Earlier this month it became clear that in a best case scenario Zimbabwe Airways will receive only two of the four Boeing 777 aircraft it intended to buy from Malaysia Airlines. The deal began as a government secret and developed into a national scandal, which overshadowed the superstition surrounding the planes.
One step forward, three steps back
Initially, Zimbabwe Airways was supposed to buy four Boeing 777-200ER aircraft from Malaysia Airlines. In April 2018, the first plane was ferried to Harare, where it remains stored as the Zimbabwean airline is not yet operating flights.
In November 2018, waters stirred up when it became known that Zim Airways lost one of the planes as, reportedly, it never payed for it. Back then, an unnamed official from the Ministry of Transport confirmed to ZimLive that: “The original plan was to buy four of the seven retired aircraft, but we have only so far managed to pay for two fully, and a third should be secured. The Malaysians sold off the fourth after payment dragged on”.
Apparently, the third aircraft was not secured, as earlier this month (on December 10) Malaysia Airlines delivered it to Wilmington Trust Company (U.S.). For now, the last aircraft remains stored in Kuala Lumpur, presumably awaiting delivery to Harare.
The Zimbabwean Affair
The Boeing 777s deal stands in the middle of a complex story of Zimbabwe’s two national airlines. The government owns two airlines: the “old” indebted Air Zimbabwe and the new Zimbabwe Airways, clouded by secrecy and scandals.
The new carrier became a surprise for many in the country. This is how The Economist explains the situation: “The government had claimed for months that the new airline was a private initiative, funded by Zimbabwean investors living abroad”.
It is now known that Zimbabwe Airways belongs to the government and the four 777s acquired from Malaysia Airlines were supposed to form the core of the new airline. The idea was to operate them on intercontinental flights such as Harare–London and Harare-Beijing via Kuala Lumpur or Singapore an achievement somewhat impossible with troubled Air Zimbabwe.
The old national carrier is banned from European airspace and is so neck-deep into its debts (reportedly exceeding $370 million), that in 2011 one of its planes was seized in London (UK) over an unpaid $1,2 million debt for spares. Chances are, same fate would await its other planes if it resumed international flights.
So the four new planes were supposed to go to a new airline and help re-launch intercontinental flights. But the negotiations for them were carried out in secrecy, in fear that Air Zimbabwe creditors could go after the aircraft.
Local media Bulawayo quotes the country’s former Transport Minister, Joram Gumbo, explaining the situation as follows: “We, however, had to keep this a secret and told the public that the airplanes belonged to Zimbabwe Airways, which was supposedly a private company. We did this to manage perceptions and protect the planes from being impounded.
The jinx of the B777s
Zimbabwe’s former Transport Minister also offers an unusual explanation as to why Malaysia Airlines were selling the 777s in the first place. According to Gumbo, “They [Malaysia Airlines representatives – AT note] called their Prime Minister and he said, ‘Sell to them at US$70 million because we don’t want to see those planes again. They are cursed!’ “.
The remark must have had something to do with the two tragic accidents involving the airline’s 777s, still clouded in mystery. In March 2014, flight MH370 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing went missing and presumably crashed in the southern Indian Ocean. There were 239 people on board. The aircraft, crash site or the remains have never been found, despite international efforts spanning years of search missions.
In July of the same year, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people (including 15 crew) on board, and causing a political storm. The culprit is still being disputed. Interestingly, Malaysia Airlines began withdrawing its Boeing 777 aircraft from use the following year, in 2015. Between 2015 and 2016, the airline returned to lessors or stored its entire 777 fleet. AviaConnect.