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Opinions Sun, 20 Jan 2002

The Rot At Ghana Airways

By all indications, Ghana Airways Corporation ought to be able to operate a rather profitable airline. Ghana stands at the crossroads of becoming a major air traveling hub in the Africa region, if only the management at Ghana Airways were up to it. Ghana Airways' major competitors in the lucrative West Africa market, Air Afrique and Nigerian Airways are moribund because of mismanagement.

Ghana Airways also operates the lucrative Accra-Harare-Johannesburg route. Add Ghana Airways flights to Europe, Britain and the United States, and it becomes quite apparent that Ghana Airways should do much better financially, than it is doing now. With efficient services by the management, airline passengers from the West African region and elsewhere would make Accra the hub, for their connecting flights to Europe and North America. If the Accra Airport could not handle the increase in passenger services, the Kumase Airport could be developed and upgraded into an international airport to supplement and relieve the Kotoka International Airport of its increasing passenger volume.

Airport taxes alone from passengers would pay off what money was invested in upgrading the two airports, in the long run. Additional money could be spent on upgrading regional airports which would serve as feeders for Accra and Kumase international airports. The economic benefits of this scenario is incalculable. This is how countries and businesses in Europe, Asia, and North America have developed their airports into international hubs with huge economic benefits accruing to the countries and businesses involved.. This can be easily replicated in Ghana with minimum effort, if the management were so inclined!

Such a scenario requires efficiency, excellent planning by management and proper execution; qualities that appear to be most lacking in the management of the Ghana Airways. As Ghana Airways has expanded its services, it has become very clear that the management is unprepared and unable to cope with the increase volume in travel. The result is the daily reports of passenger frustrations over inefficient services; stranded passengers not being told of the status of their flights; flights that take off rather late; flights that don't take off at all; telephone enquiries that go unanswered; eccentric scheduling; melee between passengers and airline management at airports in Baltimore and New York in the USA; London; Banjul; Dakar; Accra; and everywhere that Ghana Airways operates a flight. It seems at Ghana Airways, customer service is anathema.

There is general despondency among Ghana Airways travelers. In fact, on some of the flights from Accra to New York and Baltimore, passengers are usually told that the flights are full, though the passengers hold confirmed tickets on those flights. That is when a corrupt system known by Ghana Airways staff and some Ghanaian Travel Agents as "Buy a Seat" kicks in! The passenger is asked to pay additional amount in bribes to ensure a seat on the plane. Once the passenger gets on the plane, he finds out, that it is only half-full!! In this manner, some flights have left Kotoka Airport to New York and Baltimore half-empty. This is an act of sabotage to feed a corrupt system that benefits Ghana Airways staff.

Contrast that with Ghana Airways' European competitors: British Airways, Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM), and Lufthansa, are doing brisk and profitable business in Ghana. These airlines now fly almost daily to Accra from their European destinations, though they have reduced their flights to North America. Mismanagement is costing Ghana Airways huge profits, while increasingly adding to the huge financial debt on the people of Ghana.

The story has become all too familiar; another Ghana Airways passengers' nightmarish tale about the airline. Yet, the story that came out of Banjul, Gambia; was rather bizarre, even by the standards of Ghana Airways' renowned inefficiency! According to a report by the Gambian newspaper Daily Observer (Online Edition), disappointed and dejected Gambian travelers threatened to not only burn the company's offices at the Banjul International Airport, but set ablaze a Ghana Airways aircraft, as well!! The airline officials had to lock their offices at Banjul airport, and flee to avert possible physical harm. Some of the disappointed passengers held visas that could expire the next day, unless they got on a flight, according to the Daily Observer.

The travelers anger pertains to an incident that happened on January 6, and was repeated on January 14, this year of our Lord! In both instances, after making scheduled visits to the Banjul Airport to board their flights to Baltimore, USA; the passengers were instead advised to return later on the above dates. Rather incredibly, when the passengers went to the airport at the appointed time, on each occasion, the aircraft had arrived much earlier, full of passengers; and had made a hasty clandestine departure without even notifying the Gambian passengers.

Hence, the passengers foul disposition!

Now, that is a very crude way of running away from a problem. Ghana Airways managers are unique in their renown for running away when customer problems arise. I can wager the ‘book-men' who manage the Kumase to Mim-Gambia (Brong Ahafo Region) ‘Kosan' lorry operation do a better job at addressing the needs of their passengers!!

The agonies of passengers who travel on Ghana Airways are too numerous to mention here.

The list of passengers who have suffered indignities, includes citizens from several nations, and from all walks of life. The management of Ghana Airways may decide to gloss over this, or they may not be aware of this: In the United States, as in Europe where the company is competing for business, customer service is the key to business growth. Negative customer reaction brought on by inadequate customer service, have sunk many a bright company. When the powerful Coca Cola Company spent hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars to introduce its "New Coke" drink in the 1980's, negative customer reaction nearly cost the company half the value of its share on the Stock Market. Coke withdrew the product, at huge financial loss to the company.

With proper management and efficient customer service, Ghana Airways could wreak huge profits from its New York-Accra, and Baltimore-Accra routes alone. These routes provide great convenience to travelers going to West Africa, who hitherto, had to spend nearly 24 hours flying from the USA through Europe (including a tedious 6 hours layover at European airports) to West African destinations. But Ghana Airways' peculiar rotten customer service has left travelers pondering wether the long but efficient flight through Europe is not preferable to the gamut of problems afflicting the traveler who chooses Ghana Airways. In some instances, passengers scheduled to arrive at Baltimore, are unceremoniously dumped at New York, with nary an explanation.

Should the reciprocal treaty that allows Ghana Airways to fly to US destinations kick in to allow an American carrier to fly to Ghana, it may sound the beginning of a quick collapse of Ghana Airways in these parts. Before that happens though, Ghana Airways risks lawsuits in the USA if it continues with its ante-diluvial customer service practices, whereby passengers are treated like garbage.

Reforming Ghana Airways and making it the profitable and respectable airline that it once was is a herculean but not improbable task. The problems were there before the NPP government assumed power. The NPP government has however, signaled its determination to revive the company, by introducing efficiency and accountability in the company with the appointment of a new Board under the chairmanship of the able and seemingly ubiquitous Mr. Sam Jonah, the head of the Ashanti Goldfields Corporation. It is in the government's interest to ensure that services at the airline are of the highest quality.

The wartime Italian dictator Benito Mussolini remains a reviled figure among his people, but the expression: "Mussolini made the trains run on time", now used worldwide to gauge efficiency in a government or corporate undertaking, is an enduring testament to the dictator's efficient delivery of needed services to his people during his term in office.

The rot at the Ghana Airways impacts upon Ghana and Ghanaians in so many ways. The airline is at the forefront of Ghana's drive towards foreign investment and the lucrative tourism industry. If a visitor's first impression of Ghana is that of the inefficiency, incompetence, and lackluster services that Ghana Airways portray, the country could be the loser.

Also, by showcasing such squalid inefficiency towards the traveling public, this negative perception is inevitably transferred to the government which is then viewed as uncaring, corrupt and inefficient, as well. Above all, the huge debt estimated currently at about $135 million that Ghana Airways has incurred over the years due to mismanagement; and the reported determination of the NPP government to bail out the debt-ridden company contributes to the under-development of Ghana. In this instance, Ghana Airways will be siphoning government money that could be put to other uses, such as to re-develop and refine the railway system in the country.

The problems at Ghana Airways is systemic. The proposition that an independent nation must operate a national airline was quite attractive in a bygone era. However, that bright idea is rendered moot when due to chronic inefficiency and recurring debt, the airline in question becomes a huge financial albatross on a country's meager economic resources. That is the problem with Ghana Airways Corporation today.

If the company cannot be salvaged due to mismanagement; then it behooves the government to sell it to the highest bidder in the private sector. There is nothing virtuous to be gained, not politically; not economically; not socially; for a government to tie itself to an unprofitable enterprise in the name of national interest and national pride.




Columnist: Ellison, Kofi