Air Mauritius: A sense of achievement in the pipeline


The fact that Air Mauritius has been voted the Indian Ocean’s leading airline for nine years running is not much to write home about or celebrate. Its comforting but, quite honestly, we were never in serious threat from our neighbours’ national or regional carriers. Now that the unfortunate hedging saga is out of the way, probably the recent 4-star distinction from Skytrax rating is more satisfying and indicative of noteworthy underlying progress under CEO Viljoen’s quiet stewardship.

What is perhaps even more satisfying is the announcement at the latest Farborough aviation industry fair that our national carrier, in line with its publicly stated seven-step plan, has signed agreements with a view to replacing its elderly fleet of long-haul Airbuses and upgrade its services while improving its future fuel and operation efficiencies. On the basis of the best performance and price mix criteria. Through its own resources and funds.

The replacements will be recent generation Airbus A350-900 with twin instead of four engines, a plane that has capped the 750 sales figures worldwide. Two would be leased from AerCap, a reputable international lessor, and a time-staggered purchase option of four others from Airbus has been announced. The two A350-900 aircraft to be leased in the first stage seem standard aviation industry processes to replace previous generation leased craft. This looks like a normal planning-ahead exercise for a now financially healthy airline making plans for the mid-term horizon in a very demanding and competitive industry environment. Besides, most economy class passengers would concur that replacement of Air Mauritius’ aging Airbus fleet is not too early.

One understands that the four purchase options obey similar advance planning necessities. The list price of the aircraft, subject to small variations in internal fittings, are known, at about One billion Euros in total. What is rarely disclosed by either of the two giants Airbus and Boeing, for evident commercial reasons, is the discount offered to the carrier so as to clinch the deal. Obviously, they want a tight lid on such sensitive commercial information and our national carrier has an obligation to comply.

Why should the Air Mauritius part fleet replacement be of interest beyond the pale of travellers and company? Quite simply because for once in its chequered history, such an announcement was made as part of a normal company procedure and process, without all the hubris and self-advertisement of politicians. For once I felt some sense of satisfaction that the country was perhaps slowly edging out of typical third or fourth world antics. Far too often, we have to watch Presidents or Prime Ministers dash to Paris, Toulouse or even Seattle to caution, sign or wrap up the simplest of aircraft purchases. It’s never too clear why they feel the adrenaline coursing their veins whenever such specialist investments by publicly listed companies using their internal funding capacities, come to the fore.

Our budding sense of satisfaction was quickly doused, subsumed by the statements of our favourite Opposition henchmen, the leaders of the MMM and the MSM. The first unabashedly recounted his own tour to the aviation capitals of the world during his spell as Prime Minister with a view, no doubt, to “help” Air Mauritius with a precipitous decision in the last days of office of the hapless MMM-MSM regime. Both would want us believe that Air Mauritius should await their competencies before taking such management decisions. Really? One rather wonders whether Mauritius should remain confined to old-style and old-generation reflexes we find too often in the worst third-world regimes.

The sense of discomfort grew even worse when both Opposition party leaders addressed the ongoing mechanism for ensuring the start of the Light Rail system that has been adopted, after decades of reports, committees and analyzes by various consultants have gathered layers of dust. Accumulated inertia has probably tripled the system’s price tag already. Wait, say our Opposition folk: we contemplate more Committees, reviews and further reports, even if we add a few billion more rupiahs to overall costs. Really? Thirty years of dust, reports and delays are not quite enough. To follow Mr Berenger’s logic, as fresh general elections are “derrière la porte” after each and every defeat, no major decisions should be taken at all.

Today the country has built up the financial clout, space and resources to embark at long last in what will be a beacon of technology in the Indian Ocean zone while providing more relief to commuters and passengers. A matter of national pride. A sense of achievement in the pipeline. No previous government had been able to even contemplate the financial and developmental scale of such a massive development. One which has the potential to boost the economy and transform the country. Far more than what has been achieved with the flagship national airport or the brand-new motorway bypassing traffic congestion in the Capital.

The process has been in place and advancing from stage to stage with expert advice. If it has reached maturity and the stage where contract allocation between the best selected offers can be envisaged, we have to remain highly vigilant about its implementation, but there are absolutely no reason for pandering to postponement requests from Opposition leaders struggling on spurious grounds. Do they simply gripe because the Labour Party is walking the talk? Or because it will go down in history single-handedly for this landmark contribution to national infrastructure?

Mr Jugnauth stirs in some as yet unsubstantiated allegations that there may be impropriety in the massive investment when all procedures, offers and bids have been vetted at each stage by the international Singapore consultants. Mr Berenger has pleaded for more delays in final decision-making but adds a twist by seeming to suggest that neither of the remaining two suppliers (an Indian and a Chinese industry giant) would deliver what we want. Really? Given the state of development of China, its cities and highways, one would have thought that Caucasian arrogance worldwide had gone down a notch or two. Neither did India need the West for its indigenous capacities in military, nuclear, space and IT technologies that are exported worldwide. Both have ample resources and know-how for advanced civil systems. Is Mr Berenger going astray into more Asia-bashing territory? Are there other agendas in the lap of our Opposition politicians?

Such a massive investment will indeed require highest standards of scrutiny during its implementation, that cost over-runs are contained to the indispensable and the unavoidable, that procedures and reporting are adhered to. To cry foul or to imply impropriety today, to plead for further delays and procrastination or to imply that Asian companies do not have the wherewithal for such a project seem unwarranted. Some smack of soapbox politics, others of third-world syndromes or, worse still, of hidden agendas.

* Published in print edition on 25 July 2014

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