Air Zimbabwe’s Boeing 777 has finally taken its first flight for the airline. Received in January, the Boeing widebody had sat on the ground in Harare since then. However, yesterday’s flight was not the beginning of a new long haul future for Air Zimbabwe. Instead, the 777 has flown to Addis Ababa for maintenance, possibly in preparation for an impending lease.
Air Zimbabwe’s unused 777
It was back in January when Air Zimbabwe celebrated the arrival of its Boeing 777 at the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport in Harare. Coming from Malaysia Airlines, the 777-200 was not a particularly new or particularly unique aircraft, but for Air Zimbabwe, it held great significance.
#UPDATE Air Zimbabwe has taken delivery of a Boeing 777-200 bought for US$16.5m from Malaysia Airlines in 2016. The now 15-year-old plane, initially acquired by the ill-fated Zimbabwe Airways, will see the flag carrier revive its London and Beijing routes pic.twitter.com/iphKLw6boB
— ZimLive (@zimlive) January 20, 2020
This delivery, the first of two aircraft destined for the carrier, was a signal that the government was freshly committed to the future of the state-owned airline. Acting President Constantino Chiwenga even said at the time,
“Receipt of this Boeing 777 aircraft is clear testimony that we are taking concrete steps to capacitate our national airline so that it plays a role in promoting economic growth, creating jobs and facilitating international trade and tourism.”
Concrete steps maybe, but the plane itself may as well have been made out of concrete for all the activity its seen. Since January, it has flown precisely zero times. That was, until yesterday.
Flying off to Addis
Yesterday, Z-RGM, the 15-year-old pride, and joy of Air Zimbabwe took off from Harare at around 11:38 local time. It flew for just under four hours before touching down in Ethiopia at Addis Ababa.
The aircraft was piloted not by a Zimbabwean aviator, but by a German chap by the name of Werner Heumann. He had arrived into Harare on Monday on board an Ethiopian Airlines repatriation flight. That in itself was somewhat controversial, not because he wasn’t a local, but because the locals on the trips, returning from the US and UK mostly, had to enter a 14-day quarantine on arrival. Heumann and a Swiss national on the flight did not.
Regardless of the strange piloting situation, where was the 777 going, and would it be coming back? Air Zimbabwe released a press statement regarding the movement on Twitter.
***Update on B777-200ER (Z-RGM)*** pic.twitter.com/AyOGZJ8OnX
— Air Zimbabwe (@FlyAirZimbabwe) April 14, 2020
The airline’s explanation suggests that the 777 is undergoing maintenance. Ethiopian Airlines has a substantial MRO base in Addis, so that’s a plausible explanation. However, the likelihood of it ever returning to Zimbabwean soil is rather remote.
Never to return?
Air Zimbabwe has been mulling leasing this aircraft out for some time. Despite the government making the right noises about the airline back in January, it appears their commitment to a robust national airline remains shaky. In its statement, Air Zimbabwe said,
“The maintenance tasks are key in ensuring that the aircraft remains serviceable in line with the ongoing process of dry leasing the aircraft. Discussions and negotiations are at an advanced stage with potential short-listed lessees, and a final position will be officially communicated once an agreement has been signed.”
It added that it hopes to be able to make an announcement in the coming months regarding details of the lease.
Nine airlines have shown interest in leasing Air #Zimbabwe’s two long-haul Boeing 777-200ERs acquired from #Malaysia in a deal expected to generate up to US$400 000 a month.#Ethiopian Airlines is understood to be leading the pack in lease negotiations. pic.twitter.com/WgGyXC0Xz8
— ZooM Zimbabwe (@ZimbabweZoom) March 18, 2020
Previously, a representative of the administrator, Mr. Tonderai Mukubvu of Grant Thornton, had indicated there were several airlines in the running to lease the long-haul plane. He told Bulawayo24,
“Government has not made any decision on the final lessee, but we have nine suitors that have shown interest. We are at advanced stages of discussions with all suitors and they all seem capable to lease the planes from a financial capacity perspective.”
It will be interesting to see whether this Boeing 777 ever goes back to Zimbabwe or straight to a lessor from Addis. Perhaps it could even stay in Addis and begin working for the incumbent Ethiopian Airlines. Either way, with it, slated to make a cool $400,000 a month for Air Zim, it could fix up a healthier future for the floundering airline.