It is an ill-conceived and wasteful venture
Ever since the idea to float a national carrier was mooted in January 2016, we have persistently warned against erecting another monument to waste in a period of lean resources. But with just about 10 days to the end of the current administration, Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, continues to insist that a national carrier would be launched. “Regarding Nigeria Air, yes, we are on course; and by the Grace of God, before President Muhammadu Buhari leaves office, it will fly,” Sirika said on Wednesday. “We are on course; before May 29, Nigeria Air will fly.”
Even 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 many of the highly lucrative routes. The few private airlines that attempt to do that do not have the wherewithal and capacity to finance extensive foreign operations. Yet no matter how patriotic we may feel about the issue, going back to the era of our inglorious past remains nothing but a 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 administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo, it had become a huge liability, an object of national shame and international ridicule. The airline was synonymous with large scale inefficiency, mismanagement, and corruption. 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 $5000 to buy fuel!
Unfortunately, there is nothing to suggest that any appreciable lesson has been learnt as evident in the debacle that followed the federal government arrangement with Virgin Airlines to run Virgin Nigeria as Public-Private Partnership (PPP), a similar model that Sirika 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 in capital and ultimately, the Virgin group was forced to divest its interest.
To compound the problem, the nation’s aviation industry is currently going through financial stress and many of the airlines are highly indebted. They are hindered by inadequate fleet and capacity and thus cannot compete effectively. Therefore, given the operating environment, we feel that the proposal for a national carrier is a misplaced priority that would lead to another waste of enormous scarce resources. And as we have seen with several PPP, most of the agreements entered by our officials almost always end up in court with awards of heavy cost against our country.
Meanwhile, there is nothing to suggest that the National Assembly has any input in this whole idea to force through ‘Air Nigeria’. Yet, without going through any process, serious commitments are being made on behalf of Nigeria in what appears a one-man-show. It is difficult to fathom the rationale for it other than to conclude, as most people have, that the motivation is more about the personal interest of some people than the good of the nation. We therefore want to place it on record that this is an ill-conceived idea that should not be implemented at the twilight of any administration.