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African Leaders To Discuss Air Afrique Future - 2001-08-14

Heads of state of the 11 African nations that own Air Afrique are meeting in the Republic of Congo to discuss the future of the financially troubled airline.

The leaders arrived in the Congolose capital, Brazzaville, to discuss ways to save the airline, which has been on the verge of collapse in recent months due to a mounting debt.

At the center of discussion is a plan devised by Air France, which has a 12 percent stake in Air Afrique. The plan calls for the company to be liquidated and a new airline formed in its place.

The French plan is an alternative to one proposed by the World Bank, which last year recommended a massive restructuring of the carrier. The World Bank's program included the hiring of U.S. airline executive Jeffrey Erickson to run the airline.

Mr. Erickson is credited with turning around two financially troubled airlines, Continental and TWA, in the United States.

Under Mr. Erickson's leadership, Air Afrique has seen some improvements. On-time performance is now 50 percent, compared to zero when the American executive took over at the beginning of this year. The airline's fleet, down to seven planes, is due to grow to 10 next year.

But Mr. Erickson's plan, which calls for a large-scale reduction of staff, is unpopular among employees who stand to lose their jobs. Union leaders have staged angry protests in Abidjan, where Air Afrique is headquartered.

Twice last month, Air Afrique employees at Abidjan airport physically blocked Mr. Erickson from leaving on a flight to Paris. He was finally forced to drive to neighboring Ghana to catch his flight to Europe.

The plan proposed by Air France is in some ways no more palatable for employees than the World Bank plan. By liquidating the airline, jobs would have to be eliminated and employees unions have warned they will protest if the owners choose to adopt it.