It is still flying but for how long
Scouting through a list of issues that demand editorial attention this week, I was pleasantly surprised to learn on Thursday that unemployment is now down to zero. In my mind I always had this horrible 51% unemployment figure, later modified to 27%, but even at that more rational level, still frightfully high.
So, imagine my joy when I was informed, unemployment is now semi-officially down to zero. I mean, that solves all our problems, does it not?
Now imagine working for a bankrupt parastatal that has gobbled up billions (that is not a typo) since its name was changed in 1991. Employees working for this parastatal receive market-related salaries, on top of which they have a generous pension scheme, an even more generous housing-subsidy scheme, full medical cover and all the other social benefits, same as every other civil servant. If they are somewhat higher in the ranks, they can also claim S&T, demand a car allowance, additional leave days, and even a uniform allowance. What’s more, they fly free of charge wherever they want to, at least once a year.
But some obscure union demanded this week that its members’ outrages claims must be met, or else they will all resign the very next day and go work for one of the many other companies operating in the same industry.
By implication, the union’s actions show they are convinced Namibia enjoys full employment. But the Air Namibia cabin crew union who announced its blackmail stunt late in the week, has no regard for the history of the employer, and for the vast amounts of capital it has devoured over two decades in an effort to stay in the air, so to speak.
Air Namibia as a profitable (or at least break-even) commercial concern was doomed from the day a high-ranking government official bragged about the substantial “commission” he received for convincing (forcing) the airline’s management to buy the brand-new 747 Combi, way back in about 1994. But this aircraft was the first nail in the coffin of an already struggling concern. Its history after that is in the public domain, and anybody who wants to, can go and trace the massive amounts of money allocated to the airline, in budget after budget. This was always dressed in fancy sounding terminology like recapitalising, or covering an operating deficit, or whatever label you care to call it by. The 747 Combi eventually became such an embarrassment, my sources told me it lead to heated arguments in the meetings of the highest authority. As a matter of fact, Air Namibia could not embark on a proper re-equipping exercise before finding a buyer for the Combi, which deal eventually had to be tied to a leasing agreement.
On my shelf, I still have the commemorative plaque a proud airline issued when everybody who is somebody travelled to Seattle to collect the prize object. But I suspect, to this day there are several sober-minded and responsible leaders who have never forgotten the indulgence of that ill-conceived plan, and the ramifications it caused for Namibia over the ensuing years. That episode provides a case study in how large capital expenditure must NOT be done. From there it was all downhill and it is doubtful whether the airline will ever be able to recoup its staggering accumulated losses.
Unfortunately, very few people working for Air Namibia today, know this and realise the tremendous drain the company has proved to be on the national economy. I was amazed at the level of ignorance I encountered among the airline’s top employees as recently as eighteen months ago when I asked them about their company’s history, and about the irrevocable capital loss it constitutes. Air Namibia employees, from the lowest to almost the highest, live in cuckoo land where everything is provided by the state via the parastatal, and where entitlement is the accepted norm.
This was illustrated very visibly last year with the pilots’ strike, which also, eventually turned into blackmail. In my mind, a pilot is like a soldier, or a doctor or a nurse. They can not strike. First, they are not underpaid, in fact airline pilots are very well paid. Secondly, there is no shortage of both experienced and hopeful new ones. But, fundamentally, an airline pilot is someone who takes the lives of hundreds of passengers in his hands, every single day. If he fails to exercise common sense in something as simple as remuneration, how can I expect him to make life or death decisions in an emergency.
This has created a very dangerous precedent on which the cabin crew is now zooming in.
I can not blame them for following the example of their superiors.