To the best of my recollection, Nigeria has not had a finer moment in its aviation industry than the time it had a national carrier. Without going into much specifics, that emblem of national pride which was formally liquidated a little over a decade ago, did more than provide safe and affordable air travel for Nigerians. It also produced and employed some of the best brains in the industry till date.
We may not have deliberately averted our minds to it, but the fact that government had a hand in the aviation pie would partly account for the priority attention the industry received at that time. It is sad that like so many other national institutions, Nigerian Airways which had not less than 30 aircraft at the peak of its glory in the 80s could hardly maintain one bird some years down the line.
But I do not think that should discourage us from a new venture entirely, I actually suggest that the time for Nigeria to take the plunge is now and I am going to explain.
Where we are, nearly nothing is working the way it should. Infrastructure is at the worst state of decay, local airlines are failing one after the other as a result of inconsistent policies, high cost of operation without commensurate returns and of course, a significant level of mis-administration stemming from poor regulation.
There is the problem of aviation fuel which has raged for over one year as well as the inability of foreign airlines to repatriate their funds. This in itself has led a number of airlines to withdraw their services entirely or reduce the frequency of their operations. Hundreds of jobs have been lost and livelihoods hampered due to this level of seeming governmental lethargy. I am persuaded that the emergence of a national carrier will inspire government to pay more attention to all the issues that currently limit the aviation industry in Nigeria.
Another important reason for a national carrier is the prospect that it would facilitate the promotion of tourism in the country. This is more so at this time when government shows interest in the diversification of the economy.
I have said times without number that any country serious about tourism must sell its endowments to the outside world; the national carrier will bear our story through onboard promotional materials like videos, flyers, photos and offers of attractive discounts to visit these sites. These would be on both local and international flights and would inevitably boost inbound and even domestic tourism as many Nigerians would desire to explore opportunities at home.
A corollary to this is the opening up of more domestic routes in the country. With a national carrier and successful promotion of the country’s tourism potential, it would become expedient to activate many, if not all of Nigeria’s 26 airport facilities as a way of providing safe, comfortable and easy transport to these tourism attractions. The national carrier will inspire the development of the domestic market into states that private sector operators have not ventured into because of assorted risks and limited resources. This would, of course, mean the creation of thousands of off and on ground employment opportunities for Nigerians, ease wear and tear on our roads, reduce the rate of auto accidents and save the lives of thousands of Nigerians.
A national carrier will also stimulate significant competitiveness in the airfares within and outside the country. While we agree that air travel is not exactly cheap anywhere in the world, fares are mostly out of reach in Nigeria at the moment. However, just like we had a Globacom driving down the cost of telephony for nationalistic reasons a couple of years back, a national carrier will put the interest of Nigerians ahead of other considerations and resultantly, drive down prices fundamentally because it provides credible competition to other airlines, who are not likely to be able to withstand its clout.
The country will also derive a comparative advantage on competitive routes especially those with which we have existing Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA). This agreement allows international commercial air transport between territories of the world. Currently, Nigeria is at a gross disadvantage, being unable to reciprocate the preponderance of the tens of such agreements it has already executed. The nation only needs a national carrier to turn this situation around.
The truth, in fact, is that it will be impossible to articulate the benefits of a national carrier in one single piece even though one acknowledges the fact that government has to attend to a few things ahead of the finalisation of the initiative.
One is the very important and urgent need to pay off workers of the liquated Nigerian Airways who are still being owed almost 15 years after. Nigeria must indeed do away with this tradition of denying people their wages while still active and entitlements after retirement. It is one of the reasons why corruption trails our every step.
Now, one way to achieve this is to see that we establish this airline through a public, private partnership arrangement.
Bankole Bernard is the President of the National Association of Nigerian Travel Agency (NANTA)