Thursday, 6 May 2010

They're not going MY way!

A month ago this column was entitled “Let’s burn money”. It was inspired by the news of Air Botswana’s financial results for 2009.

In 2007/8 Air Botswana was doing very well for a small national airline. So well that it actually declared a surplus of P17.5 million. That’s a staggering achievement for an organisation that was losing money beforehand. Yes, they’d had to import a specialist manager from South Africa, yes, they’d had to adopt some rather stringent management approaches and yes, they’d had to become a lot stricter with their staff. However the combination of dedication, drive and imagination enabled the talented management team and the remaining, very dedicated workforce to make it all work. They made our little national airline something to be proud of again.

But then it all went wrong. Despite all the hard work it was still impossible to persuade anyone on the face of the planet to take over the company. The Government had asked companies to offer to run the company but what were they really offering? Not ownership, not a chance to invest in the airline, just a contract to supply guys in suits. What sort of offer is that?

Anyway, as a result almost everybody disappeared to do other things. Some left the country, others decided to work for companies with a vision and some were so desperate they even considered entering politics.

So nobody was surprised when, in 2008/9 the airline’s financial results weren’t as good as they had been in that excellent year. None of us were prepared though for the full horror. Last year Air Botswana LOST a truly enormous, staggering, awesome P87 million.

That’s a truly astonishing achievement: to take an organisation that had started to function normally and make some serious money and transform it into a corporate basket-case.

But then the impossible happened. It got worse.

There was a news report a couple of weeks ago about two of the new planes Air Botswana has recently bought, no doubt for staggering amounts of money. It seems that whoever went and bought these planes neglected to buy a maintenance plan with the planes.

I should stress that I’m not an airline specialist. I’m no expert. But I can’t help but think this. How the hell do you spend a fortune on planes and not get a maintenance plan? Would you buy a new car without a warranty and service plan? Of course not, you’d be insane to do so. Surely it’s the same with planes? Had the buyer of the new planes never bought a car before? Had they never been away from home before without their Mummy?

Of course as a result of this appalling cock-up Air Botswana was forced to ground the two new planes. They are no longer covered by the Air Botswana insurance policy because of the lack of a maintenance agreement. This screw-up appears, you may recall, against a background of our national airline already being no longer registered with IATA, the International Air Traffic Association. This wasn’t some minor paperwork hiccup, it was because they failed a Safety Audit and still haven’t managed to get their act together and pass it again.

It really sometimes seems that Air Botswana is going out of it’s way to make us, as a nation, look silly. How can we present ourselves to the world as a top-of-the-range tourist destination when we can’t even keep our national airline going, when brand new planes have already been moth-balled and the management can’t go out without their Mum and a bottle of warm milk?

So where in all of this are the regulators? Where is the relevant Ministry? Why aren’t they up at AB’s fancy, shiny headquarters bossing people around, treating this as a national crisis and doing their very best to sweet-talk the media, the tourism industry representatives and the everyday people like you and me who are now a little reluctant to buy an Air Botswana ticket?

It’s a wider issue of course. Why do we have so little active regulation and monitoring? Why is our airline allowed to go mental? Why do the organisations charged with regulating service providers do so little dramatically useful work? The exceptions have to be mentioned, NBFIRA and BOTA get off their backsides quite often and all credit to them for that. But what about the others who fail to regulate people like so-called alternative health practitioners? There are charlatans and frauds out there peddling useless medicines, pseudo-medical devices and lying, cheating remedies and they’re allowed to get away with murder. Yes, I think it’s murder. Meanwhile there are deeply respectable, honourable, devoted doctors being bullied by regulators because they appear to have developed a public face as a result of doing the only real health education our country sees. Instead of being celebrated as national assets we seem to prefer to do our best to destroy our airlines and our most effective doctors.

An appeal

Which company in Botswana gives you really dreadful service on the telephone? Let us who you think sucks on the phone and we’ll phone them for you, record their abysmal service and then send a recording to their CEO or MD. Let’s demonstrate how bad things are to those who have the power to do something about it!

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