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Lesson From Ethiopian Airlines

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In the normal state of affairs, everything takes an inordinate time to get fixed here in Nepal. Even if something is fixed, there will be loopholes. No wonder people are compelled to dig into their pockets to hasten the process, not knowing what sort of obstacle lies ahead in the next corner. So is it possible to remain clean and tidy while floating on filth? For corrupt practices can be very difficult, if not impossible to reverse.

In a corrupt country, institutions function in the same manner, as they slowly creep into nonperforming ways. It is particularly true of developing countries with a history of poor governance. The rampant mismanagement in the distribution of POL (Petroleum, Oil and Lubricants) products, giving rise to black marketing and corruption amidst Indian blockade, is a case in point. Is it even realistic to hope for tangible reforms in state institutions amidst such moral deprivation?

While we bear the fuel hardship, the Indian establishment has been parroting that it has no hand in the alleged blockade. With airlines facing severe fuel crunch, Boeing 757s were chartered to airlift aviation turbine fuel (ATF) as a stopgap measure. But the most such flight could bring was a mere 26 KL (kilolitre) each. The volume could have been many times bigger had the aircraft been a full-fledged tanker instead. Unfortunately, there seem to be none in the market, as maritime transport is much more viable in terms of both volume and cost. Besides, no other landlocked country, possibly, has a neighbor as unpredictable as ours that they would require such tankers.

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That explains why airlines offered non-tankers like B767s and also B777s for ferrying fuel. Otherwise, aerial tankers are wholly military owned and cater mostly to their aerial refueling needs.

It was a real surprise that the bidder to bring fuel to Nepal included Ethiopian Airlines. As regards Ethiopia, we do not know much about it except that it is also poor, land-locked and ravished by deadly wars and repeated famines. But it was a shock to learn about Ethiopia's one success story. What Ethiopians did was something unbelievable. Maybe it can offer some lessons for our policymakers on the way forward if Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC) is stop being a laughing stock.

Established in 1945 as a national flag-carrier, Ethiopian Airlines has quickly become one of Africa's leading carriers, unrivalled for efficiency and operational success, turning profits for most years of its existence. And like NAC it started with DC3s. It now commands a lion's share of the pan-African network and serves 13 long-haul destinations using a fleet of 30 wide-body aircraft in a total fleet strength of 76. It had only 15 wide bodies just four years ago. It happened to be the second airline to fly B787 and also the newest Airbus 359 of which it has ordered 14.

The airline is said to have earned US $175 million in net profit last year, on revenues of US $2.27 billion, shooting nearly 12 percent past its $2-billion projection. Given its unstoppable growth, the carrier, which flies more global routes than any other African airline, expects to generate over US $10 billion in revenue in ten years.

Aviation experts view Ethiopian Airlines' success story as a "far cry from the underperformance and/or comatose state of the airlines of South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria". It has left many bewildered. This scribe wonders if this is good enough, as an eye opener, for our own loud-talking policy makers and airline executives.

How could Ethiopian Airlines be in such a rude health in a country suffering from all malaise common to any other poor country? It was the desire of Emperor Haile Selassie (who ruled from 1930 to 1974) to set up a world-class airline, basically to dispel the country's poor status. He was able to inculcate a sense of dignity among Ethiopians to grow up as honest, country-loving and duty-bound citizens and to work for the general good.

Being the Emperor's pet project, Ethiopian Airlines had a special significance. The odyssey of Ethiopian Airlines began with such values engrained right at its birth and this seems to be continuing till this day despite the tumultuous political changes in the interim.

Selassie was also far sighted in making the airline completely independent of government interference. Ethiopia had been through a far-worse period than we have and yet the airline was able to work independently all along. Most importantly, it was always professionally run and managed. It is something that we are yet to believe in and implement.

It is not something drastic that NAC needs, beyond what Ethiopian Airlines had from its first day. Our politicians, and their parties, need to look beyond their own interests for a change. Haile Selassie being an emperor had the foresight that our "elected representatives" seem to lack. The moot question is: will the politicians let go of the shackles lest NAC forgets flying altogether? If not, it should not be kept afloat as politician's flag bearer.