That ‘government has no business in business is a cliché that resonates loudest in modern aviation and for all the right reasons too.
Since the 1950s, floating a national carrier has symbolised legitimacy and majesty of an ’embassy’ in the air, with the national-colour livery purring in continental airspace.
The desire for a national carrier is often driven by the diplomatic rights and privileges accorded to such countries rather than the business interests. At odds with national pride is the cost of operation and a debt burden that year-on-year hurt the national budget.
Lately, governments have been wiser with the appetite. Public criticisms and reviews on prodigal spending are upturning policies against government-run airlines. Quite a number of countries have, partly or as a whole, withdrawn majority shareholding from airline businesses.
Nigeria, however, appears to be swimming against the current in this matter. Almost 20 years after its national carrier, Nigeria Airways, was liquidated to cut aerial woes, the Buhari administration is bent on railroading scarce public funds into a new national carrier, which was in 2018 christened ‘Nigeria Air’, but without headway to date.
Besides citing “national pride” as its motivation, the Federal Government is aiming at a strong and reliable airline, to employ Nigerians in droves and give a well-deserved representation in global aviation, as the defunct-Nigeria Airways did in its heyday.
Apparently worried by the sluggish pace of its delivery and the sustainability question in the post-Buhari era, stakeholders have questioned the Federal Government’s objectives, noting that they are not in tune with the dynamics of such a venture. They said governments that erstwhile championed the cause of national carriers are achieving the same “national pride” but on the wings of efficient private-owned flag carriers.
They said while Nigeria already has the flag carriers in its local airlines, notwithstanding their flaws, the government should rather lean backwards, rally behind the private sector to maximise potential and effectively represent Nigeria’s interest in global aviation.
Except for very few, several countries are ditching national carriers for private investors to own and operate the same airline efficiently – without impugning on the national brand. Several of the airlines continue to be dubbed ‘flag carriers’ due to their popularity and their patriotic theme.
British Airways (BA) is often called the United Kingdom’s flag carrier despite the state relinquishing ownership as far back as 1987. The airline is so popular that Virgin Atlantic issued a challenge to become the UK’s second ‘national carrier’.
Air France-KLM are twin airlines that were erstwhile owned and run by the French and Dutch governments. The decision of the French government to reduce State’s shares in the former Air France Group from 54.4 to 44 per cent of the newly created Air France-KLM Group effectively privatised the airline in May 2004. By December the same year, the State had further sold off 18.4 per cent of its equity.
Last month, the Indian government also returned Air India, a national carrier, back to its original owners, the Tata Group, after 43 years of the layover.
Some countries hold more than one flag carrier. This is the case in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with Etihad Airways and Emirates operating from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, respectively. These brands do much more than just gain revenue from airline ticket sales. These airlines also help boost tourism, trade and public relations in the country through extensive business models.
International aviation consultant, Simon Foster, said governments have lately realised that “national pride and prestige” are no longer sufficient reasons to justify “the white elephant” called national carrier.
More so, “those essential social services that they offer in forms of commerce, tourism, official emissaries, and corporate social responsibility that made government airlines alluring then, are getting the priority of private airlines that want to improve their acceptance in-country and be seen as a national identity. So, who needs a national carrier?” Since Nigeria Airways was liquidated in 2004, Nigeria has got some aerial representation by the likes of Bellview, Arik Air, Med-View and currently Air Peace airline.
Feelers from the industry suggest that Air Peace, in particular, is naturally positioned to hoist that national flag worldwide, citing its capacity for competition, its visibility at home and commitment to nationhood.
Indeed, in about six years of operations, Air Peace airline has proven to be a credible partner in the project Nigeria. Air Peace had earlier set a domestic record as the first Nigerian airline to acquire and register Boeing 777 aircraft in the country.
Three of the four wide-body aircraft it acquired for its long-haul operations to Dubai, Sharjah, Johannesburg, London, Houston, Guangzhou and Mumbai pre-pandemic had been delivered.
And as part of its plans to expand domestic, regional and international operations, Air Peace has lately received four Embraer 195-E2 aircraft, out of about 30 expected from Embraer Aircraft Manufacturing Company in Brazil, in the next couple of years.
The airline has been dominant in pleading the cause of Nigerians like a national carrier would do. The airline had helped in the evacuation of hundreds of Nigerian nationals from South Africa free of charge in the wake of xenophobic attacks.
The airline also helped to deliver the first batch of medical supplies in the fight against the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic and for the treatment of those who are infected.
To complement its delivery of the second batch of medical supplies and personnel from China, Air Peace evacuated about 210 Israelis from Nigeria to Tel-Aviv on March 29, 2020, evacuated about 301 Chinese from Lagos airport to Guangzhou on May 28, 2020, and also evacuated 286 Indians to Kochi from Lagos during the rising cases of COVID-19 world-wide.
The international assignments were a demonstration of confidence in the airline’s operation and its safety standards, which has been attested to by the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) certification.
Member of the Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative (ASRTI), Olumide Ohunayo, said Air Peace has pulled its weight sufficiently as a credible Nigerian airline.
“No doubt, Onyema has brought some positivism into the aviation industry. Right now, they have raised the bar. The company is the flagship of Nigerian aviation at the moment and I hope they can sustain it. I look forward to him expanding ownership involving more Nigerians so we can see it as a carrier for the people than an individual airline.
“In spite of all the hindrances and obstacles in front of the airlines, he (Onyema) is able to still move beyond our shores and he still keeps improving the quality and quantity of the aircraft and employing more people. That is a plus for Nigerian aviation,” he said.
Recently, the airline also became the co-sponsor of Gulder Ultimate Search reality show and the official airline for all national football teams, in a four-year deal put at about N500 million.
The airline said it was excited to be partnering with such iconic brands, adding that through the partnership, the airline will be supporting the tenacity, and resilient spirit of young Nigerians who have shown to always find a way out of any difficult challenge life throws at them.
“It is our way of cheering Nigerian youths on to success. The Gulder Ultimate Search aligns with one of the founding principles of Air Peace – youth empowerment,” Air Peace Chairman, Allen Onyema, said.
Onyema said patriotism and service to Nigerian unity had been the driving force. He said before the Air Peace experience, he has been central to the resolution of the issues in the Niger Delta.
“At a time when the country’s oil economy was headed for a sure crash as a result of rising militancy in the Niger Delta Nigeria’s oil region, I stepped in to stem the impending doom. My sustained non-violence training and engagements with the Niger Delta fighters witnessed the stabilisation of oil production, whose daily output had plummeted to an all-time low of 700 barrels from two million. My NGO, Federation for Ethnic Harmony of Nigeria (FEHN), pushed across the training and deradicalisation of militants in South Africa, U.S. and other locations. That is my life. I did it all for a United Nigeria.” Aviation stakeholders reckoned that effective support of patriotism and growing capacity in local aviation can further project the country in the aviation community.
Ohunayo said: “We have Air Peace with such capacity, so what the government needs to do is to see how they can support Air Peace in air diplomacy. We need the government to support Air Peace that is flying international routes. You must back that airline up with all diplomatic and aero political laws and powers.
“We must protect and ensure reciprocity in whatever we do concerning the routes they hope to operate on. We must remove every stumbling block. Air Peace has shown that it has that capacity, so all the government needs to do is to show some powers and support so that anyone seeing Air Peace will know that Air Peace is representing Nigeria,” he said.
The Chief Operating Officer of one of the airlines affirmed that it would be hard for any airline to survive in this clime without government support, and “those of us that have come this far deserve some credits.”
“I can bet that even the new national carrier will find it hard to survive in this environment without the government helping them to cut corners. I thought the most logical thing to do is make the industry better by removing booby-traps for all investments to thrive.
“What we have often seen, and the reason we are worried is that once the government carrier comes on board and settles into the grim realities, the government would do everything to ensure that it does not fail too quickly thereby cutting-off its charges, offering subsidised fuel and other privileges while forgetting that it is a competitive market. And we are already seeing that from the government’s dealings with private airlines, doing almost everything to stall our growth.
“Who says our local airlines cannot be formidable flag carriers of reference if given the right support? Air Peace played the role of a national carrier in South Africa, evacuating Nigerians, and medical equipment during the pandemic. That airline has three Boeing 777 airliners and four brand new Embraer jets already, with pending orders enough to cover major cities in the world. So, you can’t keep talking about poor capacity when you have not supported airlines with tax holidays and other concessions. If support is given to the right people and investors, the existing business concerns will blossom and the economy will grow,” he said.