Got a judgment worth several hundred thousand pounds? Need
to seize an airliner that is only going to be in the country
for a matter of hours? Want to avoid causing an international
incident?Who ya gonna call?
was the situation that was facing a particular creditor and
their lawyers - and of course it was an easy call to make.
Send for Shergroup. Chris Bell, Shergroup Policy Advisor and
Head of Public Affairs, tells the story of what happened in
the aftermath of a frantic call from lawyers acting for a
judgment creditor with a delicate problem.
The background of the situation was this. An American-based
multi-national company specialising in providing aircraft
spares, airliner maintenance, airworthiness certification
checks and airport-based ground crew was owed a sum totalling
almost three-quarters of a million pounds by a certain African
airline. Having obtained judgment in their local courts, however,
the creditor company had still not been paid, and the creditor
and their lawyers were desperately searching for a way to
get their judgment enforced.
It became clear that this was not going to be an easy task,
however, once the background of the case was fully investigated
- not least because the debt was owed by Air Zimbabwe. For
those who don't know, Air Zimbabwe is a company fully owned
by the Zimbabwean Government - and its recent record in financial
and operational matters was patchy to say the least.
In early 2011 it was estimated that the company's debts totalled
approximately $US140m. In February 2011 flights to Johannesburg
were suspended over the threat of likely impoundments of its
planes by creditors due to a series of unpaid debts. The airline's
regional and domestic services were suspended for a short
period in May 2011 following the grounding of part of its
fleet over serious maintenance concerns. Operations resumed
in late May 2011 but then in mid-June 2011 flights to London
and South Africa were again temporarily suspended because
of an unpaid and long overdue debt with fuel suppliers. Some
flights resumed in early July 2011, but the airline halted
operations again in late July 2011, this time due to a pilots
strike. Operations resumed after the strike was concluded
in mid-September, but overseas and domestic flights were temporarily
cancelled again in early November 2011, this time owing to
another unpaid debt with fuel providers. Flights to overseas
routes only resumed on 11 November 2011.
of course, there was the sensitivity of dealing with a company
such as Air Zimbabwe and a government such as the Zimbabwean
Government. Everyone will know that relations between the
respective governments of the UK and Zimbabwe have not been
good, to say the least, for a number of years now. Faced with
this situation, the lawyers decided there was only one option
- issue a writ of fi-fa against the debtor company and seize
any of their assets available in England or Wales in an attempt
to force payment of the debt - with the threat that the items
seized would be sold to clear the debt if no payment was forthcoming.
But where would one find an asset suitable for securing and
potentially clearing such a substantial debt? There was only
one answer to that particular conundrum - get the writ to
Shergroup as quickly as possible and get Claire and the TEAM
to use their knowledge and expertise, based on years of experience
in such matters, to seize one of Air Zimbabwe's aeroplanes
next time one was in the area.
That may sound easy - but with Air Zimbabwe's set up and recent
record, this was far from the case. And for the person whose
name was going to be on the writ itself - in this case, Shergroup
CEO Claire Sandbrook - there was going to be a very heavy
burden of personal responsibility for ensuring that everything
Such is the parlous state of the company's finances and the
nation's infrastructure that its entire airworthy fleet currently
consists of only 7 aircraft, most of which were bought in
the late 1980s - attempts to buy new planes having all been
scuppered due to the company's lack of money. The airline
now only serves 9 destinations (3 in Zimbabwe itself and 6
overseas, including London Gatwick) and is currently only
scheduled to fly in and out of Gatwick once a week - on a
practicalities of seizing an airliner should not be underestimated.
Just turning up at the airport and waving your writ of fi-fa
around is not going to get you very far. A considerable amount
of groundlaying needs to be done first. The airport authorities
and the police need to be informed. Suitable insurances needed
to be obtained - particularly for those officers who would
be going 'airside' - something which would require close liaison
between Claire and her insurers, who would clearly not provide
any such insurance without being absolutely convinced that
she personally had everything under total control.
Security would need to be arranged to ensure the aeroplane
was kept secure whilst on the ground. Arrangements also needed
to be made with the airport authorities for storing the aeroplane
once it had been seized - the cost of which was something
that involved lengthy calculations as storage costs are based
upon a formula that includes interesting technical items such
as the maximum weight the aeroplane is allowed to safely fly
at and whether the aeroplanes engines are of a type that will
need regular firing up to keep them in good working order.
With the debtor being Air Zimbabwe, there was of course a
need to consider whether we should liaise with the Foreign
and Commonwealth Office to ensure that our actions would not
cause a diplomatic incident. With the flight scheduled to
arrive (and therefore the seizure possibly needing to take
place) on a Sunday, there was also a need to get the necessary
advance judicial authority to enforce the writ on a Sunday.
And there was a need to anticipate the possibility that any
sale would need to be made by private treaty - with the best
will in the world we were unsure as to whether our local auctioneers
would be able to get best price at public sale for a Boeing
of course this all had to be carried out with a certain amount
of secrecy. If Air Zimbabwe got sniff of the possibility that
they had a likely seizure of one of their aircraft on their
hands, then almost certainly the flight would be cancelled
and the chance to execute the writ would be gone. This even
went so far as to forbidding the words 'Air Zimbabwe' or 'Boeing
767' from being mentioned in the office outside of certain
rooms and situations - for some unknown reason the code name
'Bette Midler' was adopted - don't ask me why, it just was.
Of course, with such an operation not everything is likely
to go exactly to plan - if such tasks all went smoothly every
time then any old enforcement company could do it and you
could put any HCEOs name on the writ and still be guaranteed
a result. Indeed, our first attempt to seize one of Air Zimbabwe's
aircraft was abortive. Everything had been ready to go with
a planned seizure one Sunday in early December - only for
the flight to be cancelled. It transpired that the day before
one of their planes had been seized in Johannesburg in very
similar circumstances - as a result of which Air Zimbabwe
temporarily stopped all overseas flights until that particular
matter was resolved, including ours.
A second attempt later that week was similarly cancelled at
the last moment after a chartered flight heading for Gatwick
was forced to divert due to a lack of fuel.
But as the old saying goes, all good things do indeed come
to those who wait, and it was truly a case of third time lucky.
A week after the original planned seizure - and again after
some rather nerve wracking delays to the incoming flight threatened
to jeopardise the whole operation - an Air Zimbabwe airliner
touched down at Gatwick Airport at approximately 1-40am on
the Monday morning.
And Shergroup authorised officers David Asker and Chris Badger
were there awaiting its arrival!!
After the passengers had disembarked and their luggage had
been taken from the hold, an official from the airport authorities
took the officers onto the aircraft, and after a brief exchange
of pleasantries and formalities with the pilot, the officers
went through the procedure of formally seizing the aircraft.
The pilot was utterly charming - one may assume that this
wasn't the first time that this had happened to him, landing
a plane only to find judicially appointed officers from the
country of arrival awaiting his touching down and wanting
to seize the plane in lieu of judgment debts owed by the airline.
It was also noticeable that an official from the airline was
awaiting the arrival of the flight and he went into a hasty
conflab with the pilot and crew as soon as the plane arrived.
The return flight to Harare had also been cancelled in advance,
which perhaps indicates that the airline knew there may be
some sort of trouble brewing prior to the flight arriving
An initial inspection of the aircraft indicated that although
it was just about airworthy, it was showing signs of considerable
wear and tear. The exterior paintwork had been spruced up
during a refit a couple of years ago - the aircraft was bearing
Air Zimbabwe's new colour scheme and markings as a result
- but as the aircraft was about 22 years old and had alot
of mileage on the clock it was understandably suffering from
fatigue. Certainly the presence of numerous reels of duct
tape at various points around the aircraft caused eyebrows
to be raised.
The interior was fairly basic and tolerably clean, but the
cockpit and crew areas had seen better days - it was all painted
in a utilitarian shade of brown but much of the paintwork
was chipped and the flight deck looked positively ancient
compared to what one would expect from a more modern airliner.
The red plastic coathangers on which the crew hung their jackets
during the flight gave the cockpit a homely touch, but other
than that the surroundings were very plain and a wee bit grim.
Having taken legal control of the aircraft and posted the
necessary legal notices in the cockpit and elsewhere on the
plane, and removed the log books and other documentation without
which the aircraft would not be allowed to fly and handed
them to the relevant airport authorities for safe keeping,
it was then moved to a suitably quiet and safe part of the
airport out near the perimeter where it was to remain parked
pending the outcomes of discussions between the airline, the
creditors and their lawyers. The entire operation was completed
in just over 4 hours and the officers were able to leave site
and get some welcome shut-eye at 6am.
Matters weren't allowed to stand still, however, and a meeting
was arranged at the airport for 4pm that afternoon with representatives
of the airline and lawyers representing the creditor company
to discuss the small matter of payment. This was not as straightforward
as it may sound as there had to be regular breaks in proceedings
for the airline representatives to take instructions from
what was euphamistically referred to as 'our shareholder'
- whether that meant Mr Mugabe himself or merely someone else
high up in the Zimbabwean government or at the Zimbabwean
Embassy was never exactly made clear. But at the end of a
long but polite and largely constructive meeting, progress
towards arrangements for payment being finalised had certainly
It was now time to sit back and await developments - and hopefully
payment. This process took a good deal longer than may have
been hoped for - especially for the 150 or so Zimbabwean passengers
awaiting the flight back to Harare. Unfortunately they faced
the prospect of several days sleeping on camp beds at the
airport whilst the airline arranged for the judgment debt
and Shergroup's costs to be paid. It was hard not to feel
sorry for them as the negotiations ebbed back and forth over
what would be an acceptable method of payment and when the
aircraft would actually be released back into the possession
of Air Zimbabwe. In these negotiations we, of course, continued
to hold the upper hand - without the necessary documentation
such as the log book, the plane could not fly anywhere, and
it was made abundantly clear that those documents would not
be released until payment had been satisfactorily made.
And that wasn't the end of the problems for Air Zimbabwe.
By the time payment could be arranged, the aeroplane's airworthiness
certificate had expired - needless to say, the maintenance
teams at Gatwick were unwilling to carry out the necessary
checks unless payment up front was forthcoming. Similar issues
arose from checks carried out on the plane by a specialist
aircraft evaluation team - in particular a hydraulic failure
in the landing gear was giving them great concern and would
require sorting before the plane would be allowed to fly home.
The constant delays and cancellations of any possible return
flight did little for the humour of those poor people stranded
at Gatwick, and indeed on at least one occasion the police
had to be called to help defuse the situation.
But in the end, it all came good - payment in full, not only
of the judgment debt but all legal and enforcement fees as
well. It was rather a nerve wracking time waiting for the
payment to arrive but there was a palpable sense of relief
and elation when payment dropped into our account just a few
days before Christmas. What a way to celebrate the festive
season, with a result such as that!!
All that was now required was to go through the final formalities
of handing custody of the aircraft back to the pilot, and
then arrangements could finally be made for some very tired
and weary Air Zimbabwe passengers to finally begin their journey
back to Harare. They hoped to be back in time for Christmas
- although it didn't quite work out that way. As mentioned
before, during its spell on the tarmac at Gatwick the plane's
airworthiness certificate had expired and considerable maintenance
and repair work was required to get it back into a fit state
to undertake the flight back to Zimbabwe. This was eventually
completed and the flight back finally left on Christmas Day,
with the passengers at long last getting back to Harare on
Boxing Day - 2 weeks after they had been due to get back home.
All in all, a textbook example of how to handle such a seizure,
and a fabulous advertisement for the professionalism of those
Shergroup officers and staff who were involved in dealing
with this case. Despite a lot of scope for things to go horribly
wrong, strong case management, exceptional powers of persuasion
and the tenacity to see things through won out. Perhaps the
most notable aspect of the operation was that all dealings
with all the various parties were carried out in a very friendly
manner with no hint of rancour or unpleasantness - a great
achievement considering the amount involved and the tensions
that could have bubbled over with regard to issues such as
the passengers having to sleep in the terminal at Gatwick
Certainly the links we have built up with a major creditor
such as this, and with the authorities at Gatwick Airport,
will have done the Shergroup brand nothing but good.
And so now you know the answer - if you've got a plane that
needs seizing, who ya gonna call?
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