I like President Buhari. I remain a fan of the man. That said, for someone like me who believes in smaller government, I have always known that supporting Buhari carried the risk of supporting dirigisme. Whatever – politics is like a christmas hamper anyway; it is not everything inside the hamper you will like or find useful.
But even at that, hearing that Nigeria wants to ‘launch’ an airline (again) just makes you shake your head. The first part of the comments attributed to the President make all the sense in the world:
Our airports are the windows through which people see our country. Anybody coming into the country will likely come through the airports.
“If we cannot secure and maintain our infrastructure, it will reflect very badly on us
Nobody can disagree with the above – our airports, especially MMIA, are truly terrible. The bar is very low – all we have to do is make sure that the airports are not glorified zoos and we would have achieved something in life.
But then the second part of the story, attributed to the Perm Sec in the aviation ministry is where it all goes messy:
The President is quite concern about lack of national carrier for now and he has directed the ministry to look into the possibility of having a national carrier as soon as possible.
Oh dear. This bad idea never goes away. There are always people who get excited at the thought of a ‘national carrier’. What exactly it is about a guaranteed waste of money that excites people remains a mystery to me. Why not just fold the money into paper planes and throw them in the air? Or burn it? The overall effect will be the same.
Whenever the debate comes up, people are quick to point to countries that appear to have successful airlines – Ethiopia, Singapore etc – and ask why Nigeria too cannot do it. The numerous failures from around the world are never mentioned. The chances of failure are far higher than success. One should not reason from an outlier.
The video above is of Lee Kuan Yew addressing a Singapore Airlines pilots strike in 1980. The man (LKY) almost single-handedly built Singapore Airlines from scratch and made it what it is today. And he had good reasons – Singapore had no choice but to be open to the world as an entrepôt. The airline was just one part of this plan. The second part was building Changi Airport at a cost of $1.2bn plus shutting down the old airport which had cost over $600m to build. It is said that when he visited America and landed at Boston’s Logan airport, he noticed that most of the approach of the plane was over water i.e. planes flying over people’s homes was minimal. Expanding the old airport would have meant flying over people’s homes to get to it. So he shut it down and built Changi near the edge of the city. He is on record as saying the money he spent building Changi is one of the best investments he ever made.
You will not find any quote attributed to LKY about his ‘concern at a lack of a national carrier’ motivating him to set up Singapore Airlines. It was always a business decision for him from day one and in the early years he was always threatening to shut down the airline if they made losses. You can understand why he was irritated in that video.
All this was classic LKY – going around the world and copying the best ideas he could find then ruthlessly and honestly implementing them in Singapore. It also tells us what it takes to have a successful airline especially when you look at the Gulf carriers as well – you need to spend huge sums on having a hub airport as well for the airline to have any serious chance of being a useful investment.
When you ask Nigerians why they want a national carrier, it is always about ‘pride’ or how the sky feels empty without any aircraft flying Nigerian livery. Or it is about how Nigeria is ‘losing’ billions of naira yearly to foreign airlines. This money can always be given to a Nigerian airline so that it can create 500,000 jobs in Nigeria (it’s always 500,000 jobs).
But what is the problem being solved here? There is none. There is no scarcity of seats on planes for people who want to travel out of the country. You might not like the price of the ticket but that is another matter entirely – I like the Aston Martin DB7 but I do not like the price they are asking for it. There is not much I or Aston Martin can do about this for now. But if you want to travel out of Nigeria today, you will find tickets to buy and go anywhere you want to go, subject to the visas in your passport.
If you’re burning with patriotism so much that it makes you hate foreign airlines, Arik is also a choice for you as long as you do not mind flying in tears. With the eye watering amount of money it owes to the Nigerian government via AMCON, it is effectively a national carrier anyway. There is no problem whatsoever crying out to be solved here. Solutions abound already.
Yes, the Ethiopians seem to be doing it (with airlines, what you see is not always what you get), but what about the South African Airways which has lost almost $300m in the last 2 years? Or Kenya Airways which announced the biggest corporate loss in the country’s history last week of $257m? Or Air India that is losing money on every route where it is flying the Dreamliner and had to be bailed out with $5.8bn in 2012? For every ‘success’ you find among national carriers, you will 5 or more utter failures and money pits.
Let’s talk to ourselves as Nigerians – what is it you have seen in the history of your country that makes you think it can successfully run an airline without bankrupting the country in the process? We are not Singapore, no point lying to ourselves. Ordinary joint venture with Virgin the last time around, the Nigerian directors attended board meetings for one reason only – to demand free tickets for their wives and girlfriends. And that is not even half the story.
A national carrier will need plenty of government subsidies for a number of years for it to get off the ground. The way Nigerians approach such things is that the subsidies then become the incentive of the whole game i.e. they will avoid making profits so as to ensure the subsidies are never withdrawn. If you don’t believe me, look at Nigerian Railways and the ridiculous pricing of their tickets. What they tell you is that the tickets are priced low for the sake of ‘the masses’. But these prices guarantee that the whole enterprise is unsustainable so government allocations continue to flow every year.
But there is something even more sinister at play here. Who is asking for a national carrier? Or who are the people likely to loudly support this idea? It is definitely not the market woman hustling to get by daily or the farmer facing an uncertain harvest. It is the Nigerian middle classes who are experts at capturing government for themselves. This played out very vividly 4 years ago when the then Aviation minister, Stella Oduah, was fighting the foreign airlines for cheaper business and first class tickets. The richer you are in Nigeria, the better your chances of capturing government to hand you subsidies. Indeed, until the recent introduction of ‘luxury taxes’ in the dying days of the Jonathan government, business and first class flyers paid lower taxes on their tickets than those flying in economy.
And we have not even talked about those who will steal the place dry. Yes, we are hopefully entering an era where stealing stupidly and with impunity will be greatly reduced. But why risk such an experiment? It is better not to find out if Nigerians are now able to stay in the same room with money that does not belong to them without the money disappearing. Maybe some day in future but I doubt if that day has arrived yet.
Given the depressing challenges facing Nigeria at the moment, do we really want our President running after some petty thieves who will be looking for ways to fly their girlfriends for free at the expense of the rest of us? I think not.
Let us bury this bad idea once and for all and spend our time thinking about policies that actually make life better for Nigerians. Bad ideas suck out life from the space where serious issues are being debated. They are a sideshow and end up wasting everyone’s time.
Mr President, if you are looking for ideas that can transform people’s lives and start the hard task of beating back poverty from our shores, Professors Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and several others have a truly exciting idea that they have tested in 6 countries with very very encouraging results.
Their paper is here
Thank you for listening. Don’t give in to the devil. Airline business is bad market.