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Why does Nigeria need a national carrier?


In an ever-connected world where global travel has become an integral part of our lives, the aviation industry plays a pivotal role in shaping economies. As of 2020, the aviation industry supported at least 65.5 million jobs globally and $2.7 trillion (3.6%) of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP). If aviation were a country, it would rank 20th in size by GDP. The industry is expected to grow from $333.96 billion in 2023 to $386.21 billion by 2028. Certainly, there is a thriving market eagerly awaiting exploration. 

In July 2018, Nigeria embarked on a journey to penetrate the global aviation market, with the unveiling of the nation’s proposed national carrier, at the Farnborough Air Show in England. Five years later, the proposed national carrier landed at Abuja Airport, evoking a range of emotions among Nigerians. While some expressed joy at the long-awaited launch of a national carrier, others questioned the logic of commencing operations with just a single aircraft. But, there’s more. As citizens grappled with their sentiments surrounding the lone aircraft, it came to the fore that Nigeria was not the owner of the plane. Instead, it was borrowed from Ethiopian Airlines and rebranded as Nigeria’s.

Making a case for this at an investigative hearing, Dapo Olumide – MD of Nigerian Air revealed it rented the airline from Ethiopian Airlines to unveil the logo. “We have institutional investors that are not in aviation, but they are putting their money for 10 to 15 years, so they need to see what the actual aircraft will look like. So we brought it in here to show them what the aircraft will look like, and then the social media dimension came into it,” he stated.

He emphasised that the case was misconstrued by mischievous people. We are not at the point of operating the airline yet. 

Nigeria’s lofty dream

It is important to acknowledge that Nigeria had a flourishing national carrier at some point in its history. The now-defunct Nigeria Airways was established in August 1958, after the dissolution of West African Airways Corporation (WAAC). It finally ceased operations in 2003 owing to military incursion, mismanagement, corruption and bad debts. 

Defunct Nigerian Airways. PC: The Guardian

In its heydays, Nigeria Airways had at least 30 aircraft. Nigeria Airways was later succeeded by Virgin Nigeria, and the ground facilities were taken over by Arik Air. Despite the obstacles it faced, the legacy of Nigeria Airways stands as a beacon of hope, symbolizing the country’s aspirations for a robust and prosperous national carrier.

At the moment, considerable effort has been invested in the development of the new Nigeria Air, raising hopes for its successful realization. The proposed airline was projected to require $8.8 million for preliminary expenses and $300 million for its initial operations. Nigeria envisions a fleet of 35 aircraft within the next five years, with the unveiling of its inaugural ‘borrowed’ aircraft marking the commencement of this ambitious endeavour.

Last July, the Federal Executive Council approved the leasing of three aircraft, marking a significant step towards the commencement of operations. However, amidst ambitious aspirations and diligent efforts, challenges have emerged. 

Ethiopian Airlines is a major investor in Nigeria Air, holding a 49 per cent stake, Nigerian private investors hold 46 per cent, and the federal government – 5 per cent. The equity percentages have since elicited various reactions, as many think this would pose an existential threat to domestic carriers and the entire aviation sector. A lawsuit has been filed by local airline operators within the country, asserting their capability to manage Nigerian Air more effectively than a foreign airline.

Why do countries need a national carrier?

Despite the cost, one would wonder why a country like Nigeria, with its dwindling resource, need a national carrier when it has survived without one for years. However, there are compelling reasons to consider. First, a national airline catalyzes economic growth and development. Its presence can play a crucial role in facilitating trade and business connections, attracting foreign investments, and encouraging the growth of ancillary sectors such as hospitality, transportation, and tourism services. 

Moreover, the establishment of a national carrier allows countries to retain revenue that would otherwise be lost to foreign operations. Nigeria for instance, loses about $ 2.3 billion on annual capital flights to foreign airlines. By owning a national carrier, a significant portion of this revenue that was previously lost would be retained within Nigeria’s economy and possibly contribute to economic growth and development.

Nigeria Air on Abuja tarmac

Also important is the fact that a national carrier helps facilitate the repatriation of citizens during crises, ensuring their safe return home. During times of conflict or civil unrest, when commercial flights may be disrupted or unavailable, a national carrier can step in to provide evacuation services and bring citizens back to their home country. 

For example, when Nigerian students were trapped in the Russian-Ukraine war and war-torn Sudan, a national carrier would have helped in expediting the repatriation process. So instead of relying solely on the goodwill of private airlines like Air Peace, which may encounter delays and logistical hurdles, a national carrier could have facilitated a more efficient and coordinated rescue operation. This ensures the safety and well-being of citizens and demonstrates the government’s commitment to protecting its people and providing necessary assistance during challenging times.

Lastly, a national carrier bestows on the country a sense of national pride. It is a tangible representation of the nation’s accomplishments and its ability to compete in the international space. 

As Nigeria continues to grapple with the concept of its proposed Nigerian Airway, we eagerly anticipate the swift realization of this idea, which will allow its citizens to reap the benefits of belonging to “Africa’s Giant.”

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