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Fly Salone: Beyond the glee of Sierra Leone's London flight

By Tanu Jalloh

A direct flight from Gatwick Airport in London, United Kingdon to Freetown, Sierra Leone, has commenced but questions of sustainability have emerged given the records of the private company that operates the Boeing 757 aircraft.

According to an official source “Fly Salone Airlines Ltd was set up on 18 Aug 2015. Its current status is listed as ‘Active’ and it currently has 2 directors. The company's first directors were Mr Haitham Sabrah, Mr Jihad El Saleh. Fly Salone Airlines Ltd has no subsidiaries.”

Aside the fact that the company was utilising the aircraft leased from an Icelandic Air, there had been little information available beyond the glee of its maiden landing on Saturday 12 December 2015 at the Freetown International Airport in Lungi, north of the country.

In October 2014, when many airlines suspended flights to Freetown because of the Ebola outbreak, McPhillips Travel, the country’s only flight specialist offering scheduled services to and from Freetown, called for a direct flight to Freetown. Disappointed in particular with the decision in October 2014 of Gambia Bird to suspend its flights to Freetown from London, the company lamented UK government’s shift in policy to withdraw their permissions barely a week before service was to resume.

In a statement dated 13 October, 2014 McPhillips Travel argued that: “Sierra Leone is also suffering economically. Direct flights can be easily monitored. In addition, direct flights also carry advantages from a time-saving and cost-saving perspective which are obviously factors of considerable importance to charities, NGOs and businesses operating on tight budgets.”

Fourteen months later Fly Salone, registered just four months ago, had established partnership with McPhillips as “the appointed UK sales agent for Fly Salone Airlines”. We suspected that there existed a link between McPhillips and the four months old company, Fly Salone which had no business record in or outside the aviation industry. That gap in experience was apparently being provided by McPhillips which had over 30 years record being in the aviation industry.

We contacted Struan Johnston and Sam Sabrah, whose email addresses were sent to us by McPhillips in reply to an earlier email we had sent to them, requesting for clarifications and responses to concerns being raised around the operations of Fly Salone and status of the business.

As at press time we had received no response or clarifications either from Sabrah, the Managing Director, or Johnston, the aviation specialist responsible for strategy and operations.

We suspected a relationship beyond what was in the public domain between the two partners, McPhillips and Fly Salone, so we enquired to know whether there was a business interest, in terms of investment. We could not get an answer from McPhillips but it recently updated its website announcing their level of involvement with Fly Salone.

“Now offering direct service twice a week from Gatwick Airport as official UK sales agents for Fly Salone Airlines, we are delighted to be able to provide passengers with non-stop reservations between London and Freetown…We hope the reintroduction of direct flights and the establishment once again of a direct air link between the two countries will go some way towards helping Sierra Leone rebuild after an extremely difficult period in her history” it said.

Meanwhile,Politico also proved that Fly Salone was certainly registered and started in a hurry and we wanted to know whether they could provide any explanations for that.

There was the issue of nationality of the two shareholders and directors, Sabrah, 46, and El Saleh, and we wanted to confirm the nationality status of especially Jihad El Saleh, said to be a Sierra Leonean, in the light of the current position of the 1991 Constitution on citizenship. The Citizenship Act of 1973 as amended in 2006 was slammed by critics who said the proviso to Section 2 of the principal Act discriminated against people whose parents or grandparents are not of Negro African descent.

“Provided that his father, mother or any of his grandparents was born in Sierra Leone and is or was a person of Negro African descent”.

According to our investigations between July 2011 and October 2015 Sabrah, one of the shareholders and directors of Fly Salone, was a director in eight companies and all of them had been dissolved within four years of their operations.  So we wanted some explanations, especially when some people had doubts in his ability to run a successful business.

According Endole, a credible online portal that provides insights on UK registered businesses and company records, Sabrah was director for Grosvenor Investment Corporation Limited, Globe UK Export Limited, Grosvenor Exploration & Mining Limited, Hanover Trading & Logistics Limited and Grosvenor Trading (London) Limited all on 4-6 St Ann'sTerrace, St Johns Wood, London, NW8 6PJ. Within the same period he was director at BGS Intl Limited and Starex Exploration & Mining Ltd on Flat 71 Grove Hall Court, Hall Road, London, NW8 9NY and Sabford Mining Limited c/o Merchant Legal Llp,8-10 Coombe Road, New Malden, Surrey KT3 4QE. All of these businesses were dissolved under four years and the reasons were still unknown.

Given the above instances we wanted to know what were the assurances that Fly Salone, like all other companies that had failed under Sabrah, would not be a business established to be dissolved very soon?The company was registered as a private limited company with share capital, meaning a shareholder's personal assets are thereby protected in the event of the company's insolvency, but money invested in the company will be lost.

Meanwhile, according to information provided by Fly Salone on their website, Sabrah’s business partner, himself a shareholder and director, El Saleh, was taking up that directorship for the first time ever. Therefore, the concern was that a business as huge and complex as Fly Salone would require some experienced business people to look after it.

We could not get answers to suspicions that both Sabrah and El Saleh were playing proxies for other bigger interests, the government of Sierra Leone or any other person. But the government spokesman, Theo Nicol, refused to comment and advised that we talked to Leonard Balogun Koroma, minister of transport. He could not be reached for comments.

Politico discovered that Jihad El Saleh, claiming to be a Sierra Leonean, and Haitham Sabrah, his British partner, were the only directors of the company and they also doubled as the only shareholders on record.

“We have 2 shareholders for Fly Salone Airlines Ltd, according to the latest Annual Return submitted on 18 August 2015,” according to Endole, an online open data service that provides corporate information for UK companies.

Apart from the nonexistent of important information about the company’s business records on turnover, debt to capital and return to capital employed, there is no record of its current or net assets. This development could create a huge suspicion about Fly Salone’s liquidity, the ability or ease with which assets can be converted into cash.

“An increase in current assets is a leading indicator of growth, and a strong measure of a company's liquidity.The higher the number, the healthier the balance sheet,” a business source told Politico.

The company had a registered address at 24 Bedford Row, London, WC1R 4TQ in the UK, but it was not a subsidiary of any company with a sound track record in the aviation industry anywhere in the world.

But chairman and lead financier of Fly Salone, Jay Saleh said, on their website, that the airlinewould fill a gap in the market created when British Airways suspended flights to and from Sierra Leone.

He added that they had: “obtained the support of the Sierra Leonean government to operate a twice weekly service from London, Gatwick to Freetown, Sierra Leone”.

(C) Politico 21/12/15