Nigeria's aviation industry is facing major developments, including the introduction of a new airline. JANET SEBASTIAN talks to the minister, Dr Kema Chikwe

  The long-running problems of privatising Nigeria Airways are to be countered by the introduction of a new airline - Air Nigeria - currently being put in place by the government.  
Aviation Minister Dr Kemafo Chikwe hopes that the new airline, being set up in partnership with French aviation giant Airbus Industrie, will be up and running by June. It will fly international routes while the incumbent national airline, Nigeria Airways, will service domestic and regional routes only.

"What we have tried to do is first give Nigeria an airline - that is important for our national psyche and pride." However, she says this does not mean the privatisation process for Nigeria Airways has to stop. Measures to privatise the beleaguered airline, plagued by problems and setbacks over the past few years, are still in the pipeline.

"I don't believe Nigeria Airways must die before it is privatised," says Chikwe, adding that the introduction of the new airline should, in fact, boost Nigeria Airways by taking pressure off it and allowing the privatisation to proceed more smoothly.

"We are first trying to ensure a national carrier for Nigeria. The challenge that matters is that people are able to travel with a national carrier," says Chikwe.

She says the privatisation process is in the hands of the Bureau for Public Enterprises, the implementation body for the National Council on Privatisation. Several options have been considered but the process has been mired in problems. The government's lead adviser in the privatisation process, the 1FC, pulled out last year.

"Another process was to be started with BPE trying to appoint new advisors but that is as far as they have reached. From my ministry we are working to our own mandate, that is facilitating the proposal from Airbus.

"When I assumed office there were no flights at all," says Chikwe, who was appointed Aviation Minister in 2000. "It was when I came that we put Nigeria Airways back in the sky with two 737s operating the regional routes and a 5C 10 operating the London routes.

The airline is technically insolvent with trade debts of about $67 million and Financial debt of more than $330 million.

The minister, who is also the chairperson of the aviation committee of the Nigeria Airways privatisation council, to which BPE reports, believes the new airline is the answer for Nigeria's aviation problems. "Our venture with Airbus came about following President Obasanjo's visit to France late last year. He met with Airbus and charged them with the responsibility of seeing what could be done for Nigerian aviation.

"So, when Airbus came with an offer for leasing four Airbus 300s and A340s to operate the international routes with a third partner we were happy."

The initial proposal was to partner with Emirates Air but when the airline did not agree to it. Gulf Air was approached.

"Airbus will manufacturer the carriers and Gulf Air will provide the management and technical support for the routes. We don't have all the details as yet as we are still studying the proposal, but so far so good."

The two airlines will be totally different companies but Chikwe stresses that Nigeria Airways is not being sidelined in any way by the introduction of a new airline.

"We are getting experts in to turn Nigeria Airways around and revitalise and reposition it for regional and domestic routes."

Chikwe, who was redeployed to aviation from being Transport Minister, controversially sacked the management of Nigeria Airways for incompetence after they leased a Boeing 747 from Air Djibouti, which had no Airway Operators certificate to operate the Lagos-London route last year.

"I removed all of them from general manager level up following that mess. They were there before I came so I did not appoint them. The president gave me the job to sanitise this industry. That is my mission and I am unwavering," says Chikwe.

Moves towards privatisation have also resulted in 1,000 staff losing their jobs. "This is a commercialised sector, the government is not putting any
money into Nigeria Airways. It is a market-driven economy and you cannot overburden yourself with staff that you don't need.

"With the Airbus arrangement, there is going to be training and retraining so each new arrangement will retrain whoever is employed. We often think that the government owes us money for going to work, not for being productive and that is something that we have to kill in the airline business in Nigeria, and in all government enterprises."

A government directive regulates Nigeria Airways' budget. "We now get approvals before money is used for anything. We use monies from our bilateral air services account, commercial agreement accounts and so on. But I also try to make the operations profitable."

Chikwe has instituted a policy that all Nigeria Airways accounts are sent to the Aviation Ministry once a week. "We now have checks and balances in place and can look at the running and handling costs. 1 also set up a committee to oversee that area and the profit they are making that will justify the number of staff.

"I keep telling my staff that they really have to professionalise themselves because if you are a professional you will be employable anywhere. A situation where only Nigeria Airways can employ a person doesn't make sense. So the mentality of routinely going to work in the Nigerian civil service invariably has to die. If you go to work, you must achieve something."

South African Airways recently with-drew from the joint venture with Nigeria Airways to service the latter's Lagos-New York route, saying it was a loss-making venture.

The minister claims that SAA's decision looked like it was designed to embarrass the Nigerian government. Nigeria Airways has since taken over the route using an aircraft wet-leased from Air Atlanta in the US. Chikwe says there are also plans to begin a Lagos-Johannesburg route to fill the gap left by SAA which introduced a new once weekly flight to Lagos as part of the venture.

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