million net loss from a $130 million turnover. Chikumba says: "Our loss for 2009 will definitely come out at less than $10 million. Our aim is for breakeven."

Greater political stability in the country has helped. "The first thing a business needs is peace and stability. Will Zimbabwe rebound? Yes. How soon? That is the question."