By Mustapha Wai (Host, MambaTV Focus on Sierra Leone)…..
As reports on the grounding of Fly Salone hit social media a couple of days ago, I visited the company’s website at www.fly-salone.com to make sure it was not another prank. At the home page, was the following message: “To all the Fly Salone passengers who have flying arrangements. We regret to inform you that Fly Salone has ceased trading. All passengers will therefore be unable to fly with this airline as the Company will shortly be entering into Liquidation.” In just three months, an airline launched amid so much fanfare had gone under. But like the launching of the airline, even its fall did not come without controversy.
Since the news about the grounding of the airline hit social media, several versions of the cause of the failure of the Fly Salone have emerged. The ruling All People’s Congress (APC) party operatives and a number of officials of the Sierra Leone Government have gone into overdrive manufacturing excuses, branding other Sierra Leoneans as unpatriotic, and blaming everyone else but themselves for the demise of the airline. Logus Koroma, the Minister of Transport and Aviation is quoted by Platinum Media as saying that, “It appears that some Sierra Leoneans are hostile to private investments like these; from the beginning a cross section of Sierra Leoneans in the UK gave bad publicity to the venture and said they would not use it and they preferred Air France, Brussels Airlines and Royal Air Moroc.” While some of these claims appear to carry some degree of truth, they do not tell the whole story. Our account of the real reasons behind the airline’s demise goes beyond the reaction of ordinary Sierra Leoneans and include the following:
•Politicizing of Fly Salone;
•Lack of due diligence on the part of the Sierra Leone Government and the business itself;
•Lack of support from the Government of Sierra Leone;
•Safety concerns overlooked and left to spread; and
•Competition from well-established airlines.
Evidence suggests that Fly Salone was politicized from the onset. On December 12, 2015, the first flight of Fly Salone, an airline reportedly launched by two Sierra Leonean businessmen– Sam H. Sabrah and Jihad Saleh landed at Sierra Leone’s Lungi Airport in Freetown. Onboard the first flight to mark the occasion were several government and ruling APC officials, including Mohamed Sesay (aka Sesay 91), a self-styled political pundit and notorious ruling APC mouthpiece who is now on the record blaming other Sierra Leoneans and an alleged clandestine colonial competitive strategy for the demise of the airline. In the beginning, many Sierra Leoneans did not know whether Fly Salone was a private or public venture. This was so because ruling party and government officials went to great lengths to become promoters and the defacto media faces of the airline, while taking credit for the launching, with photos of President Ernest Koroma flanked by Logus Koroma and others at Lungi Airport to grace the landing of the first flight going viral.
Cocorioko news outlet which is owned and operated by Wilfred Kabs Kanu, a ruling party member and Minister Plenipotentiary carried a headline article dated December 14, 2015 and deceptively titled, “President Koroma Kicks Off Freetown To London Fly Sierra Leone Service”, commemorating the launch of Fly Salone. In the article, the author declared that “Transport Minister Balogun Logus Koroma must be highly commended for his relentless efforts under the supervision of His Excellency President Koroma, to solve the gap created when both British Airways and Gambia Bird stopped flying direct flights between London and Sierra Leone.” Also on social media, photos of the controversial Sylvia Blyden, who is also a member of the ruling party and recently appointed as Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs taken at the arrival terminal of Fly Salone went viral along with a boastful narrative of how she had been given a free first class ticket to fly onboard the airline.
In essence, ruling party members portrayed Fly Salone as a Sierra Leone airline launched by the APC government.
Not that anything is wrong with the government launching a national airline or facilitating an environment for a business. However, knowing how corrupt, ineffective, unreliable and dysfunctional government operations can be, an airline that is remotely connected to the government like that of ours is bound to raise eyebrows. Also, when controversial and boastful ruling party members and officials brag about the launching of an airline as a success story for their party in governance, such claims must come with a proportional goodwill to attract and keep customers, many of whom may not necessarily be ruling party members, especially when several more attractive and reliable alternatives are available.
The second reason that can be attributed to the fall of Fly Salone is the lack of due diligence on the part of the Sierra Leone Government, in particular the Ministry of Transport and Aviation and the owners of business itself. Evidence suggests that government officials, in an effort to score political points and/or owing to whatever else may have happened under the table, were too eager to approve and launch an airline to fly the Sierra Leone flag and name. With such a motive, regulations were reportedly relaxed and in some cases ignored, initial safety questions raised by the public remained unanswered, while other required financial evidence were allegedly not provided as part of the airline’s proposal. For example, Platinum Media reported that feasibility studies and financial projections were missing from the proposal submitted to the Ministry of Transport and Aviation. Without such documentation, both the government and the management of the business could not have been in the position to establish whether Fly Salone is going concern—i.e. have the ability to staying in business for the foreseeable future.
As a going concern, a business must be able to demonstrate it has, among other things enough working capital to carry out its operation. For a start-up business, enough cash reserve must be at hand to run the operation with no profit in the first few months and until breakeven—a point where a business is able to generate enough revenue to cover all costs. And for most start-ups, breakeven point does not even come in the first year of operation. Reports that Fly Salone had only one set of crew is consistent with lack of working capital to cover payroll associated with a standby crew. Flight cancellations were attributed to sick flight crew members.
While the aforementioned may not necessarily be government requirements to start a business, it becomes relevant when a country’s name and by extension its national image is deliberately associated with a business, as it is in this case. And for management, these are fundamental to the start and running of an effective business enterprise. It is therefore strange that ruling party and government officials are out to apportion blame to others for the failure of the airline. After all, this is not the first time that a private business has failed in Sierra Leone. Fly Salone was evidently not just a private business. It must have meant something more than just a business to the government and the ruling party.
The third and perhaps the most damning of all the reasons accounting for the fall of Fly Salone is the total lack of support from the Government of Sierra Leone. Evidence suggest that minus the lip service, photo opportunity, and political fanfare, nothing else was done by the government to save Fly Salone. All over the world, responsible governments subsidize businesses whose fall is deemed to have a direct and in some cases indirect impact on the nation’s pride, image or even the underlying economy. In America for example, major banks, financial institutions and other businesses considered “too big to fail” were bailed out by the United States Government during the recent economic meltdown. AIG, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, General Motors and Chrysler, and hundreds of other companies received over $600 billion dollars in bail out money in order to stay in business. The rationale behind such a move by governments is not only limited to the need to save jobs and future tax revenue, but in fact that of the nation’s economic pride which is compromised when native companies considered crucial to the economy go under.
While the Sierra Leone government officials were excited about the photo opportunity and bragging rights that came with the launching of Fly Salone, they should have equally taken the responsibility to bail out the airline in time of distress. If the government can spend $12 million on 100 used buses procured in a questionable scheme, and write-off millions in tax liabilities owed by businesses owned by cronies and related parties, there is no excuse why the first airline flying the country’s name and flag cannot be saved by a simple loan.
If in fact liquidity is the ultimate reason for the demise of Fly Salone, then the Sierra Leone Government bears a great responsibility for such a fall. Many African countries subsidize airlines flying their flags and countries’ names. Some of the airlines are private-public partnership between government and private investors. So, if the Sierra Leone Government and ruling party members really wanted Fly Salone to continue in operation, government could have optionally acquired equity interest in the company in exchange for cash in form working capital. I know that there are those who do not buy into this idea. However, it has been done before. The Sierra Leone Government’s interest in Sierra Rutile Limited mining company that was sold in 2013 for $13 million by the current regime, in a transaction that many consider questionable to-date, was in fact acquired by the predecessor government in an attempt to help restart the company after the war.
Furthermore, if the Sierra Leone government was truly committed to ensuring Fly Salone stays in business, it could have made the airline a preferred carrier and mandated that Fly Salone be used for all official government travels. President Koroma should have taken the lead by using Fly Salone instead of other private airlines. This is a better way for government to have demonstrated to citizens that Fly Salone is in fact safe. But while government officials continued to fly daily out of Sierra Leone onboard Air France, Air Brussels, British Airways, and others, deliberately avoiding Fly Salone, ruling party operatives do not apportion any blame to them for the ultimate failure of the airline. What a deception!
The fourth reason attributable to the fall of Fly Salone is the company’s failure to timely and adequately address safety concerns raised by Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora, many of whom were potential customers. Immediately after launch, many questions were raised on social media about the safety of the aircraft alleged to have been over two decades old. With information at the tips of the fingers nowadays, a simple google search of the make and model of the aircraft will return enough information including age, as well as any prior safety issues associated with the type of model. Ruling party and government officials whose only interest in the airline was that of scoring political points immediately dismissed the concerns.
In fact, just like their reaction to the fall of the airline, those who raised the questions were either branded as opposition party members or described as unpatriotic. The airline management seems to have bought into these narratives and overlooked these critical concerns. There is no evidence suggesting that management did take adequate steps to address the concerns and affirm to the public that their flights were safe. What responsible companies do when these sort of concerns are raised by customers and potential customers, is issue statements and in some cases run advertisements aimed at addressing them and assuring customers.
And finally, even if Fly Salone had been able to address the above four causes, it was going to face a stiff competition from well-established airlines with not only reliable records of operation and safety history, but almost all of which enjoy economies of scales that can allow them to offer more competitive prices for the same route. Uninformed ruling party operatives who had a questionable vested interest in the airline would want us to believe that these universal tenets of free market economy are driven by clandestine colonial interests.
The bottom line is that neither the colonial masters, nor ordinary Sierra Leoneans had a vested interest in seeing Fly Salone fail. And if the ultimate motive of government and those ruling party officials that were associated with the Fly Salone deal was to project a national pride devoid of political party politics and bragging rights, I see no reason why even government critics and opposition party members would not want to see an airline carrying the name of their country succeed. And given the analysis above, pointing fingers at other Sierra Leoneans and colonial masters is not going to take away the ultimate responsibility for the failure of Fly Salone from the management of the airline and those in government who failed to provide an enabling environment with the kind of support that would have made the airline survive and thrive.