Bobby Bryan is the Commercial Director for West, East, Central and Lusophone Africa at Delta Air Lines. He speaks with Demola Ojo on the resilience of the Nigerian market, the top US destinations Nigerians travel to, the new innovations Delta has put in place to improve customers’ inflight experience and more..
In a couple of months, Delta will mark a decade of flying to Africa, Nigeria to be precise. Looking back at the past 10 years, what will you say are some of the biggest achievements in connecting Africa to the US and beyond?
For starters, 10 years is an achievement in itself. To maintain a market, to develop a market, to bring our world class service to a market and keep it going for 10 years is incredible. One of the incredible things is the way we evolve the same time the market evolves. We started with morning flights here, now we have evening flights, because that’s what the market wanted. Now we have flat beds here, which the market wanted. The fact that we are continually transporting people back and forth; the students, the businessmen, the investors, the oil people, the NGOs… everybody is able to come because of that. I think that really is the achievement. And it’s also interesting the kind of mix we get. When you take any of our flights, every kind of passenger is on it. You have families, you have immigrants, you have people trying to get an education, you have people trying to develop the economy, you have people going to New York to the UN. It’s just amazing.
As the first US airline to launch flights to Africa, are you looking at flying to more cities within the continent?
We are always looking and evaluating. We don’t have any current plans to add to this but things change rapidly in Africa and we’re continually evaluating new cities, new routes and new opportunities. We certainly see the future opportunities in Africa.
United Airlines exited the Nigerian market in June, leaving Delta as the only American carrier in Nigeria. How does Delta plan to take advantage of this vacuum?
You know, we always say competition is a good thing. Carriers come and go, that’s a market-based decision. We’re here, we’re not going anywhere. We see growth here, whether there are other carriers or not. So it doesn’t change our plans particularly. On the other hand, it reinforces that we made the right decision to stay in this market. And I think that is what our message is, that we’ve been here for almost 10 years and we’ve never wavered, we always keep flying. It doesn’t matter if there’s Ebola, or a change in the political climate. We keep flying. And I think that’s the message for people to hear. We’re not going anywhere, we’re committed to this market.
Dollar repatriation and a weak Naira resulting in high ticket prices is a big issue in Nigeria presently. What strategies has Delta put in place to swim above the tide?
The currency situation has been an issue for all carriers and for most industries. On our part, we’ve taken the approach that this cannot stop our business. We have to manage this. We have financial strategies and operational strategies in place. You’ll see us continue to fly and we want to remain competitive in the market from a price point of view. We view this somewhat as a passing phenomenon. It will not always be this difficult with the currency so like any other challenge we have, we keep fine.
How has Delta managed to make profit despite multi-million dollar investments in acquiring new aircraft and improving on-ground and inflight experiences for its passengers?
From a corporate point of view, we need to have a balance. We need to make a profit for our shareholders but we also need to provide the best experience for our passengers. So yes, you’ve seen our profit announcement which is fantastic, because that’s what enables us to make those investments that the passengers want. So it’s a positive circle. You can’t have one without the other. At the moment, travelling abroad is a luxury that many Nigerians are reluctant to indulge in due to the present economic situation in the country.
What are the incentives to encourage Nigerian travellers to consistently fly Delta?
What’s interesting is that actually, the passenger numbers in economy class are up year over year, most likely because our passengers from Nigeria have a link to the American economy which is very strong right now. So our goal is to make sure we still have planes here to fly them. It seems that people are ready to go. There are challenges for our passengers but we find that they’re still going. They still want to go to America. The demand is still strong so our goal is that we’re still flying, we’re reliable, that we’re on time, that people get their bags, that they can make the connections to wherever in America they want to go, because one of the interesting things is that Nigerians go everywhere in America.
You’ve been in Nigeria (personally) for a little over 10 years. What strikes you as uniquely different about the Nigerian market?
I think what sets Nigeria apart – and this is something I feel and notice almost every day – is how resilient the market is. No matter the challenges, people want to do business here and they want to travel here. In other markets you might find a cycle, sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse, but in Nigeria, every single day people want to travel, to go do business, see the world. And that never changes. And I think it’s particularly strong here in Lagos. I mean, it’s amazing. People don’t get down in Lagos, do they? You just bounce back. Lagosians just go. It’s a great trait, one that not everywhere in the world has.
You recently installed high-speed wi-fi internet on your trans-Atlantic routes including flights to Lagos. What has the response been like?
Very positive because ours is a long flight from here. It’s up to 12 hours. So people have time to have a meal, to have a drink, to watch a movie and to sleep but they still want to get a bit of work done because they have the time, and they’re able to do so. People get really excited that they can check their e-mail before they arrive and so when they arrive it’s a calmer experience not having to respond to urgent e-mails. So it really has been a real change in the in-flight experience.
Which are the top US destinations Nigerians travel to through Delta’s Atlanta hub?
Of course, Atlanta is in itself, a big destination. Others are Houston, Washington, Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Boston…But what’s interesting, and I’ve mentioned this before, is that Delta flies to literally hundreds of destinations in the US. And we find that over the course of the year, Nigerians go to almost all of them. So you have the concentration of those big cities, but Nigerians go everywhere in the US and that’s an important thing for us because Atlanta is our biggest hub, with connections to hundreds of cities and Nigerians use all of them. And that’s something that we can offer that many other carriers can’t. That makes us a bit different.
Is there any particular connection that has seen a surge in passengers in recent times?
I think the biggest increase we’ve seen has been the Washington-Baltimore area. It’s always been a big destination, but it seems to be particularly strong.
Any particular reason why?
Washington is growing as a capital city especially with education, with NGOs and with technology and I think that drives a lot of the growth.
What are the new innovations or services from Delta the Nigerian public should look forward to?
There will be lots of new innovations coming. The all-suite offering in Delta One is a major part of that. It is the first business class cabin to feature a sliding door at each suite. You know baggage is very important here in Nigeria so it’s imperative to reiterate that Delta is the first airline to install the RFID baggage tracking system. It’s important to recap that because everybody is travelling with baggage here. We already had an industry leading baggage program and now we’re adding this extra element to it. It’s really amazing. You can track your bags on the Delta App on your phone. You don’t have to wonder where your bags are. You have your bag tag that tells you that your bag is being loaded on the plane, that it’s coming off… it’s amazing. The RFID chip in the bag tag broadcasts so your baggage is always with you.
So how many cities have you been to in Nigeria?
Let’s see. Port-Harcourt, Calabar, Benin city, Kano, Abuja… I’m forgetting somewhere but at least these big five.
Are you thinking of flying from any of those locations in the near future?
We used to fly from Abuja but right now we’re going to concentrate on Lagos, that’s where most of the market is. We still have our office in Abuja and Abuja is a good market.
Any particular favourites when it comes to Nigerian cuisine?
For me, when it comes to Nigerian cuisine, the best of the best is suya. I like all of it and I even have my own house recipe. So we make suya prawns at home.
Any particular spots you go to regularly?
I play golf at Ikoyi Club which I really like because you meet different people on the golf course and you find out new opportunities. It’s a nice mix and you can get to be outside and walk.