In 1967 Central African Airways assets were liquidated and allocated 15% to Malawi, 35% to Zambia and 50% to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). As CAA was wound up Air Rhodesia was launched to replace its Salisbury (Harare) based services. The airline inherited an assortment of aircraft with Vickers Viscounts and DC-3’s forming the backbone of its domestic and international network. A code-sharing agreement between BOAC (British Airways) and CAA for joint services to London was nullified by Rhodesia’s UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence). In 1973 Air Rhodesia bypassed sanctions and acquired their first of three jetliners. At its peak, the airline had 13 aircraft. As Rhodesia’s Bush War escaladed after 1977 domestic air travel was viewed as a safe option until 1978 when an Air Rhodesia Vickers Viscount was shot down with missiles fired by Joshua Nkomo’s ‘freedom fighters’. His guerillas murdered 10 survivors following the terrorist attack. Five months later another flight was lost in a similar manner. These atrocities are widely regarded as convincing Rhodesia’s white community to accept the inevitability of Black rule. Air Rhodesia’s only international services were to South Africa and until 1976, Malawi and Mozambique. In 1979 the airline changed its name to Air Zimbabwe Rhodesia and a year later its current name Air Zimbabwe was adopted. Following Zimbabwe’s return to the international community they resumed services to London and added Athens, neighboring African states, Malaysia and China to their network. As Zimbabwe’s economy stalled in the 2000s the airline’s reputation and finances collapsed and in January 2012 Zimbabwe’s High Court began steps to place the airline into liquidation. The government owned carrier owes staff $35 million in unpaid wages and there is little chance of a capital injection. President Mugabe has spoken with Chinese officials about rescuing the airline and following several false starts the airline resumed limited domestic and international flights in November 2012.
Air Zimbabwe’s flight attendants got their jobs because of connections not because of superior customer service skills. Crew are indifferent and sometimes even resentful of passengers, but can also be friendly and smile nicely if they suspect passengers might have the right ‘connections’. Standards are low and inconsistent. Call buttons, if they work, will be answered if the flight attendant feels in the mood.
Airlines are often regarded as a status symbol so Zimbabwe’s government allowed the airline to expand services on routes that made no commercial sense. By 2003 the airline’s financial cracks could no longer be papered over so the airline began axing services. Before its virtual collapse and resurrection in 2012 Air Zimbabwe was flying to London, Johannesburg, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, Congo and Zambia. It now only serves Johannesburg and Lusaka internationall and domestically, Air Zimbabwe’s network has retreated to serving Harare, Bulawayo and Victoria Falls. Few passengers trust the airline following its 2012 demise.
Given Air Zimbabwe’s unreliability and poor service it is a very expensive airline. There is no point in booking Air Zimbabwe as reliable South African Airways serve the same routes and Emirates launched services to Harare and Lusaka in February 2012.
Air Zimbabwe once had quite good catering even on short domestic flights, however like everything else about the airline meal service is totally inconsistent. Some flights depart without any meals on-board, presumably because the catering company has not been paid.
Most flights have no entertainment except the Skyhost in-flight magazine which has some interesting articles and photographs showcasing Zimbabwe. The magazine promotes a surreal view of the country, its upbeat stories totally divorced from the reality of life that awaits passengers, the instant the plane touches down.
Checking in can be quite quick and cheerful, especially as there can be few passengers, but baggage is a definite concern. Travelling without Travel Insurance is a big risk as theft is common. Any unprotected baggage will be opened often by several different staff members searching for items to pilfer. Bags should be plastic shrink-wrapped if available and locked. Valuables should never be placed in bags. Baggage allowances are standard and the airline’s official policy is seldom enforced.
Air Zimbabwe provides Business Class on international flights while domestic services are a single class. Passengers who flew Business Class in the 1990s will feel at home. Seats are larger, service is prompt and crew smile more, however lights can be broken and fabric stained. Other passengers look like they are Mugabe’s cronies, which they probably are. Air Zimbabwe’s Lounge in Harare, which has no specific name, is comparable to Ariana Afghan Airlines. Tea, coffee and newspapers are available and not much else.
The only conceivable reason to fly Economy on Air Zimbabwe is if you have been given a free ticket. Once on board however, on domestic flights the cabin interiors are reasonable and window seats will give passengers lovely views of the picturesque countryside. Economy passengers will have the nagging doubt about whether baggage will arrive in tact.
Air Zimbabwe’s Rainbow Club loyalty scheme is one of the worst in aviation and there is absolutely no incentive to join, unless you live in Zimbabwe and make frequent domestic trips. The scheme is not connected to any other airlines or travel services and is a total waste of time.
Air Zimbabwe is owned by one of the most corrupt government’s on the planet and its board of directors is packed with friends and cronies of Mugabe. Senior managers of the company use their positions to reward friends and family and enrich themselves while fuel bills, catering bills, maintenance bills, aircraft lease repayments and wages go unpaid. In most countries Air Zimbabwe’s senior echelons would be instantly dismissed or placed behind bars. The airline’s mountain of debts and unpaid wages over the last decade exceeded US$250 million. For a country that cannot provide basic health services to its citizens, government support to this disruptable airline is a disgrace.
Air Zimbabwe operates a mixed fleet of aging aircraft which they generally lease but cannot afford to have maintained properly. The airline is currently unable to make repayments and cannot afford spare parts. The age of the airline’s fleet is another contributing factor towards the airline’s financial plight. Their old aircraft are both fuel inefficient and require high maintenance, which is being neglected. Air Zimbabwe is banned from flying in the US. Considering the terrible state of the airline’s management, finances and maintenance of their fleet Air Zimbabwe has surprisingly escaped any catastrophe. The airline is often called Scare Zimbabwe due to perceived safety scares.
Air Zimbabwe was once a fine airline, now it should be avoided due to poor service, poor maintenance and a high possibility of bankruptcy.
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