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Tafuta Kila kitu Hapa

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Air Tanzania deserves more than leftovers

There’s no doubt that Tanzania needs a strong national airline to provide both domestic and international air transport services. However, we cannot deny the truth that for the past decade, the national flag carrier established by Julius Nyerere in 1977 following the collapse of the East African Community, has also collapsed due, mainly, to lack of credible management and poor investments.

We are all aware, for instance, of the situation under which the airline’s troubles were aggravated during the administration of Benjamin Mkapa when the government took a political decision to privatize the national airline to South African Airline -- also state funded airline -- which has never posted profit for the past decade. This political decision still haunts Air Tanzania, because those who authorized the deal were seemingly out to please the post-apartheid South African regime -- politically speaking.

But since this is now history, it’s time for the current regime to give Air Tanzania a better deal instead of feeding it on leftovers. Apart from sacking former ATCL Chief Executive Officer Paul Chizi the government has thus far never shown any serious commitment in reviving the cash-strapped national airline by either injecting enough capital or seeking a new partner.

We are now witnessing another poor decision. The leasing of the Boeing 737-200 -- a known fuel-guzzler – accounts for nothing other than serving as an illustrious example of failure: another financial burden to the national airline.

It’s shameful to note, let alone admit, that a small and poor country like Rwanda is now building a strong national airline capable of arranging for the acquisition of the state-of-the-art Boeing 737-800.

As our leaders continue treating our national airline as a ‘waste’ of resources, our neighbours in Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia have their national airlines firmly positioned with their economies. In a word, those airlines are the pride of their nations.

Even as we now bury our heads and pretend we can travel in luxurious foreign airlines, we should fully understand that when Julius Nyerere died in London, his body was flown back to Dar es Salaam on an Air Tanzania flight. Yes, there was an offer from the British government that Mwalimu’s body to fly British Airways – but we had the audacity to decline that offer.
The reasoning was sound; the founding President of Tanzania couldn’t be flown in a foreign plane even if his own country was that poor and, profoundly, his body was carried in one of the planes that he bought when he was establishing the fledgling Air Tanzania.

Dar es Salaam was billed -- and could still claim – to be the Southern triangle hub for all passengers from the SADC region flying to North Africa, Middle East and Europe. But, we need a strong and well-managed national airline. If we don’t know how to have a strong national airline, let us learn from Ethiopia, Kenya or the United Arab Emirates.

We could literally count Air Tanzania’s major problems on our fingers: lack of credible leadership, lack of a clear business plan and, above all, lack of finances to acquire modern aircraft. To have a credible leadership, the government needs to go for the best in the market by allowing international recruiting firms to head-hunt for a suitable team to revive our airline.

It’s obvious that the government has failed to recruit the best dream team; what has been happening is a bit of the same: some politician wakes up one morning and wants to ‘reward’ some individual positions within the national airline – as if the national airline is a political scheme to win an election.

As in many other state-owned firms, the national airline’s board of directors reads like ‘landing’ runway for retired civil servants and politicians. The board should instead be formed by competent, committed and by individuals who are fully conversant with what it takes to have a working aviation business.

Air Tanzania needs at least $400 million to acquire three modern aircraft, which can operate regional and international routes, plus medium-range planes to service the domestic route. To access that kind of money -- as initial capital -- the government must play the facilitator rather than doer: It can act as a ‘guarantor’ for ATCL to borrow the money either from our pensions scheme funds or from Chinese banks, which have fair interest rates.

Air Tanzania cannot be revived by some “capital” equal to pocket money enough to buy two passenger buses. What the airline gets from the government is nothing but a pitiful dole-out of leftovers – a crying shame.


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