Why are most African airlines floundering?

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

The state-owned airline of Africa’s most advanced economy, South African Airways, is about to be bailed out by the state with about US$1 billion. Again. In July, not only did the state provide cash support to the almost bankrupt airline after an international bank insisted that its loan be serviced, it had to provide about 20 billion rand in guarantees. It would probably not be the last time. Even more saddening is the proposal that the pension fund of public workers may be used to pay almost half of the proposed US$1 billion bailout. Almost everytime credit rating agencies issue a review on the sovereign now, the deplorable state of the airline’s finances is mentioned. Only breath of fresh air is perhaps, finally, it has new management that probably knows its onions. Time will tell. Up north to the east, Kenyan Airways, another state-owned airline (partially though, as the Kenyan government only has a 29.8 percent stake), which incidentally has an international airline of repute, Air France KLM, as a shareholder (26.73 percent stake), would restructure its finances imminently, after failing to recover from a souring of the Kenyan tourism sector by terrorist attacks some five years ago. The restructuring plan seeks primarily to convert the debt it owes 11 local banks into equity via a special purpose vehicle, which would make them the largest shareholder afterwards (according to Reuters).

Bright spot
Some African countries have simply given up on the idea of a national airline, after earlier initiatives either went bankrupt or simply collapsed out of sheer incompetence. But there is a bright spot. Ethiopian Airlines made more money (US$273m net profit) than all African airlines combined (US$800m net loss) in 2016; a point happily made by African Business, a prestigious African publication, and BBC, the premier British broadcaster, in recent features. It begs the question, though: what makes it possible for Ethiopian Airlines to do so well at the same time that its supposed contemporaries are floundering? Tewolde Gebremariam, chief executive of the Ethiopian national carrier puts it rather well in a recent BBC interview: lack of government interference, private sector expertise and cost management. They seem simple, not so? Not really. Even when private sector experts are allowed to run a state-owned enterprise, African governments loathe being ignored.

The discipline of the Ethiopian government provides many lessons. It does not fund its airline in anyway. Ethiopian Airlines is completely run from its own finances. It does get support from where it matters though: America. The US Exim Bank guarantees most of its aircraft purchases, Mr Gebremariam tells the BBC. With that kind of backing, top global banks like JP Morgan Chase, Citi, Barclays and HSBC are all too eager to offer it accommodative financing. Today, a lot of Africans increasingly do not mind a stop at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa en route their final international destinations and indeed on the return journey back home. Mr Gebremariam made sure to point out to the BBC that at least 2,000 Chinese pass through Bole en route various African countries in the morning and vice versa in the evenings, every blessed day. And anyone who has travelled on the airline would attest to their efficiency. The quality is mid-range, though.

Hands off
Amidst the many floundering African airlines, Nigerian authorities desire to establish a national carrier. The motivation is nostalgic, in part. National pride is also a factor. Many agree that unless the motive is profit, it would suffer the unflattering fate of its predecessors. Thankfully, the authorities plan for it to be private-sector driven. The government has also appointed Lufthansa, a highly-regarded German airline, to advise it. But would the authorities be able to hands off like the Ethiopians seem to be able to do rather well? History suggests this is doubtful. It certainly does not help that Nigeria has a bad reputation when it comes to contracts. The experience of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group in the mid- to late-2000s with its Nigerian airline venture, Virgin Nigeria, in which it had a 49 percent stake, is instructive. Mr Branson was left dumbfounded when a new administration began to question the validity of Virgin’s contracts with the preceding one. What was the gripe? The authorities did not think it was appropriate for Virgin Nigeria to operate from the international terminal of the country’s main airport. To Mr Branson’s dismay, “heavies” were sent to “smash up” his airline’s lounge “with sledgehammers” to ensure compliance. The African aviation sector is not for the faint-hearted.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/african-airlines-floundering/

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