Has Africa learned nothing about national airlines?

Nigeria says it plans to relaunch its national carrier at the end of the year.

The logo for the freshly branded Nigeria Air was unveiled at the 2018 Farnborough Airshow in the UK. It is Nigeria’s latest attempt to revive Nigerian Airways, which notoriously went bust in 2003.

Since then there have been at least two aspirants to the status of national carrier. First came Virgin Nigeria, a joint venture with Richard Branson’s Virgin Group – a deal that was terminated in 2009. Last October the government took control of Arik Air, a private airline that had until then acted as Nigeria’s de facto sovereign carrier.

This latest endeavour could also end in tears, and heavy losses. Commercial aviation is a notoriously difficult business, and sovereign carriers have the worst track record of all.

The world is replete with defunct or cash-strapped national airlines, which often turn into unsustainable vanity projects that soak public funds. They depend heavily on state subsidies that most African countries frankly cannot afford.

The likes of Italy’s Alitalia have been on life support for years, and exist only because of hundreds of millions in EU bailouts. In struggling South African Airways the continent also has a good and current example of just how difficult running a national airline is.

Nigeria is not alone in trying to restore its national carrier. The likes of Ghana, Zambia and Uganda are all looking to do the same. Despite the daunting history of national airlines there are good reasons to do so. Tourism, particularly from China, as well as business travel are up. Yet Africa’s fragmented airspace makes the continent hard to access.

Building strong and sustainable sovereign carriers could help alleviate this, in turn driving investment and growth. The timing could also be good following the recent launching of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement to boost regional integration.

The good news is that there are signs that lessons have been learned. Rather than go it alone Nigeria is planning a public-private sector partnership for Nigeria Air, and the government says it will own no more than 5% of the company.

At the same time Ethiopian Airlines, by far Africa’s most successful carrier, is being enlisted as a strategic partner. Ghana and Zambia are said to be in similar talks with the airline. It is a good relationship to have. Ethiopian has just taken delivery of its 100th plane, the company is profitable, and understands the African market better than any other.

With any luck some of its managerial prowess, which has helped it become a globally competitive company, will rub off.

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