HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsDoes each country have to own a national airline?

Does each country have to own a national airline?

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I have done my fair share of travel across the continent and I can tell you of stories such as my sleeping on a conveyor belt at Félix Houphouët-Boigny International Airport (Abidjan, Ivory Coast) for some six hours or so courtesy of the moribund Air Afrique which had bumped me off the flight and yet I had a boarding card.

Air Afrique, you might recall, was an attempt by some West African governments to own and manage a truly pan-African airline.

Years later the one lesson not learnt is that governments have no business running a business. Air Afrique was referred to as comme ci comme ça, that is, perhaps it will fly and perhaps not.

On many occasions you would be delayed, the flights would be cancelled or you would just not appear on the passenger list.

One standing joke was that one time Air Afrique overbooked and a passenger who really wanted to travel but had no seat opted to sit on the toilet throughout the journey.

It might have happened (I would not have put anything beyond that disaster of an airline).

I recalled the Air Afrique experience a couple of months ago when I flew to Malawi on a disaster of an airline called Air Malawi.

It made me question the whole notion of a country wanting to own a national carrier.

When will this dirty habit of each big or little nation wanting to fly its own colours? What do governments in Africa or elsewhere have to do with owning a bankrupt and, in many cases, badly managed airline which brings the country nothing good but a bad reputation?

One thing you should know is that Air Malawi flights rarely depart on time. The standard quote is that there is a technical problem.

In my case flying from Johannesburg to Blantyre, we were told by the affable Captain Mangwana (is he the sole pilot who flies the Johannesburg-Blantyre route?) that there was a technical fault.

When we finally boarded we sat for close to an hour only to be told we needed to get off because the plane had a “technical fault”, I was to learn that this is a standard line with Air Malawi.

A week after my travel, a friend was not so lucky. She rocked up at OR Tambo only to be told the flight had been cancelled and might fly two days later. The next day she was put on SAA, at the expense of Air Malawi itself I should add.

But she only got to know that she could be flown on SAA after persisting.

Now when you have managed to actually get up in the air with our dear Air Malawi and its ancient Boeing you will become religious.

I always keep a notebook and below is an extract of what I wrote on board:

17h38: I feel skydiving would have been a safer option. My tummy churns. I wish I was still a gin and tonic person. I am as sober as TB Joshua, I can actually hear my brain working. My brain is frozen with fear.

Couldn’t I have opted for a tooth to be removed than fly on this particular plane? The noise! I am right at the back. “Hail Mary Mother of Jesus . . .”

17h50: I am sitting like a frozen chicken — legs pulled in, chest sunk in . . . How long would it have taken to cycle from Joburg to Blantyre? If this is saving time, I want none of it.

The noise this aircraft is making is like some ancient jalopy negotiating the dongas on the road to the village of Mutikizizi. I need to change seats. If this bloody thing breaks into two I gotta work out the safest place to be.

17h55: We have now reached an altitude of 37 000 feet. I can’t hear the intercom above the din of the engine and the rattling body. Should I reach for my parachute?

17h57: Why does this aircraft have red seats in the middle? I have to keep writing. It is the only thing keeping me sane on this flight.

18h00: Why don’t they give passengers noise-cancelling earphones? At this rate I am gonna be deaf by the time I hit Chileka Airport.

18h02: Is it a truth, universally acknowledged, that every sovereign country should operate its own national airline that bears the name and colours of the nation?

18h07: The bumps have begun. Why are we hitting straight into the stormy clouds? Are we sacks of potatoes? I am a very valuable sack of potato, Captain Mangwana.

18h10: “Excuse me, would you like chicken or beef?” This from a coutry that has some of the best fish in the world?

18h41: Immigration cards are handed out. I am alone but get two cards. Sign of respect or recognition I am bound to mess up the first?

19h27: We are now headed for the landing.
The way the plane is jerking, I just wish we had stayed in the air. It had gotten calmer.

19h44: We land with a bump. Brakes are pulled. We lurch forward. My heart is stuck in my throat.

19h45: That voice again: “We hope to be of service to you again in the near future . . .”

Keep your future. I will not be flying Air Malawi ever again.

Chris Kabwato is the publisher of www.zimbabweinpictures.com

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