In early 2017, when the Honourable Minister of State for Aviation Hadi Sirika announced to the world that the only airport in the nation’s capital would be shut for six weeks to carry out major repairs on the runway, very few people believed it would be reopened within the near impossible timeframe of six weeks announced. Most skeptics, including myself, cognizant of the Nigerian factor assumed it would be an impossible task to accomplish in six weeks. At that time the remedial measures put in place sounded surreal and a seamless transition to use Kaduna airport seemed impossible. Mr. Sirika refused to budge and stood his ground. He threatened to resign if the deadline was not achieved. The rest as they say is now history. As the runway of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja was reopened ahead of schedule.
Hadi Sirika has now stirred the hornets’ nest again when he announced some days ago that a national carrier will be launched in five months’ time, precisely December 19, 2018. Very few people took him seriously when he mentioned some few months ago that government was trying to set up a national carrier again. As a matter of fact, a lot of people said it was because elections were approaching, and he was trying to score some political points. Indeed, the resuscitation of the National Carrier was one of the campaign promises made by the All Peoples Congress, APC.
His most recent update on the status of the national carrier penultimate week has generated a lot of comments and analyses, especially on the virtual sphere of social media. Nigerians are beginning to realize that once again he is deadpan serious about the issue like he was about the Abuja Airport closure. It is not farfetched in understanding the pessimism that has followed the announcement. Some Nigerians are not hiding their cynicism of the proposed National carrier because over time they have become wary of government’s involvement in any business venture. Pundits argue that Government entities have no business delving into aviation business and should be left to the private sector. Based on the criticisms one has seen so far, it seems a lot of people have not fully read the proposal Mr. Sirika, is making nor understand the business model he has proposed. Let me start by quoting one of the cardinal conditions given by the Infrastructure concession regulatory commission (ICRC) before it issued the outline business case compliance certificate. It states: The certificate is granted on the condition that the Federal Government demonstrates her commitment to leverage private sector capital and expertise towards the establishment of the National Carrier through the provision of an upfront grant/Visibility Gap Funding (VGF) to fund aircraft acquisition/start-up capital. The FGN also agrees to zero contribution to airline management decisions and zero management control by the government. Any attempt to impose government control over the management of the Airline invalidates this certificate and the entire process.” Therefore, this clearly indicates that the Government is clearly interested in ensuring the National carrier is privately managed. Mr. Sirika has also assured us that the proposed partners will have a requisite world class experience to manage an airline. There are rumors that Government is in talks with Qatar and Ethiopian airways.
According Mr. Sirika, about $8.8 million dollars will be spent as preliminary cost while take off costs will be in the range of $300 million. Five aircraft will initially be deployed, and will grow to 30 in the next five years. The airline is also expected to make a profit in the next three years. In essence government will provide the take-off funds and hands off to the private sector. One of the possible scenarios is for the government to lease back the aircraft to whoever emerges as the preferred bidder to the partnership agreement.
As mentioned earlier, critics to the proposed national carrier opine that government has no business setting up a national carrier. Reason being that in other countries it is a private sector driven industry. A cursory look at many of the major foreign airlines operating in Nigeria prove otherwise. For example, Ethiopian Airlines which has more frequencies into Nigeria than any other foreign airline is wholly owned by the Ethiopian government. Emirates airlines, which is also one of the most popular airlines operating in Nigeria is wholly owned by the UAE government. Same applies to Rwandair which is 99% owned by the Rwandan government. This also applies to South African Airways, Qatari, Etihad, Royal Air Maroc, Air Cote Ivoire, etc. All these foreign state-owned airlines take a very big chunk of the passenger market in Nigeria. So, what is the big deal if the Nigeria government decides to resuscitate a national carrier in conjunction with private sector?
We are adept in making comparisons on how our dream airlines should be. A common comparison we make is with Ethiopian, Emirates airlines and of recent Rwandair and our lack of national carrier forgetting that the airlines are owned by their respective governments. I am of the opinion that it is wrong for us to criticize the effort of Mr. Sirika, especially when his team has been putting in a lot of efforts to reestablish a national carrier while we applaud the state-owned airlines of other countries. It is understandable that previous efforts Nigeria made always fell short of expectations; but given the recent antecedents of Mr. Sirika, this development has ignited confidence in the local aviation and allied industries that he will successfully midwife the delivery of the national carrier to Nigerians. Our hope is that Mr. Sirika and his team put in place a transparent, robust and binding agreements that will ensure the national carrier become a permanent entity. The steps taken so far especially with regards to securing the outline business case compliance certificate also show that the process is being professionally driven.
An important benefit of reestablishing a national carrier is job creation. As of November 2017, there were over 400 pilots without jobs and the numbers have been growing alarmingly. A rough estimate of how much these pilots have spent cumulatively to become pilots is over $30 million. Pilot training costs an average of $80,000 these days. There are also hundreds of aircraft engineers, technicians, dispatchers, cabin attendants and other aviation specialists without jobs. The Aviation schools in Zaria and Ilorin have been churning out hundreds of people without jobs. The national carrier will surely assist in absorbing some of these unemployed professionals.
Another benefit of the national carrier is that it will promote better efficiency and competition in the Nigerian aviation industry. Virtually almost all the airlines in Nigeria are owned by individuals and some are managed like one-man enterprises. We all recall with nostalgia the innovation and best practices that Virgin Nigeria brought to the industry before it collapsed. Some of the existing airlines are still benefitting from the best practices and safety culture Virgin Nigeria introduced to the Nigerian aviation industry.
Restoration of National pride, fair bilateral service agreements, and stopping of capital flights amongst others are also benefits of Nigeria having its own national carrier
The local aviation industry in Nigeria is excited at the due diligence and process it has taken Mr. Sirika and his team to get here on this flight. Personally, I look forward to the first leg of this flight as it lands at the Farnborough Airshow holding in UK on the 15th of July 2018, as the national carrier prepares its ascension up the sky of our national and continental pride where it once held sway, soaring in glory. It is possible.
Mr Borodo, an Abuja-based pilot, can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org