West Africa tries to make its state-owned airlines fly right. Managing a capitalist success in Marxist Ethiopia

When Ghana Airways recently overbooked more than 300 passengers for a flight from Accra to London, a near-riot broke out among angry passengers at Kotoka International Airport. Claiming that ticket agents were giving boarding passes to their relatives and friends, the angry passengers demanded to see the airline's managing director. Eventually, the director - under the protection of armed guards - had to oversee the issuance of boarding passes.

More recently, 17 passengers staged an overnight sit-in on a Nigeria Airways plane in Lagos and were arrested. The problem started when a long-delayed domestic flight to the central city of Jos turned back to Lagos minutes after take-off. Disputing the pilot's claims that Jos airport was closed through bad weather, the passengers refused to disembark.

The incident was a new source of embarrassment for Nigeria Airways, which is in a state of near-collapse and cannot honor its domestic and international schedules. It owes some $400 million to planemakers, suppliers, and other creditors and has had some of its aircraft impounded in foreign countries.

Even in the best of times, traveling on one of West Africa's state-owned airlines can range from a frustrating experience to a nightmarish one, veteran West African air travelers say. They complain of schedules that resemble fiction more than fact, of having to bribe one's way onto certain flights, and of being bumped by local celebrities or dignitaries - many of whom haven't bothered to buy a ticket.

``On one Air Afrique flight from Brazzaville to Dakar I was bumped, along with all the other Abidjan-bound passengers, by the Congolese soccer team,'' an American banker said. ``We then had to argue with Air Afrique for three hours before they gave us hotel and meal vouchers.''

Of course, airlines overbook flights in the United States as well, but the consequences of such occurrences can be much more serious in Africa, where being bumped can mean having to wait three or four days for the next flight.

To make matters worse, rude treatment from airline employees - another pet peeve of many American airline passengers - has been perfected into an art form on some state-owned airlines in West Africa, say frequent fliers in the region. ``There's no such thing as customer service, because they know that you often have no choice but to fly their state-run airline, which usually has a monopoly,'' said a Kodak representative who has traveled extensively in West Africa.

Now, as the economic situation worsens in many West African countries, the future of some state-owned airlines - especially those that are losing money - is in doubt. Several have gone out of business and at least two, Nigeria Airways and the multinationally owned Air Afrique, verge on bankruptcy.

Yet help may be on the way for those flying on Air Afrique.

At a recent summit meeting on the plight of Africa's only multinational airline, the heads of state of the 10 French-speaking countries that own Air Afrique decided on a dramatic rescue plan proposed by Ivoirian President F'elix Houphou"et-Boigny.

President Houphou"et, who for the past year has been studying ways to keep the regional airline alive, told his colleagues that the only alternative to bankruptcy was to start running the airline like a private company, ``without any political considerations.''

To immunize the company from such ``political considerations,'' said Houphou"et, the current Congolese managing director must be replaced by someone from outside the member states. Air Afrique is jointly owned by Benin, Burkina Faso, Congo, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Niger, Central African Republic, Senegal, Chad, and Togo. Many saw Houphou"et's suggestion as an embarrassing admission that no manager from a member country could withstand political pressures from the member states.

In the past, member states have forced the airline to hire dozens of unqualified people based on ethnic, family, or village ties, according to a recent expos'e on Air Afrique by Africa International magazine. The magazine estimated that Air Afrique has at least 50 highly paid managers with little or nothing to do, whose salaries have cost it at least $23 million over the last 10 years.

``If a president wanted to get rid of a minister who was giving him trouble, or if a minister's girlfriend needed a job, they would just be sent over to Air Afrique,'' an Ivoirian businessman said.

Houphou"et's colleagues agreed to hire an outsider, and Houphou"et persuaded the French government to dispatch Yves Roland-Billecart, the respected head of France's International Aid Agency, to become the new managing director.

The decision to hire a Frenchman smacked of neocolonialism to some Africans, who say a competent African could have done the job if the member states would agree to keep hands off. They point to the example of Ethiopian Airlines, considered the best-run in Africa. The profit-making company is managed by an Ethiopian who is unhampered by interference from his Marxist-oriented government.

``All the West African leaders need to do is choose a competent African and then leave him alone,'' said an Ethiopian living in Abidjan. ``But the political will to do that is missing.''

Mr. Billecart, who has been in Abidjan examining Air Afrique's books, will propose a specific plan to save the company, which is expected to include drastic cutbacks in personnel and collection of more than $30 million in outstanding debts owed the airline by member states.

Some member governments owe Air Afrique millions of dollars for airline tickets used by government officials. Collecting those unpaid debts will not be easy during current tough economic times, especially since several member states are struggling to keep their own nationally owned airlines afloat.

Under the new proposal, Billecart would be aided by a new board of directors appointed by member states for their competence and experience. But it is yet to be seen whether the Frenchman will get the unfettered mandate he needs to clean up Air Afrique.

Meanwhile, the word seems to have reached Air Afrique personnel - at least those on the Europe-to-Africa flights where they compete with European airlines - that service must improve if they are going to keep their customers. Two passengers who recently connected with Air Afrique flights in Europe for trips to West Africa report a big improvement in service.

But passengers on less competitive routes, such as intra-Africa flights, still report callous treatment. On a recent Air Afrique flight from Lagos to Abidjan, a passenger with a confirmed business-class ticket was forced to sit in economy class, even though all business-class seats were empty.

``Naturally when I got to Abidjan I demanded a refund for the difference between an economy and a business-class ticket,'' the passenger said. ``But you'd think that an airline about to go bankrupt would have been happy to keep the money and let me sit in the higher-priced seat, especially since it was empty.''

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