By Bernard Mpofu
Transport minister Joram Gumbo this week summoned senior Air Zimbabwe (AirZim) officials to his offices after the airline refused to accommodate the recently purchased Zimbabwe Airways (ZimAirways) Boeing 777 in its hangars at Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport citing risk among other issues, the Zimbabwe Independent has learnt.
This comes as tension between government and senior AirZim staff intensifies.
Nearly a month after the Boeing 777 touched down at RGM Airport, AirZim, according to aviation industry sources and ministry officials, on Tuesday refused to accommodate the aircraft citing among other reasons insurance issues.
This comes amid concerns that the long-haul plane, which is yet to fly since arriving from Malaysia, will be affected by the sweltering heat. The Boeing 777 is currently parked at the domestic terminal.
“Minister Gumbo called acting CE (Justice) Makonese, the head of engineering and the legal affairs manager to his offices on Wednesday afternoon. He was unhappy about AirZim’s decision not to find space for the B777,” a source said.
Before being summoned, AirZim officials had a series of meetings at their airport offices, another source said.
“The Air Zimbabwe hangar which was commissioned during Zimbabwe-Rhodesia era does not meet international standards for risk cover. It does not have smoke or fire detection system. It does not have a fire suppression system (automatic ceiling water/foam sprinklers. The other smaller hangar has been housing AirZim’s B737 which has been on major maintenance for more than four years now,” a source said.
Sources also told the Independent that government was left with egg on its face after it failed to fly the new jet to Bulawayo during the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair because the runway at Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo airport is too short for the Boeing 777. The runway at Bulawayo airport is 2,6km long and cannot accommodate the B777, another source said. The second largest runaway in Zimbabwe is Hwange (4,6km) which is under partial displacement due to asphalt damage followed by Victoria Falls (4km)
Contacted for comment on the issue, Gumbo said: “Ask those who have told you that, I never knew that it was an issue.”
AirZim spokesperson Tafadzwa Mazonde could not be reached for comment as his phone went unanswered.
Last month, Gumbo got further entangled in the aircraft purchase scandal which involves state-owned AirZim and new airline ZimAirways whose ownership is dodgy.
The saga also sucked in Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa who tried to clear the air over the issue, together with Gumbo when the plane arrived, although their intervention only managed to provoke more questions than answers
Gumbo and Chinamasa’s explanation was that the four Boeing 777-200 were bought from Malaysia Airlines through their sole agent PricewaterhouseCoopers Kuala Lumpur, but are now being leased to ZimAirways via the Zimbabwe Aviation Leasing Company (Zalc). They claimed ZimAirways and Zalc are owned by government. But Gumbo had always maintained they are private companies owned by Zimbabwean diasporans.
Chinamasa said government formed the new entities linked to Gumbo and former president Robert Mugabe’s son-in-law Simba Chikore as a sanctions-busting measure.
However, documents show there was nothing done under cover as the purchase agreement openly indicates government bought the airliners on behalf of AirZim, suggesting the sanctions-busting narrative was a convenient smokescreen to cover their tracks.
Gumbo for his part did not explain why he had been claiming that ZimAirways was a government project, yet publicly insisting it was a private entity.
Initially, Gumbo told the Independent ZimAirways was privately-owned by lawyers living outside the country and he was only facilitating the purchase of four Boeing 777 planes from Malaysia on behalf of the airline’s shareholders ZALC
However, Chinamasa, who officiated at the delivery of one of the aircraft on Wednesday, said ZimAirways was wholly-owned by government contrary to Gumbo’s remarks. He also said Zalc was a government special purpose vehicle.
Documents gleaned by the Independent and investigations show in October 2016 government entered into an agreement with the Malaysian Airline System Berha for the sale and purchase of four Boeing 777-200ER aircraft with manufacturer’s serial numbers 29065, 29066, 28421 and 28422.
The agreement was signed by Gumbo and former mines minister Walter Chidhakwa on October 10, 2016. Under the terms and conditions of this agreement also signed by Lim San Peen of Malaysia, the parties agreed “the aircraft are made available for sale on the basis they are solely to be used for commercial aviation purposes. The intended operator of the aircraft is Air Zimbabwe (Pvt) Ltd”.
The initial arrangement was that two of the Rolls Royce-powered planes would cost US$16,5 million each, while the other two would be bought for US$18,5 million apiece, bringing the total to US$70 million.
But Gumbo and his associates later decided to buy two Boeing 777s for US$18,5 million and US$16,5 million, a total of US$35 million. It was also later resolved to buy two Embraers for US$6 million using Treasury Bills. This brought the total of the revised deal to US$41 million.