By Kirk Leigh
The recent Nigeria Air saga and the associated scandals have, yet again, put the question of a national carrier on the front burner and invariably underscored the need for and the inevitability of setting one up in Nigeria.
A national carrier is any aircraft or ship operated by or on behalf of the Government. This is distinguished from a flag carrier, where a transport company, such as an airline or shipping company, is locally registered in a given sovereign state and enjoys preferential rights or privileges accorded by the government for international operations.
For many countries, the national carrier has played a significant role in nation-building and national identity. Historically, airlines have been regarded as important national symbols, and they have been used by governments as ‘chosen instruments’ for projecting their countries internationally.
The immediate benefit of government infrastructure is that it is a public good and is provided for the benefit of the people of the country providing it. Similarly, a National Carrier is set up for the convenience of people who want to travel to major destinations around the world. This was what the defunct Nigeria Airways provided seamlessly before it was grounded by a combination of monumental corruption and mismanagement.
When Nigeria Airways crisscrossed the Nigerian skies and beyond, thousands of Nigerians got gainfully employed, whose paychecks contributed to the ever-rising levels of consumption in the economy and thus led to economic growth. This is the case in model emerging countries like the UAE, Ethiopia, and Qatar. In the UAE, for example, Emirates Airlines, with an annual turnover of US$28.3 billion, employs over 105,000 employees across all its business units and associated firms, making it one of the biggest employers in the Middle East. It is a similar story for other airlines.
National Carriers are veritable vehicles for training manpower (engineers); private airlines would rather go for readymade engineers like expatriates, leading to a dearth of indigenous technical manpower because there is no national airline to train them.
The same applies to Pilots. Local airlines are full of expat pilots because none of them are willing to train new pilots. Experts say those who trained cannot be absorbed by these airlines to do type-rating, and these are services that used to be provided by the defunct national carrier (Nigeria Airways).
We do not fail to notice that a national carrier like Emirates has ancillary services like catering companies, leasing companies, aircraft insurance firms, and partnerships with service providers like airport management, fuel suppliers, and others. This was the situation with the defunct Nigeria Airways. What this means is that a national carrier engenders a productive value change from which thousands can benefit.
Beyond providing employment for citizens, a national carrier will help reduce pressure on the local currency and ultimately preserve the value of the currency, in this case, the naira. When Nigerians travel on the national carrier, they pay in the local currency, not in dollars, which would ultimately be repatriated to their home countries. Indeed, the monetary authorities are still smarting from a crisis engendered by $464 million in trapped funds that got foreign airlines either leaving or threatening to leave.
Still on the benefits of a national carrier to the economy, a National Carrier also promotes trade and tourism, especially since we have a large diaspora. Nigerians abroad will be able to come home more often on their country’s carrier and contribute to national tourism earnings. A national carrier can also be part of the package sold by tour companies to enhance the quality of their packages. An airline like Singapore Airlines is synonymous with such packages, as are Dubai and Emirates; South Africa tourism and South Africa Airways; and Kenya Airways and Kenya tourism. Indeed, tourism flies on the wings of national carriers.
Since most flights by a national carrier are non-transit flights, Nigerians are not likely going to be paying airport development levies that are associated with passengers in transit. This means that development levies paid by Nigerians that go towards improving airports in Dubai, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and many others will stop once a national carrier is established. Instead, foreigners get to contribute to the development of Nigeria’s airports with much-needed foreign exchange.
The recent experiences of Air Peace, where they got blackmailed by the UAE and accused of not having suitable aircraft to fly into Dubai, cannot happen with a national carrier. Also recall that while Emirates had 20 weekly slots to Nigerian airports, Air Peace had only one. It took the intervention of the Federal government to increase the number of slots for Air Peace.
The motive of the UAE was ostensibly to protect their dominance on the Nigeria-Dubai route. With national carriers, what operates is a spirit of reciprocity whereby slots are mutually agreed upon by the respective governments on behalf of the concerned or both countries’ carriers.
Indeed, the benefits and imperatives of a country establishing a national carrier cannot be overemphasized; it has economic and diplomatic advantages that every serious country should not gloss over.
Kirk Leigh is the Publisher of AbujaPolitico.com.