Nigeria is launching a new national airline — but will it take off?

Nigeria Air logo from Nigeria's new national airline carrier launched amidst criticism and controversy.

The federal government of Nigeria launched plans for a new national carrier, Nigeria Air, seemingly undeterred by a history of running national carriers aground.

Indeed, Nigerian aviation workers are still demanding severance packages from the now-defunct pioneer Nigerian Airways and they, along with fellow Nigerians, are kicking against the new airline.

Many Nigerians, including active aviation unions from now-defunct airways, are skeptical. In fact, aviation workers from the country's pioneer airline, Nigerian Airways, are still demanding severance packages since the company's demise in 2003.

In 2004, Richard Branson's Virgin Airways undertook a joint venture with the Nigerian government and floated Air Nigeria. However, Virgin withdrew from the business in 2010. By September 2012, Air Nigeria had ceased its operations:

The reasons behind failed attempts to resuscitate Nigerian Airways have never been disclosed but many blame it on inept management. In 2013, Nigerian businessman Pascal Dozie said that Nigerian Airways failed due to lack of “proper management.” In addition, doing business with the Nigerian government is toxic due to a “hostile operating environment, unfriendly policies and exploitative taxation.”

Last year, President Buhari resisted the launch of a new airline because “Nigerians need to know how we lost the one we had,” referring to Nigerian Airways. His remarks raised serious concerns that his motive to go ahead with the launch now may be to score a political advantage on the heels of 2019 presidential elections.

Hadi Sirika, Nigeria's Minister of Aviation, tried to dampen distrust by saying that Nigeria Air will run on a public-private partnership model:

This airline is a business and not a social service. It is not intended to kill any airline in Nigeria but complement it and promote it. It must be done in the right way so that it will be here to stay. Government will not hold shares beyond five per cent at the topmost. This airline has the backing of the government. Government will come up with funding according to the business case that has been delivered to the government.

But trade unions have alerted the government that they could truncate the new national carrier if their demands are not met.

As of April 2018, aviation unions claim the federal government owes 45 billion Nigerian Naira (an estimated 125 million United States Dollars) to ex-workers of the now-defunct Nigerian Airways. The two main trade unions of the sector organized a strike on March 19, giving the government a 14-day ultimatum for the payment, but later canceled upon reassurance by Sirika the payout had been secured and only needed to be approved by parliament. 

In an interview with the Independent, Comrade Olayinka Abioye, General Secretary of the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE), gave a stark warning about the new carrier:

We are not concerned about this new national carrier even though it is our baby with supposed benefits to the country. We are much more concerned about the families of the defunct national carrier, Nigerian Airways, some of whom have died. We are much more concerned about those who are living and managing to live and we are calling on this minister and government to speed up action in whatever capacity they can to ensure that Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, the Minister of Finance, make releases and pay our people. Enough is enough.

The unions may truncate the process of the new national carrier; you can take that from me. There are so many fundamental issues begging for answers in some of these things. The national carrier that we are advocating for is not what they are planning now. We said private sector-driven national carrier, what is the problem with this government?  The same government that said it didn’t have money to revamp our comatose airports is now spending $308 million as take-off grant for the airline. The same government wants to bring in six new aircraft from God-knows-where. Where then is the intervention of the private sector in all these? At what point is private sector going to be involved? These are issues that should be tackled. Then, how do you want to unveil a national carrier and take it overseas, leaving Nigeria behind. Those politicking are too much and we are not interested.

Nigerian netizens debate Nigeria Air's viability

Skeptics of the newly launched Nigeria Air shared their doubts on Twitter while fans saw this as a chance to boast online about their national pride:

Dr. Joe Abah urges Nigerians to be more “positive” about the new airline:

However, many Nigerians are not buying the positivity and national pride rhetoric about Nigeria Air. Former World Bank Vice President, Dr. Oby Ezekwesili spoke to the need for better policies and regulatory frameworks in addition to infrastructural concerns:

Some refer to the success of privatizing telecommunications, when the government fully deregulated the industry in 1999, as an example of what's possible for Nigerian aviation.

Journalist Nicholas Ibekwe countered that Nigerians are not being negative but need sound evidence in support of the new airline's viability:

Twitter user “AndyRoidO” said that there is “no basis for optimism” about a national carrier because “we have tried and failed multiple times.”

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