Wednesday 22 May 2013

Sanction Slipping (Air Rhodesia's Boeings are worth a lot.)

Murray Bailey reports

Three's not a crowd.

    IN THE late evening of Saturday, 14th April 1973, a small group of spectators on the balcony of Salisbury airport terminal were the surprised witnesses of a long awaited development when they saw three Boeing 720 aircraft land in quick succession.

"A cryptic official statement reporting the acquisition by Air Rhodesia of three Boeing jet aircraft published the following day triggered off a flood of dramatic reports, comments and counter comments in the world press which lasted for several weeks."

These officially-worded paragraphs from Air Rhodesia's latest annual report, barely hide the airline's excitement.

It has been looking hard for jet aircraft a long time but it cannot buy them through the usual channels because of the United Nations trading ban with Rhodesia—declared after the country's unilateral declaration of independence in 1965.

It has also said for a long time that there was no problem in getting jet aircraft (it has learned many tricks by necessity since the, trading ban) but it also had to make sure it could get spare parts. This was also a problem for its ageing Viscount aircraft; Air Rhodesia solved this problem by making many of the spare parts itself. If necessary it will do the same for the 720s—which are also ageing.

It is still not clear from where the aircraft came. Air Rhodesia is keeping it a secret—to avoid possible United Nations' action against the supplying country—but the world's press seems to have settled for the fact that they were bought from the bankrupted German charter carrier Calair through Switzerland, and possibly Portugal, to Rhodesia.

Morale booster,

    It was a further boost to morale that the aircraft arrived at the airport in Air Rhodesia colours—probably to hide original owners—and were flown by Air Rhodesia pilots—but it is still not known where the pilots were trained.

Only four people in the airline knew of the arrival of the aircraft. The 720s arrived at 21.00 on that Saturday night. None of the four talked about it until the aircraft were over Rhodesian air space—"as any- thing could have happened to stop their arrival". The four breathed more easily when they heard that the aircraft had made their "victory swoop" over the Victoria Falls. The Salisbury Sunday papers, which are on sale about midnight Saturday, blazened the news across their front page. There followed thousands of dollars worth of free publicity in papers around the world. It lasted for some weeks.


Shortly after the 720s' arrival, a champagne party was held at the prime minister's house to celebrate—indicative of how pleased the country was. To familiarize the local people with the new aircraft, Air Rhodesia arranged hour long trips for $18 each.

The successful landing of the three aircraft was the beginning of some' hard work for Air Rhodesia. The airport was crowded with visitors on the Sunday for a look at the 720s but they were moved to a part of the airport where "only a telephoto lens could reach them" and on the Monday morning the staff began their new task—making sure that the aircraft were a success financially.

It is difficult to illustrate how the jet aircraft gave the staff a morale boost. The cynic would say that any- one can buy a 720—the problem is selling them. But for Air Rhodesia it is a different question. It needed jet equipment to maintain an image of modernity. The Viscounts, whatever the airline said, could not produce this.

Also, the arrival of the aircraft—especially in the airline's colours and flown by its own pilots—showed Air Rhodesia staff that the airline was still as good as any other even when faced with handicaps. And the handicaps are tremendous; until an airline realises it cannot phone up Pratt and Whitney and ask for a new engine, it doesn't grasp the problem.

On the monday after the Saturday arrival, a planning department was formed. It consisted of the commercial manager, operations manager, schedules manager, planning manager and chief accountant. Its task was to decide what to do with the aircraft, which routes to fly them, and to sort out the interline pool agreements.


It had already discussed these questions before, "but this was for real".

Selling more seats to South Africans.
    The 720s came at a time when traffic was "in the doldrums"—mainly because of the South African rand devaluations. As the airline says, normally a carrier gets about a two year lead in time for new aircraft but "we had nothing".

The aircraft were first flown on adhoc substitution routes and were not fully incorporated into the schedule until the November timetable. So there was a fair lead in time to train the stewardesses. The airline decided to train some girls to work just on the 720s but they switch to Viscounts quite often. They are trained at Salisbury.

The airline is not interested in long-haul at present—"we're confined to this little part of Africa". This is partly because South African Airways and TAP-Portuguese cover the market well, partly because it would be difficult to arrange landing rights, partly because Rhodesian passports are accepted only in Portugal, Greece and Switzerland in Europe, and partly because near 80 percent of the departures from Rhodesia to Europe are destined for UK.

Above: Nou's daar 'n totaal nuwestraaldiens na sowcl Salisbury as Bulawayo uit: Johannesburg. Air Rhodesia in samewerking met die Suid-Afrikannse Lugdiens bied u elke week 42 vinnige, gerieflike vlugte,

 Ons tradisioele gasvryheid en hulpvaardigheid is nou beter as ooit. As u dus van voornemens is om na Salisbury of Bulawayo te vlieg, hou die nuwve straaldiens nooi in gedagte

 Pryse: Na Salisbury
 R48. 50 (enkel
 (retoer; na Bul
 R34,00 (enkel)

  But it does want a longhaul service to UK as soon as the United Nations sanctions restrictions allow this. The airline was in. UK talking with British Airways about two years ago, when it appeared a settlement might have been reached.

shangri la

Meanwhile, Air Rhodesia's answers to questions must be devious, to say the least. Where were the pilots trained? "Shangri La." From where do the aircraft spares come? "From somewhere; they get here." From nowhere do you get oil? "We get it." Although the excitement at the airline is still the 720s, the airline must continue to exist and follow the normal airline criteria—keep the aircraft in the air, control costs, make a profit and so on.

Its latest annual report shows a fall in profit to just over $R500 000 (about $750 000). This is lower than 1971FY but it is commendable that a profit is made in the adverse conditions; it has always made a profit.

Air Rhodesia has to overcome difficulties which other airlines never have to consider. Such as engineering. It is trying to be self sufficient in engineering—if a new part is needed, the airline must often manufacture it. In other areas it does the work itself to save money: making desks and sales counters for the sales offices; building display units for shows, exhibitions or its offices; printing brochures and letter paper; making the galley equipment for the aircraft; and the plastic trays for in-flight service meals are also made by the airline.

It also uses this acquired expertise in doing similar work for other organizations; such as distributing sales material, or engineering work. It cannot buy computers for reservations because of the UN sanctions. But it is constantly improving its methods. The second city in the country, Bulawayo, went over to the Telpak system last month, where all reservations are automatically diverted to Salisbury. The airline claims - it is the first in Africa with this system, which is used extensively in north America.


It is also important to maintain good staff relations and to keep up morale. Air Rhodesia has formalized meetings with department heads and trade union people but probably a large amount of goodwill is maintained in that many of the staff in different departments know one another by name. At present there are about 1100 staff.

The airline provides travel agent training free and gives the usual IATA commission rate; although it cannot be a member of IATA it likes to follow the rules. 60 percent of its revenue comes from agents. On its Flame Lily inclusive tour holidays—travel agents can use an ITX fare and make up their own package but Air Rhodesia finds most prefer to buy the ready made product—it pays seven percent.

The Flame Lily holidays provide 15 percent of the airline's revenue which "has helped the situation during these hard years". There has been some ordinary financial setbacks with the two South African rand devaluations, which were exacerbated by the killing of a Canadian tourist by Zambia border guards. This was played up by the South African press which had a bad effect on the tourist traffic from there. That seems to have recovered though.

Traffic this year has been picking up—with an average increase of 15/16 percent. The testing time will come in the dead months of October and November—which will be coupled with the increased capacity of the 720s. But overseas markets have been improving, and Air Rhodesia says that 50 percent of its earnings are in foreign exchange—which is very important for the country.

The country is proving very popular with visitors from north America— and this interest will certainly be increased now the airline has jet aircraft.

Air Rhodesia has never made a loss—although it did borrow $R200 000 early in its short career and which it now keeps "as a gesture; but we don't need the damn thing".

The 720s don't mean the end of problems for Air Rhodesia—in fact they'll ease some and bring some new ones—but it is a firm sign that the carrier is progressing in the face of surprising handicaps. If for nothing else, it should be admired for that alone. 

Keeping them in the air.


Which was made available by Dave Vermaak (Air Rhodesia) Thanks Dave.

Comments are always welcome, please mail them to Eddy Norris at

Suggested Reading.
Air Rhodesia's Boeing 720s.... continued


Air Rhodesia's B720s — "a riddle wrapped in a mystery"

Those Embargo-busting Jets 

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 (Please visit our previous posts and archives)

Ref. Rhodesia, Civil Aviation



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