by Anthony A. Kila
Since about six months or so, former president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and prominent human right activist, Mr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) has been pushing with his usual commendable fervor for a law he has termed the “Fly Nigeria Act”. If such bill is passed by the National Assembly, it will become mandatory for public office holders, other state officials and indeed any Nigerian travelling outside the country on government expense to fly Nigerian airlines. I have been informed that Olisa Agbakoba has presented a private bill to the National Assembly and that another provision of the “Fly Nigeria Act” is that Nigerians travelling on international routes not covered by Nigerian airlines must use foreign airlines that have code-share agreements with a Nigerian carrier.
In the vision and words of the supporters of such bill, it is clear that they see the bill as a first step towards in a chain of self-propagating advantage situation wherein one successful solution leads to more of a desired result which generates still more desired results for the country. So they argue that if passed into law and a significant number of Nigerian travelers are forced to fly Nigerian airlines, there will be an automatic and rapid decrease in the amount of money paid into the coffers of foreign airlines operating in Nigeria, this will translate into a rapid increase in the revenue of Nigerian airlines and this will in turn lead to a significant increase in their profitability which in turn will lead to expansion of airline operations which will then generate employment opportunities and even help boost the development of allied infrastructural facilities such as the Lagos Airport.
On the surface, all these sound rather convincing and even appealing because the platter comes also with patriotic seasoning: Take money away from foreigners and give it to locals, force Nigerian officials to fly Nigeria etc. This is all romantic, but in reality wrong and if implemented might even make things worse. The idea of forcing any Nigerian to choose particular airlines by law is obsolete and smacks of a kneejerk reaction to the crisis Arik is facing.
Like every other traveler in the world, Nigerians, whether public officials or private citizens make their choice of airline based on price, safety and type of service they get from a carrier. Past experiences with Nigeria Airways and later Virgin Nigeria have shown that in reality, given the chance, Nigerian public officials and influential private Nigerians will fly Nigerian airlines where they are sure they can influence and abuse the system. Olisa Agbakoba and other supporters of this bill should speak to staff operating in this sector and they will hear about a lot of appalling episodes where flights have been delayed to please ministers and their ilks. They will hear of sorry episodes where flights have been rerouted in obedience to orders from above.
If we want Nigerian airlines to expand, be profitable and to employ more people, the efficient way forward is to make them competitive and attractive to not only Nigerians but also to the rest of the world. Our strategies for having stronger and truly internationally competitive airlines will have to focus on pricing, punctuality, safety and customer service. At the moment, Nigerian airlines are struggling not because there are not enough passengers but because they struggle to service the ones they have. Their problems are financial, infrastructural and largely managerial. A cursory look at the performance at domestic flights within Nigeria wherein all competing carriers operate on a more or less level playing field will tell you which airline is regarded as clearly the most reliable in terms of punctuality, safety and good customer service. What is that airline doing? That is what we should be making our own airlines do.
The foreign airlines which Nigerian public officials and private citizens tend to prefer on international routes gain their preference because they deliver better customer services, because they tend to be more punctual and because they are perceived to be safer. Yes, they tend to be more expensive and there are even cases where they maltreat some Nigerian passengers but those cases need to be dealt with by the consumer protection offices of the NCAA. If we want Nigerian airlines to become the preferred airlines of Nigerians and indeed other travelers then we need to make them work on becoming competitive by performing as well as their rivals and by providing attractive features such as more generous baggage allowance and working on their pricing strategies.
Nigeria Airways is dead and may its ghost hunt all those who killed it; the Nigerian airlines of today are privately owned and they are in the business with the legitimate quest of making profit. If you guarantee them a stable source of revenue by forcing some Nigerians to fly them, what incentive do they have to improve their services? If the revenue that comes from government paid tickets is big enough to require a national law and then you give all of it to Nigerian airlines in this case one i.e Arik; why should they bother to cater well for non public officials or even try to expand beyond?
By the way, the 49 U.S.C 40118 commonly referred to as the “Fly America Act” cited by Olisa Agbakoba as a model for his bill was wrong from day one and it is now generally considered obsolete and is being replaced by other bilateral/multilateral open skies agreement. Let us not pick from the waste bin of the USA.