Two depressing pieces of news have come out of Africa in the last week or so.
The first was that AFRAA has urged governments to "support national carriers in the face of foreign competition" and the second that there had been calls in Nigeria for the formation of a new national,-and presumably nationalised,- carrier, along with shrill calls from unions ever on the lookout for new members for the need for one to evacuate Nigerians stranded in Libya.If ever there were a reason for investing millions in a new airline of any sort this is not it.
Let's start by looking at the AFRAA exhortation. The development of air travel, tourism and strong business centres in Africa has for ever been blighted by attempts to protect often small and struggling national airlines who have provided a handful of jobs at enormous costs with money diverted from much more necessary infrastructure and social projects. Starting in colonial times, frequencies have been held down, transit services blinded (ie not been allowed to carry passengers on local sectors) and huge amounts of additional money spent on flying the flag on long haul routes for supposed prestige purposes. In reality having the flag seen at distant airports by a handful of aircraft spotters and passing passengers has zero effect on how a nation is perceived overseas.To spend millions of dollars on this passtime has been a complete waste of time and money. Some nations, notably Uganda and Zambia ,have taken the wise step of abandoning these follies and letting market forces take over. Both have more air services to more places than they would have had if they were protecting a national carrier. Malawi and Tanzania meanwhile have taken the other tack at huge cost and seem inclined to continue doing so. Africa needs fewer and bigger airlines with more resources and strong regional hubs. As we have described before, the western side of the continent amazingly has none of significance while the eastern has Cairo, Addis Ababa, Nairobi and Johannesburg. The best advice to most other countries would be to buy shares in Kenya Airways, encourage it to grow in and through their capital cities, and let unprofitable national carriers go to the wall other than paying them to operate any socially essential domestic services and welcome all comers, local and foreign, with complete open skies. Africa needs a few strong airlines with the strength to thrive and grow in a very competitive business, not a host of economy sapping, ever struggling small nationalised ones. The private sector will step in to provide domestic and regional services once they have a level playing field to do so. Everyone, AFRAA included , would then see a transformation. Again tourism and other businesses and the employment they generate would gain massively and out of all proportion to any local airline jobs lost.
AFRAA needs to be facing its governments and airlines up to the 21st century realities rather than urging them to hang on to an untenable and counter productive past.It needs to start again with a completely new, energetic, inspiring vision and break away from the deadening effects of past nationalistic and protectionist ones.Money saved on giving artifical respiration to unprofitable airlines would, for a start, be much better spent on radically improving and modernising Africa's airports and aviation infrastructure and give the countries concerned a much better return on their expenditure.
Moving on to Nigeria, any revived national carrier is likely to harm the growth of the private ones such as Arik and is unlikely to be successful. There is a real risk that people involved with previous nationaised failures would see themselves as having prior rights to the leading roles and that to keep everyone reasonably happy there would be unsustainable overmanning from the start. The revenue diverted from the thrusting independents would make life very difficult for them to thrive or even survive. As for rescuing stranded Nigerians, that's fine but the government can simply charter in the capacity from wherever it chooses at short notice and at a fraction of the cost and with no ongoing liability. Rescue missions are not the basis for starting an airline.