11 Experts suggest workable models for proposed national carrier
Thirteen years after the liquidation of the former national carrier, Nigerian Airways, the move to bring back a national carrier is gathering ample momentum. Daily Trust on Saturday looks at various options being bandied by experts to float a long-lasting and enduring carrier.
President Muhammadu Buhari hinted on the seriousness of his administration on the national carrier project when he told the visiting President of International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), Dr. Olumuyiwa Aliu that he is under pressure to establish a national carrier.
He however put a caveat. According to Buhari, Nigerians need to know what happened to the former national carrier.
“I equally support a national airline for both patriotic and economic reasons. We have enough trained citizens including pilots and engineers. But Nigerians need to know how we lost the one we had before,” Buhari was quoted as saying.
In retrospect, Nigerian Airways was a pride of the nation flying the country’s flag elegantly across nations of the world. It had the best of facilities - modern aircrafts, maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility, among others. In terms of manpower, its pilots and engineers were among the best in the world. They had the best of training in modern aero schools in Europe and America. Up till date, most of the best brains managing the aviation sector both as regulators and operators were leftovers of Nigeria Airways.
After many months of wobbling operations, the then administration of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo in 2004 liquidated the airline. Not only were most of the airline’s assets sold at giveaway prices, many of its workers were left stranded and despondent in their various duty posts in Nigeria and abroad.
Many former workers of the airline till date rue the recourse to liquidation by Obasanjo as they insist the assets of the airline far outweighed its liability and so liquidating it should not have been an option.
The Managing Director/CEO of MedView Airline, Alhaji Muneer Bankole who was one of the staff of the airline in a recent interview said, “It was a wrong decision to liquidate Nigeria Airways because the resources were there. Nigeria Airways owned almost 75 per cent of the properties in GRA with assets all over the world; so the resources were there. In the business parlance, when you have a challenge like Nigeria Airways had, the first thing you look at is if your asset outweighs your liability, so why did he liquidate it?
“The best thing he could have done was to look for a partner or a strong technical company probably outside Nigeria to take over the problem. If he had done these, things would have turned out differently. But we lost it. We had over 60 bi-lateral air service agreements but people are now coming to take us for free, today it is free for all, an open sky for everyone.”
The Nigeria Airways which was wholly owned by the Federal Government was said to be a victim of political/government interference which eventually killed the carrier. Experts are unanimous in the assertion that the airline fell along the line following ceaseless and senseless interference in the running and operation of the airline.
Though many legacy airlines around the world like the British Airways, Delta, Emirates, Air France/KLM, Lufthansa, as well as major carriers in Africa like the Ethiopia Airline, Kenya Airways, RwandAir, among others have government stake, they are mostly managed like private entities.
Experts and stakeholders are however unanimous that to bring back the national carrier, government must not have a controlling equity. This, they say, would insulate managers of the carrier from political interference which killed Nigeria Airways.
Mr. Chris Aligbe, former General Manager, Public Affairs of Nigeria Airways, said, “the kind of airline we should have is one that the government does not own a controlling equity or manage. It is good, it is a highly responsible act for the present government to say we must re-establish a national airline but it should be re-established in the best way that it should be, not in the form of Nigerian Airways where government owned 100 per cent, no. Government should not own that kind of 100 per cent, government should not even invest money. It should be zero funding by government but the government should have equity; what we call sweat equity. Then once it is re-established, the Nigerian public should have access in two, three years to buy into the airline so that it becomes a property of Nigerians and government’s equity would be limited to about 10, 20 per cent, not more than that yet government should not invest any fund in it, funds should be used for other things, that is what we need.”
Former Commandant of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Group Capt. John Ojikutu, rtd, also spoke in similar veil, saying government has no business in business. He said, “Whether they call it national carrier or they call it flag carriers, it is not something they should use public money to fund. We should not use public money to establish it. Let private sector finance it. But however, it must meet the best practice. It must be subjected to the national regulation. There is no reason for government to interfere in the running of that business. It is the interference of government in both public and private enterprises that is killing businesses in this country.”
Already it was learnt that some investors have signified interest in funding the national carrier. Minister of State for Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika also hinted on this recently that Boeing and Airbus are passionate about forging partnership with the government in re-fleeting the national carrier.
With the dwindling resources available to government, stakeholders say private investors are better placed to fund the carrier.
Former President of the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), Comrade Isaac Balami, who expressed delight over government’s determination to start a national carrier, said a committee recently set up by government has submitted workable models. According to him, the national carrier can begin with four or five aircrafts while a programme for periodic expansion is put in place.
He said, “This national carrier would have a minimum government interest in it because if government is going to have a controlling share, it is not good for the country. It has to be private sector driven but the government should have a small stake like five or 10 per cent so that they can be around to see what is happening but they cannot decide to see how the airline is being run. It should be run by professionals and experts.
“You know that you don’t start airline with 100 aircrafts. You must start small and grow. You can start with five aircrafts and every two, three months, you introduce two or three aircrafts and you keep expanding the routes gradually. If you bring so many at the same time, they would all be due for C-check at the same time so you won’t have any flight.
“You have to keep introducing them gradually. There are models; there are ways that experts in the sector do it. These are left for experts to sit down and look at the route structures, look at the traffic, the load factor and see how best those aircraft can be introduced. How many do we need for a start? How many do we introduce every quarter? When should we do West Coast? When should we go international? These are things that have already been looked into and the report is with the government.”
Offering a different perspective, an aviation consultant, Alhaji Ali Magashi said government needs to invest in the national carrier for a start.
Magashi, who is also the Chairman of Aso Savings and Loans said, “Twenty top airlines in the world are either started by government and in most cases still owned by government (United, Delta, American/ US Airways, Lufthansa, BA, Air France/ KLM, Turkish, Quantas, China Southern, China Eastern, Singapore, Japan, Cathay Pacific, Malaysian, Emirates, Qatar, Etihad, Ethiopian, EgyptAir, South African).
“The above experiences show that all initial investments are made by governments, and it’s only when the airlines are developed, economies are grown and institutions of compliance have matured that the airlines are privatised.
“With all the above government support, these governments still continue to support and bail out these airlines in periods of systemic economic down turns.”
But irrespective of the models adopted, it is generally believed that having a national carrier would fast-track the growth of aviation in the country, boost manpower development and address the problem of unemployment among pilots and engineers as over 400 pilots are currently unemployed.
A Nigeria Airways aircraft before its collapse
Senator Hadi Sirika, Minister of State for Aviation