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Opinions of Saturday, 8 October 2016

Columnist: Anis Haffar

A tale of two airlines: Ethiopian Airlines and Ghana Airways

Anis Haffar

The in-flight magazine of Ethiopian Airlines – Selamta – adorned the cover page of its Sept/Oct 2015 issue with a picture of the Group CEO Temolde Gebre Mariam and the U.S. president Barack Obama, during Obama’s three day visit to Ethiopia in July 2015.

The backdrop of the picture (taken at the-state-of-the-art Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport) sported an American Boeing 787, dubbed Africa’s First B–787 Dreamliner, fitted with General Electric (GE) turbos.

The picture portrayed the pride of both men: with Obama embodying the U.S. business connections in Africa – through Ethiopian and Boeing, and the CEO complementing that relationship. The situation created a win–win certainty for both men blooded with African origins.

Ethiopia’s Vision 2015

In the magazine’s editorial, the CEO said, “We are constantly expanding our network and have now reached 91 international destinations, spanning five continents and 20 domestic destinations, making us the largest airline in Africa. Among these destinations are five new international routes – Dublin, Los Angeles, Cape Town, Gaborone, and Manila.”

For their Vision 2025, Ethiopian plans a fleet expansion to 120 planes, carrying more than 18 million passengers, 720,000 tonnes of cargo, and employing 17,000 people. In addition to the existing thirteen Boeing 787 Dreamliners in their fleet – the largest in Africa – they have ordered six new B-787s.

The Ethiopian Aviation Academy, Africa’s largest training center, is in the final stage of an expansion project that includes technical workshops and full-flight simulators in their training facilities.

The airline – the dream of Emperor Haile Selassie – is today wholly owned by the Ethiopian government; it has remained stable without political interference even in the throes of national crises. While some African airlines remained festered by crude politics and thievery, the Ethiopian remained professionally run. Such successes are so refreshing, at least for the new generation of Africans to observe, appreciate and emulate.

For the operation year 2013-2014, Ethiopian was said to have declared a profit of $228 million, and ranked the 18th best in the world. In Nov 18, 2015, a voanews report said, “Ethiopian is dispatching its first-ever flight operated by an all-female crew [to] promote women’s empowerment and encourage more African girls to pursue aviation careers.”

The flight was “being handled by women in every aspect – from planning to aircraft maintenance, and from the pilots to air traffic controllers [including] all customs and immigration officers.”

The achievements of Ethiopian Airlines gave credence to Kwame Nkrumah’s mantra – on the eve of Ghana’s independence – that Africans can manage their own affairs. But, the ironic twist was that Nkrumah’s own protégé, Ghana Airways – like many other government initiatives – failed miserably.

An incident at Rome Airport

About July 1977, with an American friend who was keen on seeing the Motherland, we connected a Trans World Airline (TWA) flight from Los Angeles to Rome, with the journey continuing to Accra on Ghana Airways. Those were the halcyon days of air travel: no tedious X’ray checkpoints, and no body searches.

When the flight to Accra was announced, there was a mad rush to the shuttle bus. It seemed that the regular passengers on that route knew the flight to be overbooked, hence the rush for seats.

It became clear after the tussles that some big government officials and conniving staff members had sneaked in friends and families, in the last minute, with their goods to boot. The Italian airport security had to intervene; literally the security jumped into the fray to force people to disembark. Having squeezed into the plane, passengers desperate to get to Accra were willing and requesting to stand – without seats – for the 6 hour trip from Rome to Accra.

For a while we were stuck at the airport pending certain goods and people being offloaded to maintain the balance and safety of the aircraft. Ghana Airways’ future was already written on the wall: it spelled d-i-s-a-s-t-e-r.

The beginning and end of Ghana Airways

Amid fanfare and enthusiasm, the airline was started in 1958, a year after Ghana’s independence. Few years later, it was running into problems, typical of most government set-ups in Ghana. In June 2002, for instance, a DC-10 was seized at Heathrow Airport after a creditor got a legal judgement to recoup some unpaid debts.

About that time, it was announced by the then-airline chairman that Ghana Airways was in debt to the tune of some US$160 million.

In July 2004, the United States Department of Transportation banned the airline from operating into or out of the United States with “investigations underway that the airline had been operating on an out-of-date licence”. Subsequently, two weekly flights to JFK International Airport, and similar flights to Baltimore-Washington International Airport were cancelled.

In April 2005, it was reported that Ethiopian Airlines was negotiating in Accra to help keep Ghana Airways afloat; but trapped in a monstrous debt, Ghana Airways was finally liquidated in June 2005.

On reflection, we see that in the transport sector alone we lost the Black Star Shipping Line, Ghana Railways, Ghana Airways, State Transport, and the Ghana Omnibus Services that plied some cities and towns. With those, we lost the important services, the revenues, and a large scale employment.

Recently, we lost Ghana Telecom as well.

Such serial failures beg large questions to be asked. It’s shameful that up to today – after decades and decades of the so-called independence – it takes begging foreign NGOs to build even public schools and toilets for the nation’s children. Is that the freedom that was proudly proclaimed in March 6, 1957?