Back home – the man with a plan
Captain Ripton Muzenda became CEO of Air Zimbabwe in August 2016 and has been tasked with restructuring the airline he used to fly for. As he explained to Victoria Moores, this means adjusting its organisational and cost structures.
When Captain Ripton Muzenda left Air Zimbabwe in 2008, the airline employed around 85 pilots, 200 cabin crew and operated to a wide range of destinations in Africa, as well as long-haul flights to Athens, Beijing, Dubai, Frankfurt, London and Singapore.
On returning in 2016, he came back to an airline with around 30 pilots, 50 cabin crew and a small short-haul network, linking Harare with Bulawayo (Zimbabwe), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Johannesburg (South Africa) and Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe).
“A lot of tourists used to come. It didn’t matter that we didn’t have connections, because we used to bring them from London and we had connections once they landed. Germans from Frankfurt used to go with us to Mauritius for a week. What changed is that the tourists stopped coming but the airline didn’t quite adjust. The last flight to London was in December 2011.”
When Air Zimbabwe was big, the CEO at the time split the company into about seven strategic business units, including the airline, handling, maintenance, passenger and technical training. The airline was grounded for a while in 2011-12 but its staff continued going to work, building up debts and maintaining a top-heavy structure that was no longer relevant.
“There were lots of divisions and with that they created general managers; below them there were directors. Salaries and benefits went up. This is the structure that I’ve come back and inherited. There is a gross mismatch between the size of the organisation and the actual operations.”
One of Muzenda’s top priorities is, therefore, to cut costs and to restructure the business. This involves simplifying the upper management to three key positions: CEO, COO and executive manager for airline systems and administration.
The administrative side is important, as the airline generates a lot of paperwork and its systems need to be modernised.
Below these top executives will be a team of managers, responsible for areas like flight operations, HR and maintenance. Under the previous structure there were more than 20 managers; this has been slimmed to nine. “That is still a lot considering the size of our fleet, but I thought it was enough of a rationalisation,” Muzenda said.
The former managers, who were mainly in acting positions, will revert to their old roles, although these may also change under the new structure.
Today, Air Zimbabwe employs around 430 staff, compared with more than 1,000 in the past. But some critical skills were lost along the way and may need replacing. “That’s why it is important to do a staff audit. We’re not just going to aim for a number. We’re going to look for the specific skills and positions that we need.”
Air Zimbabwe plans to bring in consultants to help restructure and simplify its complex collection of labour contracts, but the core strategy will remain under the control of the board and its government shareholders. When we spoke in November, Muzenda was poised to go on a strategy retreat to flesh out the budget and business plan, with the aim of completing them by the end of 2016 for government approval.
“Definitely the first thing we need to do is build up a regional hub. In all the time that we operated, we failed to do that. It was mostly point-to-point, except for the European tourists, who used to come into Harare and then be fed on. I would like Air Zimbabwe to be the airline that best connects our region – the Southern African Development Community (SADEC) – and the rest of the world,” he said.
Muzenda believes the potential is there. Emirates operates daily Boeing 777-300ER flights, which are “full every day”. Ethiopian offers 11 flights a week and South African Airways (SAA) just requested 120 weekly frequencies and secured the green light to operate 85 of these. This means customers come to the country via Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Dubai, Nairobi (Kenya), or Johannesburg (South Africa) – and in the case of Johannesburg they overfly Harare and then come back.
“What people are crying out for is direct London flights. We need to go long-haul. The primary route for us is London and then Asia, but with strong regional connections. We can’t just limit ourselves to people out of Harare.”
Muzenda recognises the value of developing strong regional African services within SADEC and he is keen to add Cape Town, as well as more flights from Victoria Falls. He also believes that codeshares and partnerships could be a good way of strengthening Air Zimbabwe’s network and sees a need for well-coordinated schedules, higher frequencies and smaller aircraft.
At the moment, Air Zimbabwe has a fleet of two Boeing 767s, two 737-200s, two leased Airbus A320s (one of these is grounded) and a single Xian MA60 turboprop. However, because of the relatively large aircraft size, frequencies are low. With no long-haul services to feed or be fed by, this means its regional services are being hit by excessive ground time, weak utilisation and poor load factors. For example, the Johannesburg aircraft leaves in the morning and returns in the evening, spending most of the day on the ground.
“We have an issue with low aircraft productivity,” Muzenda said. “We are not using aircraft because they are not the right size.”
He is, ideally, looking for three or four 50- to 90-seat turboprops or jets to build up frequencies and ultimately support larger aircraft operations.
Once the airline works out the exact seat capacity that it needs, Muzenda’s team will see what is available and then take a call on whether to buy or lease the aircraft. Muzenda believes used aircraft could be a viable option.
On long-haul, Muzenda sees a need for two to three aircraft, like the 767. There is a possibility that Air Zimbabwe will maintain its existing aircraft, which are owned by the government, but upgrade them with new interiors and in-flight entertainment. This would help reinforce the airline’s product.
Over the last few years, Air Zimbabwe has lost quite a lot of its frequent flyers and Muzenda is hoping that strengthening the airline’s schedule integrity will help regain customer loyalty.
State-owned Air Zimbabwe is also ultimately looking to team up with a strategic partner, potentially through an equity buy-in. Discussions are already under way, but Muzenda knows this is not a silver-bullet solution. “We need to clean up our own house, because no partner will come in and do it for us.”
This partner could be a larger airline, but non-aviation investors are also an option. “A larger airline would be good for distribution,” he said, but the decision about Air Zimbabwe’s future partner and what happens with its fleet will have to come from the government. “That [the fleet] is more of a priority than a partnership; getting the right size of aircraft that we can utilise them a lot more.”
Another issue to be addressed is the airline’s historic debt. Muzenda declined to comment on the amount in question, saying: “It is a big figure – it is not peanuts.” Research reveals that the airline’s total debt is in the region of $330 million. The majority of this is domestic debt, such as unpaid taxes. The government may be willing to assume this debt as part of any strategic partnership.
Muzenda confirmed that Air Zimbabwe is loss-making, but the airline is also behind on its financial reporting, so he was unable to give a current figure. These accounts, which are all produced manually, need to be brought up to date and Air Zimbabwe needs to get back into the International Air Transport Association (IATA) clearing house.
While cutting costs and losses are a priority, Muzenda has no plans to change the airline’s traditional product, or establish a low-cost subsidiary. “We are not going to try to be a low-cost carrier or anything like that. Low-cost subsidiaries don’t seem to work. You are either one thing, or the other. We are what we are, but we are trying to manage and cut our costs.”
Speaking of being one thing or another, does Muzenda miss his flying days? He spent 19 years with Air Zimbabwe, progressing from being a cadet pilot to 767 fleet manager and senior training captain. He flew the BAe146, 737 and 767 and led Air Zimbabwe through the IATA operational safety audit (IOSA) certification in 2008. Then Muzenda moved on to fly 747-400s for Singapore Airlines (SIA), where he spent seven years and also secured an aviation MSc from Coventry University.
“I love flying but I was getting bored with it,” he said. “When I left Air Zimbabwe, I’d kind of had enough. I was travelling a lot, but going nowhere – that was how I felt. When I went to Singapore, it reignited my passion because I was flying to new places all over the world. But after five years I really wanted to do some admin. Once in a while I would like to fly, but it would be limited.”
As a manager for pilot line operations for SIA, Muzenda was meant to divide his time equally between flying and office work. However, in practice he did relatively little flying. Then, in 2015, he had to return to Zimbabwe when his work permit was not renewed.
“The move wasn’t planned. I was trying to apply for line flying jobs but, to be honest, it wasn’t aspirational at all. It was just to sustain my family.”
But then the CEO’s position caught his attention. “The best part is I finally get to have some say in how things are done at Air Zimbabwe. Pilots complain, but they have no control over what is done. Now I finally get a chance to have my say. At the same time, I also get to see the challenges that I didn’t know were there. There is a lot of juggling and balancing of different demands.”
Muzenda is working 12- to 13-hour days and is in the office at weekends until 10-11pm. Even finding time for lunch is a challenge, so fitting in any flying would be a luxury.
“The challenge is just find some time. Later on, when everything stabilises, it would be nice to fly, but if I did it would have to be over weekends, maybe short flights. I get a lot of satisfaction being in the office because there is a lot of thinking. There is a lot to do but I am passionate about it. I always loved Air Zimbabwe and I am allowed to do whatever it takes, whatever needs to be done.”