By Charles Mtetwa
A SUDDEN plunge of an Ethiopian Airlines flight triggers confusion and murmurs of uncertainty as the Airbus charts through the Addis Ababa to Harare flight trail.
But no message comes through from the flight deck to explain the sudden judder as the flight continues to gather height to disappear from Ethiopian airspace. Nearly 300 passengers on board are left bewildered by the lack of communication from the flight deck. But once the Airbus reaches cruising 37 000 feet above sea level, seat belts signs come off and the captain, oblivious to that earlier jerk comes to the PA system to talk about the beautiful weather ahead in the Zimbabwean capital.
The date is August 26, 2012 and my mind races to the airline’s motto: “The True Spirit of Africa” emblazoned on this huge aircraft. I try to unpack what the spirit is in view of the earlier incident. But no answers can emerge from my rather rhetoric questions. Passengers around me probe, checking with airline staff who are now pacing up and down the aisle serving drinks. A nearby passenger is told nothing to worry about by an air hostess clearly oblivious to the need to reassure passengers especially for an airline which was once involved in an air disaster.
Suffice to mention that to date Aviation Safety Network has recorded 60 accident/incident events for Ethiopian Airlines since 1965, plus six accidents/incidents for Ethiopian Airlines, the airline’s former name. The airline suffered several hijacking episodes throughout its history. One of them resulted in a major disaster when the plane plunged into the Indian Ocean due to fuel starvation. However, the airline generally has a good safety record.
I reflect and I am forced to curse why Air Zimbabwe has disappeared from international skies. I have always flown on Air Zimbabwe to travel from London to Harare. But like many thousands of Zimbabweans in the Diaspora, people have been forced to seek alternative routes as the Zimbabwean airline has withdrawn from the skies, enmeshed in a crisis that is threatening its extinction under a weight of debts. Air Zimbabwe is saddled with debts that have resulted in its failure to pay its own staff and settling debts abroad.
Earlier this year one of the two Boeing 767s was impounded in London by debtors only to be released after some money was paid. But the airline had to suspend flights fearing that they may be impounded abroad. This happened at a time Air Zimbabwe was the only carrier with a direct flight between London and Harare.
I have no recollection of flight accidents or incidences involving Air Zimbabwe apart from internal service issues such as the shortage of drinks, food and poor entertainment. Like Ethiopian Airlines, Air Zimbabwe is owned by the Government. But the former is a profitable entity. In July 2011, Ethiopian Airlines was named Africa’s most profitable airline for the year 2010 by Air Transport World, a United States-based international aviation magazine. The airline was also praised for its sustained profitability in recent years.
The plunging incident might have been isolated, but when in flight thousands of feet up in the sky, it can be nerve-wracking. But my fears are made worse two weeks later on the same airline from Harare to Lusaka on September 14.
On the day, the captain made it known that the landing gear would be kept out longer than normal after take-off. His explanation was that this was necessitated by the prevailing weather. But whatever the reason, the flight was bumpy.
The descent into Lusaka Airport was very rapid and sharp such that you could feel the tummy churn. No wonder the plane landed to a row of applause from the otherwise anxious passengers.
Again, no explanation from the cockpit, except updates on the weather.
But a guaranteed update was away from the flight. In the 10 years that I have lived abroad, Zimbabwe has changed. The country abandoned its currency a few years ago, adopting bearer cheques. Ravaged by hyper- inflation, the bearer cheques have since been replaced by a multi-currency regime dominated by the United States dollar. The US$1 is the most common bill on the market. As a result some of the banknotes are very soiled and difficult to notice the greenness synonymous with the US dollar.
Such is the problem that at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, such notes may be rejected in the duty-free shops at a time passengers have to wait for over three hours to be on the connecting flight to London. I paid for drinks and a meal using some of these notes and a rude waiter at one of the bars chucked them in my face. It took the manager’s intervention to accept the notes. Ultimately the experiences on Ethiopian Airlines and the airport left feeling let down by Air Zimbabwe’s failure to revive its operations.