AT the recently concluded third Ministerial Performance Review Retreat in Abuja, President Muhammadu Buhari assured that the proposed Nigeria Air national carrier would commence operations before the end of this year. He said it was already 91 per cent accomplished, and counted it as one of the achievements of his government.
The national carrier idea has been on the table of the Buhari administration almost from its first day in office. In 2017, the Federal Government budgeted N555 million for the establishment of the airline and N200 million for consultancy. There were also allegations that $600,000 (N183 million) was paid to a Bahraini company for the design of the logo. The Aviation Minister, Hadi Sirika, denied that allegation but failed to disclose the amount.
After an initial hustle and bustle, the project suffered a setback when the $338 million requested for it was stood down by the Federal Executive Council, FEC, in 2019, an election year.
Bringing back the project at another election year and with only seven months to the end of this administration, raises questions as to the real reasons behind the frantic push for it.
The Federal Government argues that apart from “national pride”, Nigeria Air will provide jobs, help promote capacity in the industry and reduce the cost of tickets.
But industry experts believe that the venture is most probably dead on arrival. They point to the wet-lease mode of acquiring the three initial aircraft, arguing that it means that the leasing company will also supply the pilots and crew. How will that help in alleviating unemployment in the sector? Worse still, expatriates will be paid in hard currency at a time when foreign airlines cannot retrieve their dollars trapped in Nigeria.
Experts are also afraid that a government-owned Nigeria Air will disadvantage the private operators and still succumb to the same “Nigerian factors” that led to the collapse of the once famous Nigeria Airways.
Instead of its proposed take-off with three rented aircraft, the national carrier could easily have been operated with the 30 or so aircraft that the Asset Management Company of Nigeria had seized from Arik Air and Aero Contractors over indebtedness.
The AMCON’s inability to keep most of those planes flying to recover the N300 billion owed it is no credit to government involvement in the ownership and operation of airlines.
We agree with experts that the Nigeria Air could just end up as another white elephant and a mere pet pursuit of some individuals in the current administration.
After the Nigeria Airways debacle and the serially failed efforts by successive governments to float another national carrier, government should have restricted itself to the regulation of the industry through its various specialised agencies.
We hope Nigeria Air, if it comes on stream, will meet expectations.