Air Zimbabwe Grounded By Fuel Shortage

November 22, 2005

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State-owned national carrier Air Zimbabwe has grounded its entire fleet after running out of fuel as the southern African country's economy continues to crumble, company officials said on Tuesday.

Critics blame President Robert Mugabe's controversial policies and government mismanagement for a long-running crisis that has left a once vibrant economy struggling with shortages of food, fuel, foreign currency and a decaying infrastructure.

A senior Air Zimbabwe official said on Tuesday the carrier was forced to ground all seven of its planes on Monday, and to cancel all its domestic and international flights "until further notice" due to fuel shortages.

Air Zimbabwe officials say people were caught unaware at Harare Airport on Monday, leaving passengers milling at check-in counters. But on Tuesday the airline ran radio advertisements advising passengers to check for new developments.

Air Zimbabwe's board of directors has responded to the grounding by suspending the airline's chief executive Tendai Mahachi and two other senior managers, with transport officials saying Mugabe's government felt embarrassed by the halting of flights.

"All planes have been grounded because there is no adequate foreign currency to buy fuel and flights have been suspended until further notice," said one Air Zimbabwe official.

Air Zimbabwe's official spokesman, David Mwenga, and board vice-chairman Jonathan Kadzura, who issued a statement to state media announcing the suspension of the managers, were both unavailable for immediate comment on Tuesday.

In his statement, Kadzura said the board of directors had been forced to suspend the three "pending investigations into the serious disruptions of the national airline's operations and services to customers".

He said the board was working to restore services but gave no indication of when Air Zimbabwe might resume flights.

The airline has long-haul flights to London, China, Singapore and Dubai, and management was embroiled in a controversy earlier this year for allowing a plane to carry just one passenger to Harare from Dubai.

Critics say the airline is a victim of gross mismanagement and almost daily government interference in its operations, including by Mugabe who has sometimes commandeered planes for his business trips abroad.

Air Zimbabwe had 15 planes when Mugabe assumed power at independence from Britain in 1980, but the fleet has dwindled to seven, including two small planes bought this year from China.

Mugabe's critics say he has wrecked one of Africa's most promising economies through his policies, including seizures and redistribution of white-owned farms to his black supporters.

But 81-year-old Mugabe says Zimbabwe's steep six-year economic recession, which has left the country with inflation above 400 percent, is due to sabotage by domestic and Western opponents trying to oust him over his nationalistic policies.

(Reuters)