- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 30, 2001

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Fading green-and-white signs across West and Central Africa's crumbling capitals proclaim Air Afrique: "A living symbol of African integration."
The slogan held true for the African-controlled airline for four decades, providing a source of pride in a region where successes of any kind were too rare.
But in a change of hands that passed almost unnoticed, 11 African countries reluctantly ceded control of the debt-ridden airline this month to the carrier of their former colonial ruler, Air France.
Analysts say the deal could be African states' best chance to keep their airline airborne. But some in Air Afrique worry about the partially state-owned French carrier's commitment to Africa — and some burn at the latest collapse of an African dream.
"It's a way of saying that Africans are not competent enough to run their own airline," said Mohammed Bob of Ivory Coast, waiting in Abidjan's international airport after the deal was announced.
In a region convulsed by coups and war, Air Afrique had outlasted many of the governments that founded it — providing an enduring reminder of the early optimism with which African states asserted their independence from Europe.
Launched in 1961, Air Afrique's planes for decades were the best — and often only — link between the deserts of Niger and the jungles of the Republic of Congo, as well as Europe and eventually the United States. But the airline last turned a profit in the early 1990s. Hobbled by debts, it has had five aircraft seized and is technically bankrupt under the laws of its hub country, Ivory Coast.
After trying — and abandoning — numerous rescue plans, African partner nations last week approved an Air France proposal to liquidate Air Afrique and set up a new company that will keep the original name and logo.
African states' common stake in the company will plunge from 68 percent to 22 percent. Air France's holdings will jump from 12 percent to 35 percent.
Jeffrey Erickson, a former TWA chief executive, was brought in by African leaders earlier this year for an unsuccessful try at restructuring Air Afrique.
Mr. Erickson, whose mandate as managing director expires this week, argues that demand is strong enough for the airline to expand its routes — both within Africa and outside, to regions including the United States.
Air France, however, contends the airline can be profitable only if it concentrates on a limited number of routes with high traffic.


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