From L-R: Ethiopian Airlines Chief Operating Officer, Mr. Retta Melaku; Mr. Daniel Abebe Vice President, Strategic Alliance; Mr. Mesfin Tasew Group CEO and Mr. Genanaw Assefa Vice President Legal at a briefing in Addis Ababa.
The Group Chief Executive Officer of Ethiopian Airlines, Mr. Mesfin Tasew has said that the East African carrier never had any plan to set up an airline in Nigeria but was invited by the federal government to partner with it to establish a national carrier, Nigeria Air.
Tasew who spoke to selected journalists from Nigeria in Addis Ababa yesterday disclosed that because of the pedigree of Ethiopian Airlines it was invited by the federal government to help it set up a national carrier in a partnership arrangement and because of the airline’s engagements it at first resisted the invitation but later agreed due to long relationship it has with Nigeria.
But while Ethiopian Airlines and the Nigeran government were preparing the shareholding, it received message that some companies and airlines in Nigeria were defaming Ethiopian Airlines and the federal government and had gone to court and obtained a court order to stop the establishment of Nigeria Air.
This prompted Ethiopian Airlines to want to withdraw, but the Nigerian government insisted that it should continue the process of establishing the national carrier for the most populous nation in Africa.
The Group Chief Executive Officer of Ethiopian Airlines said that until now the airline has not decided whether to continue the process to establish Nigeria Air but the federal government said it should continue with the groundwork until the court vacates the order and it addressed some concerns, insisting that it was not cancelling the project.
Tasew emphasized that Nigeria Air was already established before Ethiopian Airlines was invited to partner with it.
He also noted that Nigerians will benefit hugely from the national carrier if eventually it is established because the federal government said that Nigeria does not have dependable airlines in the domestic and international market.
This, he said, has led to foreign airlines charging high fares on the Nigerian route and exploiting Nigerian travellers; so, government wanted strong, dependable airline with capacity, remarking that if the national carrier is established, it will help existing airlines to improve their operational standard to compete effectively in the market to the benefit of air travellers in the country.
Tasew said, “Ethiopian Airlines didn’t have any intention or plan to setup an airline in Nigeria. In May, of 2022, when I took my current responsibility (as Group CEO), a request came from the Nigerian government asking ET (Ethiopian Airlines) to participate in a bid and help the Nigerian government to setup a Nigerian flag carrier. It came in writing. Initially we didn’t want to go into that. We said we have other initiatives in other countries and we were busy. But the Nigerian government insisted that Ethiopian Airlines is an African airline, it has to help the Nigerian government in setting up the national carrier. So, we had to respect them. We serve the Nigerian public and government by flying to four cities in Nigeria; we couldn’t say no, we cannot come and help you. So, we had to submit proposal, we had to respect the Nigerian government. And we thought that the Nigerian government had choices, ET being one; because they had also requested other airlines in the Middle East, Europe to participate in the bid. I don’t know whether they participated or not. We submitted our proposal and we received a letter from the Ministry of Aviation, saying that Ethiopian Airlines has been selected to be a partner to setup the airline.
“Then the Nigerian government wanted the structure of investors to be Nigerian investing institutions and the Nigerian government wanted only 5 percent shares to ensure that they have presence in the airline and to facilitate the establishment of the airline. We had a lot of discussions, we agreed but we had some differences in some points. And while we were preparing the shareholder agreement, then we heard that some companies in Nigeria including airlines started defaming and objecting the establishment of the airline and defaming the name of the government and Ethiopian Airlines. At that time, we thought that if the Nigerian government doesn’t want it, the Nigerian public doesn’t want it, we could as well withdraw. But the Nigerian government insisted that no, that this is a strategic issue for Nigeria and we have to continue. When these group of people went to court, and brought a court order, we had to defend ourselves, we had to go to the court, together with the Nigerian government, including the Ministry of Transport. “We had to defend ourselves. So, until now, it is not yet decided, as far as we know, it is under the court. But the Nigerian government insisted that we had to continue the background work until the court case gets decision.
“Nigeria Air was established before us; it is already established by the Nigerian government before we were invited. It has its own leadership, it was doing a lot of things, it had started requesting for the Air Operators’ Certificate (AOC), making preparations. So, when we came in, it was a matter of restructuring the ownership of that Nigeria Air. For your information, the logo was already defined by them, it was not by Ethiopian Airlines. And we thought that if Nigeria Air is established, the benefit will be for Nigerian public, for Nigerian government.
“Because when we talked to the Nigerian government, why do you want to setup a new airline? They said they don’t have dependable airlines within Nigeria and they wanted an airline that can provide dependable service that departs and arrives on time; that doesn’t cancel flights on the domestic market and also on the international market. The Nigerian government believes that airfares charged by foreign airlines are so high that the Nigerian public is at a disadvantage. So, the intention of the Nigerian government was to setup a very, very strong, reliable, dependable national carrier that services both the domestic market and the international. And we believe in it. that is why we wanted to move forward with it.”
The Group CEO of Ethiopian Airlines further explained that when the federal government requested for Ethiopian Airlines aircraft painted on the Nigeria Air logo for the inspection of Nigerians, the airline agreed.
“At one point, that leadership of Nigeria Air, which doesn’t include Ethiopian Airlines, asked us to bring aircraft painted with Nigerian logo to facilitate the progress of the Air Operators’ Certificate. So, we agreed with that, we took out one of our aircraft, we painted it with Nigerian logo, we flew it, it was for demonstration by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) for their inspection. So, after two days, we brought back the aircraft, repainted it with Ethiopian logo and it is flying. So, while we were here, waiting for the decision of the court, now there was a change of government that took place. New ministers, high government officials and they came and told us, look, there are concerns from people. So, temporarily they wanted to suspend the project. We said fine. I had to travel to Abuja to talk to the authorities to listen to what their intention and plan is. And they told us that they are not cancelling the project but that they wanted to study it and address the concerns of the public.”
Tasew said the federal government promised to get back to Ethiopian Airlines with a decision and the East African carrier agreed.
“In the first place, it was not our initiative, it was the initiative of the government. Now, if the government wants us to cancel the project, it is fine with us. We have no problem. If the government want us to continue with the project, the government has to solve the legal case in court. Otherwise, we are willing to support the Nigerian government in the establishment of the national carrier. So, we leave the decision to the Nigerian government. We have no issues; we will not be disappointed if it is cancelled. We are just there to help. And if the parties ask us to help, change their mind, change its strategy, we are fine with that. This is what we told the Minister; that we respect whatever decision of the Nigerian government.
“But in our opinion, what has been said in the media is completely wrong. If we go there, our goal is not to kill Nigerian airlines, absolutely not. We have no intention of killing Nigerian airlines. Definitely we have to setup a reliable airline, we have to provide the service that fits the needs of the Nigerian public. In fact, they have to be strong. If these airlines cannot be strong, they cannot compete. If they cannot compete, then some of them can go out of business. It is not peculiar to air transport business, in any business where there is competition. The stronger ones will grow, the weak ones will get dwarfed.
“So, a strong airline will force the other airlines to revisit their efficiency. To revisit their operation, to provide more dependable service from which at the end of the day the Nigerian pubic will benefit. So, they said if Ethiopian Airlines comes, it will kill us, no. We have no intention of killing them but to provide good service. And some say no, they will come with all their old aircraft, no; that is wrong. We will come with good young airplanes. It may not just be brand new but airplanes like the (Boeing 737) MAX. In fact, hoping that the airline will materialize, we had signed lease agreement from Canada to lease three 737 MAX, which are one and half years old. They are brand new aircraft. Now, Nigeria said no we don’t need it,” he said.