Africa's flag carriers

HARARE - Aviation in developing Africa, compared to the rest of the sophisticated world, has been commonly, a frustrating, loss-making proposition; nay, a deadly undertaking by clueless, State-owned carriers.

Many sane citizens never understand why their obstinate government would keep jettisoning good money via a perennially loss-making state owned enterprise (SOE).

Government-sponsored aviation on the continent is a tale of little good and much bad. To be fair, in recent years, with the acquisition of safer aircrafts and more training, enhanced by marginally better management, success and reasonable progress have been recorded, registering a steady retraction from the previous steep dive in fortunes. It is a long-haul though; the turnaround is slow.

Previously notorious for an outright lack of punctuality and poor connecting ability, things have certainly improved in the New Millenium. Going back in time to the 80s; a trip from Harare to, say Cairo, signalled a punishing endurance round-trip via Europe. Leg One was often to Johannesburg and then connecting via a distant European airport like Gatwick or Charles De Gaulle!

Throw in the hard-to-get transit visa and what has today largely become an easy 2-3-4-5-hour hop, could then easily degenerate into a forgettable trip. What a way to fly, once-upon-a-time, in expansive Mother Africa!

Most governments maintained they needed a State-owned airline to further the nation’s developmental agenda. Some independent thinkers were converted too!

Lee Crawfurd, a renowned economist opines, “When thinking about regional integration in Africa, we often think first of trade policy, telecommunications, ICT, and road infrastructure. But on a continent larger than China, India, the US, and Europe combined, air transport is inevitably going to play a key role in facilitating integration. For Africans to interact and do business together, they need to get there. As incomes rise, patience with arduous road journeys diminishes.”

African Aviator, motivated by Ethiopian Airlines’ stunning fleet and steady growth, is convinced Ethiopian was now Africa’s number one flag carrier. Others will argue for South African Airways. Kenya Airways has remarkably recovered from the regrettable crash of Flight 507. They too, may confidently raise their hand for consideration as the top dog.

Egyptair have rebounded strongly from the tragic crash of Flight 990 in 1999. The FAA’s final report, pointing at pilot suicide, was bitterly opposed by the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority.

On the other hand, some African flag carriers have over the years been unlovely, ugly and horrendous in many cases. Sadly, most of the banned-from-Europe airlines were African. The list includes, surprisingly, TAAG Angolan Airlines and Air Gabon.

Economic giant Nigeria reluctantly shut down their national flag carrier. Rampant corruption and over staffing at the behest of powerful political figures keen on employing their unqualified relatives, killed Nigeria Airways in 2003.  The carrier had accumulated staggering debts and a bewildering staff-aircraft ratio of 500:1!

The SOE depleted its fleet from an enviable high of 40 aircrafts to just three at its demise! (Sounds like someone we know in Zimbabwe!)

Ambitious Air Malawi rebranded to Malawi Airlines, and still sported the flag. Air Zimbabwe miraculously hangs on to life because of the government’s recurrent, million-dollar rescue act.

Sadly, the very same ills that killed an African aviation giant like Nigeria Airways is what plagues Air Zimbabwe and may yet throttle the airline to death unless a significant turnaround in modus operandi was instituted, together with a huge outlay of fresh capital for equipment acquisition.

African Aviator subscribes fully to the well-established notion of the flag carrier. The best examples in the world encompass the unforgettable British Airways and the acknowledged, “safest-airline-ever”, Qantas. (By law, Qantas is 51 percent owned by Australians. Of course, it’s the same 51-49 contentious ownership ratio Zimbabwe has tried to effect across our economy with not much success. The devil is in the detail!)

Serial award-wining Ethiopian Airlines, led by their likable CEO Tewolde GebreMariam, has charmed the aviation industry.

Whenever I see ET, I covetedly “localise” it, wondering why our Air Zimbabwe cannot be an ET or better, as in years gone by.

Because we now lagged by many miles, we could only dream to be like ET; factually, Africa’s most profitable airline (according to international regulator Iata); in my book, Africa’s best flag carrier.

The African narrative has shifted remarkably in the past 10-20 years, to one decidedly positive in many aspects.

Can an African flag carrier upgrade to become truly global? Could an African airline successfully challenge the global leadership stranglehold of Qantas, Emirates and the romanticised BA and KLM?

Uninformed Government interference has impeded the growth of the typical African airline. Top South African businessman, Christo Rheede cautions bluntly, wisely; “any SOE is first-and-foremost a business. It must be run as such if it was not going to encounter a tailspin of deadly losses.”

The ominous message to the Zimbabwean government reads; yes, because you pay the piper, by all means, call the tune; but amateurishly fiddling with the pipe reproduces a bad sound.

Happy landings aviators!

*Maguire (africa.aviator@gmail.com) is a trained pilot who enthusiastically scans the global aviation industry.

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