ENCOURAGED by the signing of an air travel agreement with Qatar, the Federal Government has once again restated its commitment to having a national airline for the country. It is not the first time in the life of the Muhammadu Buhari administration or, indeed, in the immediate past administration of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, that the idea of reviving the national carrier has been mooted.
While we recognise the pride and business opportunities that such a national carrier can bring, we urge government to tread cautiously on this new resolve as history and the demands of modern airline management do not favour government ownership and control.
The place to start from is whether we actually need a national carrier promoted by government in this age and circumstance. Most of the motivation for this new drive appears to be a fixation with the good old days of a nation with a national carrier – The Nigeria Airways – as it was then known. But, all that may be nostalgia for a past that is history now and cannot easily be recovered. The times have changed, the business models have changed and the modern aviation industry is very demanding.
The defunct national carrier as a carry-over from the West Africa Airways Corporation (WAAC) took off in 1958. By the time it closed shop around 2003, it had a debt overhang of about $65 million. It was over-staffed, mismanaged and laden with corruption. Apart from giving us the pleasure of flying our national flag, the Nigeria Airways was a huge liability on our national resources. Is this the ‘glorious’ past that we want to return to?
Government must properly interrogate its real intention this time around. We believe that we can have national brands without government’s direct involvement. This way, government would just provide the enabling environment and encourage the private sector to do what it knows best.
Let the government properly interrogate interested and qualified bidders for the privilege of flying our national flag. Once that is sorted out, the necessary institutional support should be provided to ensure that the preferred bidder hits the ground flying, because the potentials of our aviation industry are immense. The only sad reality is that we are probably over 50 years behind. What this means is that we have a lot of catch-up to do.
Thankfully, there are many successful business models in the aviation industry to copy from. The resources required to run a successful and modern airline are huge and government cannot afford them at this time. To paraphrase a simple economic principle; the wish-list of the government is long, but the means of satisfying it is limited. That is why government has to prioritise always. Expending the nation’s scarce resources on a national carrier cannot be a priority at this time of huge economic and infrastructural challenges.
In practical terms, what government should concentrate on now is to strive to deliver world-class aviation infrastructure. To do this, it would need the heavy participation of the private sector. Our international airports are only so in name presently. They need to be brought up to standard, and adequate support infrastructure provided. The routes have to be properly designated and certified. The long delays in service delivery presently associated with the aviation industry in the country have to be done away with. And most important, the reported cases of corruption in the industry have to be addressed. As we noted earlier, the aviation industry is a global market place, and there is no hiding place for any operator.
It is only after these basic things are done that Nigeria can hope to reap the immense dividends accruable from a national airline. The aviation industry has the potential to contribute substantially to our national budget and take millions off the job market. The government must do all that it can to put it on a strong platform to contribute its quota to the nation’s economy.