Deciding what to do with a loss-making national airline carrier is not a challenge unique to the Middle East. It is a process that governments around the world have had to tackle in the past 20 years amid the proliferation of new modern airlines.
But it is only now following a decade of rampant spending that inefficiencies of the region’s original national carriers are being laid bare. Established up to 50 years ago, legacy carriers such as Iran Air, Kuwait Airways, Tunisair and Saudi Arabian Airlines have been left with ageing infrastructure and fleets, while new airlines have emerged, equipped with the latest aircraft and raising the bar worldwide for the standard of in-flight services.
Having propped up these older airlines for years to no avail, several are now being offered to the private sector for them to attempt to turn around – Iran Air and Saudi Arabian Airlines are already going through the process, and Kuwait Airways is expected to follow suit. Tunisia and Bahrain, meanwhile, continue to inject more and more cash into their airlines.
Flag carriers are often considered brand extensions of a country, so it is understandable when governments are loath to let them go or restructure them.
But there comes a point when a loss-making airline becomes an unsustainable drain on a country’s economy. It is also sometimes easier to stop and start again than try to repair something that is falling a part.
National pride lies at the heart of the issue, but as the experience of European carriers shows a strong airline can be a good ambassador even in private hands, provided flights arrive and depart on schedule and good quality customer service is a priority.