in Air Transport / Features

Turbulence ahead on the route to a national carrier

Posted 15 December 2017 · Add Comment

Just like his nine predecessors, Nigeria's Aviation Minister, Hadi Sirika, has started championing a process of creating a national carrier capable of filling the void left by the liquidation of Nigeria Airways in 2003. But, as Chukwu Emeke reports, it won't be easy.

Nigeria Airways was liquidated following mounting insolvency, mismanagement, inefficiency, corruption and poor safety records.
At the point of liquidation, the airline had debts of $60 million and a single aircraft flying domestic routes, as well as two leased aircraft operating the international network.
Since 2004, attempts by various administrations to establish another national carrier under various names, ranging from Nigeria Eagle to Nigeria Global, Virgin Nigeria and Air Nigeria, have all failed.
The minister has, however, reassured sceptics that a new national carrier is on the present administration’s priority agenda and, therefore, won’t go the way of previous plans.
He says the federal executive council has approved N1.5billion ($4.99 million) for the proposed national carrier project, while advisers have ben appointed – Lufthansa Consulting/TN Aero for the national carrier; Infrata Dantens for airports concession; and JBB for the aerotropolis and agro cargo terminals.
Many of the country’s previous aviation problems were summed up by John Tambi, a senior official from the new partnership for Africa’s development (NEPAD) – a socio-economic flagship programme of the African Union (AU).
Tambi, coordinator, presidential infrastructure champion initiative for the NEPAD planning and coordinating agency (NPCA), said: “I think, in Africa, we have unfortunately missed the point. We have spent too many years trying to develop national airlines with the main focus on serving our colonial masters by ensuring connectivity to their major capitals, rather than serving our people.
“I think we should have paid more emphasis on developing our national route network and regional network. We should have built airports or airstrips to serve our local markets and open up our countries, rather than dashing out overseas.”
Because of the failed national carrier projects in recent years, there are fears that the government may not be able to generate a new strong airline unless it empowers existing scheduled operators by providing an environment conducive to their operations through favourable policies.
Since the 1960s, more than 50 Nigerian-registered airlines have suspended operations due to faulty business plans, poor management skills and other factors.
Today, the domestic airlines operating flights in the country include Air Peace, Dana Air, Arik Air, Aero, Medview Airlines, Overland Airways and First Nation Airways.
Aero, the oldest domestic airline, and Arik Air, were both taken over in 2016 by Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON), because of huge debts.
So what are Nigeria’s options?
Olu Ohunayo, business manager for Zenith Travels, believes a government-private sector arrangement, with government keeping a minority share in the proposed airline, could work. Examples abound where national airlines are largely managed by private concerns. African airlines, like Ethiopian, Kenya Airways and South Africa Airways, are strictly run along commercial models that emphasise profits, and without government interference in operations.
Meanwhile, Gbenga Olowo, president of travel marketplace specialist, Sabre West Africa, which hosts 400 airline inventories, believes that Nigerian Government still has a key role to play in influencing the success of the anticipated new national airline project. He proposes the collapse of all existing local airlines into three flag-carriers to service the nation’s international routes.
It’s a point somewhat shared by Captain Usman Murtha, director general of Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA). He has advised Nigeria’s licensed domestic carriers to form mergers in order to gain economic strength for competition and survival, as the efforts to generate a new national carrier progress.
Air Peace chairman, Allen Onyema, points out that airlines’ survival will remain a challenge in Nigeria until the government reviews legislation that forces them to pay up to 37 different charges.
And Captain Dele Ore, the president emeritus for the aviation safety round table initiative (ASRTI), advocates a renegotiation of the existing air services agreements, a strict implementation of the nations’ local content policy in recruitment processes for the proposed national airline, and a reliable MRO arrangement before commencement, to avoid the errors of the past.
Whatever the minister decides to do, it looks like a tough road ahead.

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