VIOLET MENGO, Lusaka
THEN Vice-President Brigadier General Godfrey Miyanda announced on the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) news bulletin on December 4, 1994 that national carrier Zambia Airways was going into liquidation.
The announcement stunned the nation.
About 1,900 jobs were lost.
The nation’s beloved Nkwazi jet had been impounded in London.
For former Zambia Airways captain, Maurice Chimbelu, the liquidation of Zambia Airways was one of the greatest mistakes that the country has ever made.
Andrew Sardanis agrees.
In his book, Zambia: The First 50 Years, Mr Sardanis says what Zambia Airways needed was reorganisation, not liquidation.
“It was giving good and reliable service, had a good reputation amongst international agents, its overseas routes were profitable, but more importantly, it had strategic sources for forward tourism,” Sardanis writes.
“It had an extensive local schedule covering all tourist destinations within Zambia but, also, for political reasons, a lot of rural towns where traffic was minimal rendering the entire internal services operation unprofitable.
“It was grossly over manned and loss-making and needed reorganisation. Instead, it was put into liquidation. The result was a major setback for Zambian tourism. What Zambia Airways needed was reorganisation, not liquidation.
“It owned offices in London and New York, both valuable pieces of assets that could have been sold to generate liquidity to put it back on its feet.”
Captain Chimbelu says Zambia Airways was still viable and sustainable; all it needed was prudent management and a little bit of downsizing at the top management level.
Captain Chimbelu started working for Zambia Airways in 1971 as officer co-pilot. He was then sent to Perth, Scotland by the airline to further train as a pilot until 1973.
When he came back, he worked for the airline until its demise in 1994. But he rose in rank from being a first officer to captain in 1980 until the airline collapsed.
“I was a captain for about 14 years and worked for the airline for 23 years in total,” he says. “I was privileged that I was sponsored to further my studies abroad, but Zambia Airways was not a very good payer, however the perks were very good.”
Captain Chimbelu enjoyed conditions such as free air travel for the family twice a year anywhere in the world, free air travel for parents once a year, free accommodation, water, electricity and school fees.
He says prior to the airline being liquidated, there were no signs to indicate that things were bad at the company. Workers still worked normally and enjoyed all the incentives.
“The only puzzle we noted at the company was the rapid change of managing directors, salary wise and all other conditions remained as they were until the last day when Brigadier General Godfrey Miyanda announced the immediate closure of the airline,” Captain Chimbelu says.
But he thought the closure was a temporary measure. However, he was shocked that the company premises was immediately guarded by paramilitary after the announcement and no employee was allowed to go there.
Next thing Captain Chimbelu heard was the coming in of a liquidator PriceWaterHouse two months after the initial announcement.
It was clearly the end of the once vibrant national flag carrier.
When Zambia Airways was liquidated, life changed for his family. It became survival of the fittest. Serious adjustments were required to survive.
Captain Chimbelu stayed unemployed for two years. His children, who enjoyed being in private schools, were withdrawn and taken to public schools as he could barely afford school fees.
“At first, it was extremely rough for my children but eventually they started adjusting because they had no choice but to adapt,” he says.
Luckily for him, there was no disruption in housing because Government sold the house at book value to sitting tenants and he bought it. He still lives there today.
But he surely had to find a job to sustain the family.
In 1996, he got a job with Ugandan airline Das Air Cargo, as a captain based in London, United Kingdom. He worked for the cargo airline until 2001.
While he worked in UK, his family remained in Zambia and he would only visit them during his days off each month.
In 2001, the air cargo was changing equipment and Captain Chimbelu was laid off together with other staff.
“I had to come back to Zambia but only for a short while as I proceeded to Nigeria where I again served as Captain on another cargo aircraft,” he says. “I only worked there for three months since they were not paying.”
Captain Chimbelu then joined Airplus Cargo Airline in the United Arab Emirates where he worked until 2006.
The most dangerous job that he ever did in his career as a pilot, and in order to survive, is when he joined Heavy Lift Cargo Airline in the United Arab Emirates, where he worked for five years from 2006 to 2011.
“That was the most dangerous job I have ever done in my life. We were flying into Iraq during the war taking things for American soldiers, mostly food and parcels on behalf of DHL,” he says.
“DHL could not go there because their aircraft was shot and they decided it was very dangerous so they hired Heavy Lift to be doing it for them.”
Captain Chimbelu says the owner of the cargo plane company was Iranian was paid US$1500 per crew member but was only giving them US$60 per flight. But he could still not leave his job because he had nowhere else to go to. Nearly all the employees were from the third world countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya.
The company went bankrupt in 2011 and Captain Chimbelu had to come back to Zambia. In 2012, he joined the Department of Civil Aviation which later became Civil Aviation Authority.
The department was transformed into a parastatal and he is working there as chief inspector in charge of licensing the crew members and occasionally checks on them to see if they are doing the right things.
“I could not have gone through all the hurdles I did if we still had our national airline,” he says. “It is a pity I suffered to be where I am today.”
He has a lot of expectations for the establishment of the new airline including the choice of planes to operate in order to void making losses.
His greatest regret, however, is the liquidation of the Zambia Airways, a company he says had potential to sustain the country’s gross domestic product and carry the country’s flag internationally.
“Zambia Airways had a lot of assets in Zambia and abroad which could have been sold to keep the airline afloat. The other thing Government needed to have done was to trim down the number of employees’ especially top management,” he says.
Captain Chimbelu says Zambia could learn lessons from Ethiopia, which means real business when it comes to flying.
“We should also not rush into unnecessary expansion of the routes once the airline is established but operate in phases – starting with local and regional routes before moving on to international ones,” he suggests.
Captain Chimbelu recommends that government makes use of professional Zambian pilots serving in other countries. He says all they need are good incentives.