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Need For A New National Carrier

The idea of establishing a new national carrier is back on the front burner. Recently, President Muhammadu Buhari directed officials of the Ministry of Aviation led by its Permanent Secretary who visited him to dust up the project for immediate implementation. The directive is the first major government decision on the project since the liquidation of the Nigeria Airways many years ago. The administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo had sold the remains of the defunct airline under its privatization programme to private interests, thus sealing the hope that the airline could be revived.

The Umaru Musa Yar’Adua administration expressed a strong desire for the country to have a national carrier but took no practical steps towards setting up one before he died in office. The immediate past administration of President Goodluck Jonathan was, at best, lukewarm to the idea of a national carrier and never made any move towards establishing it. And so a national carrier which is for most countries a ubiquitous symbol of their presence in the foreign countries its planes fly to, eluded Nigeria till today.

The argument against the establishment of a national carrier is the same with the general reasons often given for government’s divestment of interest from business outfits it previously owned. The major plank of that argument is that government is not a good manager of business, the reason often given for the failure of such establishments. This, more than anything else, informed the lukewarm attitude adopted towards the idea of a national carrier since the collapse of Nigeria Airways. But what most administrations that mooted the idea of a national carrier in the past and dropped it probably did not realise was that most of the arguments made against it were orchestrated by private individuals and corporate bodies with interest in the airline business and who did not want to see a stronger rival coming into the sector. The arguments were more a product of the self-protective instinct. They felt that an airline backed by the full muscle of the federal government would greatly jeopardise their interests.

But selfish as their argument may appear, it bears the unassailable stamp of truth. The rate of failure of government owned enterprises is quite alarming. It is, therefore, valid to caution government against direct involvement in business as a means of cutting its losses and also to be in a position to spare time and funds for its core areas of competence which is the provision of public utilities. But the case of a national carrier should be seen and treated differently because of its role in promoting the nation’s image in the international arena. A national carrier is a kind of national identity which reminds those who patronise it and citizens of countries to which it operates regular flights, of our country and what it stands for.

The extent to which this can be achieved is, however, dependent on the success and reputation of the airline itself. It is only when a national carrier is run efficiently that it can impact positively on the image of the country, otherwise, it become a liability. This brings us to the need to avoid those pitfalls that turned the Nigeria Airways, our first national carrier, into a public liability and a source of international embarrassment for Nigeria.

The company was badly run and, for a long time, it was unable to generate funds to finance its operations. Its fleet of aircraft were poorly maintained. Some became too old and unserviceable. Its flights were constantly delayed and sometimes cancelled due to unavailability of airplanes fit to meet its flights schedule. And these included international flights. On several occasions, it had no money to pay for the maintenance of its aircraft and some were held hostage in overseas maintenance workshops for several months over debts owed by the company. It eventually collapsed under the pressure of insolvency.

We at The UNION welcome the plan to establish a new national carrier for the country. If properly run, it will be a source of national pride. It will help to facilitate trips and tours within the country and between Nigeria and other countries of the world and create employment opportunities, especially for pilots and flight engineers who today form a significant proportion of the country’s worrisome unemployment statistics.

But the new national career must avoid the mistakes that led to the collapse of Nigeria Airways. The process of establishing the new national carrier should, therefore, start from a post mortem of the Nigeria Airways. There should be a thorough study of the mistakes of that unfortunate era and an informed write-up that will guide the architects of the new dispensation. Besides that, government must be ready to invest generously in the enterprise. The airline must be well established from the very beginning and provided with reasonable working capital. It must be fully equipped with a good number of new aircraft to be flown by first rate pilots. Nigeria has them in abundance.

Even though it will be fully owned by the government, it should be emphasised in the laws establishing it that it is in business to make profit. Its relationship with government must be business -like. Government must pay for its services fully when it has need for those services while, on its part, the airline must be self-sustaining. Government’s involvement in its management must be limited to the appointment of its board of directors only while its management should be given a free hand to conduct the day-to-day affairs of the airline. It is obvious that President Buhari is desirous to see the new national carrier in operation quickly but we advise that enough time be spared for adequate preparations to avoid mistakes that could haunt the airline for a long time.

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