Nigerians who were elated at the prospect of having a national carrier whose operations would cut into the over $1 billion the foreign airlines take away from the country every year as capital flight were shocked last Wednesday by the Minister of State, Aviation, Mr Hadi Sirika. In a terse statement from his Twitter handle, Sirika announced that the plan for ‘Nigeria Air’ has been suspended indefinitely. But the minister owes Nigerians an explanation for this decision that has cost the tax payers hundreds of millions of Naira and raises questions about the seriousness of the current administration.
Ordinarily, 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 make attempts in that direction do not have the wherewithal 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.
As we reiterated when the whole idea started, most nations are divesting from airlines businesses because they are better run by the private sector. 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 felt that the proposal for a national carrier was a misplaced priority that would lead to another waste of enormous scarce resources. That is why we support the suspension.
Right from the outset, we were not convinced by the argument from some industry experts that the national carrier could become a pivot for the rejuvenation of the industry and in the process help in manpower development. Despite the fanfare that attended its unveiling the name and logo at the Farnborough Air Show in July in United Kingdom, we remained sceptical that anything good would come out of the idea. With the suspension last week, we feel vindicated.
However, the decision has raised several questions, including the perception of international stakeholders and foreign investors about the integrity, goodwill and seriousness of the Nigerian government in honouring agreements, considering that the country’s image had been impaired in the past in the same industry. The pertinent question therefore is: what will happen to the deal reportedly entered into with aircraft manufacturers, international financiers and lessors by the federal government? Or was what was shown in the media a mere publicity stunt?
When the idea was mooted, many Nigerians had suggested that it was more practical for the federal government to incorporate Arik Air and Aero Contractors, which they technically own and are currently under the management of Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON). The two airlines brought together would have formed the nucleus of the new airline and give fillip to the establishment of aircraft maintenance facility as Aero Contractors presently conducts maintenance on Boeing aircraft to the level of C-check. These suggestions were repudiated by Sirika on the argument that the planned national carrier would have a different business model from the existing airlines. Yet industry stakeholders who could make reasonable contributions to the project were alienated.
Given the foregoing, we endorse the suspension of the Nigeria Air. But it is also important for Sirika to render account of what has transpired on the project and why it was cancelled. He owes Nigerians that explanation.