Looking back, we do not have what it takes to run a national carrier

Just when Nigerians thought that the idea of floating a national carrier had been jettisoned, it resurrected in Qatar during a recent visit by President Muhammadu Buhari to the Gulf state. Officials in the Buhari administration were reported to have begun talks on the establishment of a national airline for Nigeria. Although presidential spokesman, Mr. Femi Adesina, provided no details on the issue, it is nothing but a misplaced priority that the idea is still very much on the front burner.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, we agree that given the size of our nation, the huge population and the mobility of our people, there are sufficient grounds to argue for a national carrier. At present the country loses so much money to foreign airliners because there is no national carrier with adequate network of routes or the capacity to operate extensively on many of the highly lucrative routes. The few private airlines that attempt to do so do not have the wherewithal and capacity to finance extensive foreign operations. Moreover, a national carrier is not just restricted to carting passengers to their various destinations, it is a tool for international relations. Yet no matter how patriotic we may feel about the issue, going back to the era of our inglorious past remains nothing but misplaced nostalgia.

At its peak, the then national carrier, Nigeria Airways, had over 30 aircraft in its fleet. But by the time it was eventually liquidated in 2003 by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration with barely two aircraft, it had become a huge liability, an object of national shame and international ridicule. It was derogatorily called “air waste”! Some of the aircraft were seized abroad at will because of indebtedness. Salaries were hardly paid. At one of the most ludicrous moments in 2002, after more than a 24 -hour delay on a Lagos-bound flight from New York, a passenger had to lend the airline $5,000 to buy fuel!

Indeed Nigeria Airways was synonymous with large-scale inefficiency, mismanagement and corruption. Yet there is nothing to suggest that appreciable lessons were learned as evidenced in the debacle that followed the federal government’s arrangement with Virgin Airlines to run Virgin Nigeria as public-private partnership (PPP), a similar model that the aviation minister is now proposing. Sir Richard Branson, chairman of the group complained of political intrigues, corruption, lack of adherence to agreements, and a regulatory body that didn’t know what to do “and persistently asking for bribes at any point”. The airline was making huge losses and ultimately, the Virgin Group was forced to divest its interest. What assurance is there that a new national carrier would be run responsibly?

Indeed, the world over, most nations are privatising dud industries and divesting from airline businesses because they are better run by the private sector. At present, the nation’s aviation industry is going through financial constraints and many of the airlines are highly indebted. As a matter of fact the industry is in the grip of one major operator with doubts if the other tiny ones can survive independently for long. They are hindered by inadequate fleet and capacity and thus cannot compete effectively.

Given the foregoing, we feel that the government should enter into dialogue with the airlines and discuss the hard truths that confront the industry that is in dire need of consolidation by way of mergers. This should be followed by some form of adequate financial assistance for the new groups to address issues of debts, fleet renewal, maintenance and insurance. Recent experience has shown very clearly that the proposal for a national carrier is not well thought-out and would end up as another monument to waste. We urge the Buhari administration to perish the idea and face the real challenge of revamping the sector.