Kola Olayinka is the Regional Commercial Manager, West Africa at British Airways. In this interview with Medinat Kanabe he speaks on the company’s growth trajectory in the last 100 years vis-à-vis opportunities and challenges in Nigeria’s economic landscape, especially for aviation business. Excerpts:
British Airways celebrated 100 years recently, what are your thought on this accomplishment and what is the future of the airline?
I think the future is very bright. I will borrow the words of our CEO, ‘We have started looking at the next hundred years.’ So the future is very bright and the one thing I will borrow from our CEO is that British Airways wants to be the absolute best airline in the whole world. Before now, people would refer to British Airways as one of the best airlines in the world, but we want to be in an undisputed way, the absolute best airline in the world and we want that to come from our customers. When your customers acknowledge that you are the best then you are truly the best and I think the icing on the cake will be when the competition also accepts that you are the best. That’s what we think the future holds for British Airways.
A lot of airlines have come and gone in these past 100 years, what has kept you going?
I think our customers more than anything else has kept us going. The fact that service is what we do. Our CEO said that it is in our DNA, it is part of us. Service to people is what we do and that is what keeps people coming repeatedly. You can imagine having a business running in Nigeria for 85 years and all over the world 100 years; that’s not a mean feat and that is not to say that we don’t sometimes get things wrong but when we get things wrong, we get it right massively so if we offend any of our customers or we did something that is not very great, whatever it is, we recover massively and I think that’s the trait. That you keep your customers happy, your staff is always there to delight the customers, your shareholders are happy. These three are your key stakeholders and you can’t go wrong with them.
When you talk about recovering massively, what do you put in place?
I think it’s everybody. I tell you one of the things we do here in Nigeria and I am sure all over the world is that when you have a problem or you are dealing with a customer, you own it and you end it so we don’t have a lot of bulk passing. We don’t practice things like – oh, it’s not me, it should be this person or that person. If you are having a problem with Mr. A, whoever Mr. A is, you own the problem and you find a solution for Mr. A until you get it. It does not matter where in the world you will get the result from, look for the solution, get it for the customer until the customer says thank you.
For me, I think the biggest kick I have ever had from working for BA for all these years is when my customers travel, and they come back after paying us money and they say thank you. It really makes my day.
How many countries does BA operates in and what are your performances?
It is a moving target and even as I am speaking now, we are starting new routes and we are deleting some. I cannot say for sure because you might just find out that the figure is wrong because we are stopping some. I know for example that we are turning away some countries and we are starting new ones all over the world.
The reason for stopping the countries is commercial- are we making enough money in this country? It is as simple as that. If we are, then we enhance the country. So if we are going three times a week and we realise that people are asking for more, then we can start flying every day if the government of that country allows us to do that.
How will you assess your performance here in Nigeria?
I think the customers are talking. If we have been here 85 years then the customers are talking. If we haven’t been doing good, then we wouldn’t be here. The customer is the one that dictates what happens to any business. If the customers are not there, you can make all the noise you want, they are not there. Take example, right now, the aircrafts are full. I am not saying it out of arrogance but in a thankful way to our customers. We have been full for the past five weeks and we are going to be full till the end of September. Who are the people on the aero planes? Customers- loyal and wonderful customers who we make efforts to delight and who keeps coming back because they appreciate us, and we also appreciate them as well. So, it is all about the customers at the end of the day.
In what ways do you give back to the society?
We do our things very quietly; you know in a British way, we don’t make too much noise. We identify worthy causes and then we follow those causes through. We have a school in Kuje, Abuja. The last time I checked it was about 2,500 students in the school that we have been supporting quietly for years. We have a school in Lagos called Bola School; we have been supporting them for years.
We started a new one with the girls coding of the Pearls Africa Foundation (PAF) and it is not going to be a one-off thing. It is something that we want to be supporting, making sure that by the time they grow up they will be able to give back to the society themselves. It is an ongoing thing and it is something we are very proud of. I came across PAF one day when I was watching TV and saw Abisoye Ajayi on CNN and I was so amazed and decided to research on her. My colleagues also did their investigations and we found out what she is doing so we decided to support her.
How do you reward loyal clients and travel agencies?
We reward them in so many ways. We have a commercial relationship with travel agencies with us. A relationship where we are partners, they sell on our behalf and we reward them according to the volume they sell. If you ask how we reward loyal partners/customers, you know when you are buying tickets and flying with us from time to time we have loyalty programmes which we call Executive Club so you are a member of this club; for each flight you take you get AVS and that’s a reward. So, from time to time if there are free tickets, we can suddenly call you and say you are entitled to a free ticket which you can give to any of your loved ones, apart from wonderful service both on ground and onboard.
What challenges have the company faced in these years and how have you been able to overcome them?
Every company has challenges. I will not call them challenges but opportunities because in every challenge lies an opportunity. Recently, around 2015 we had an issue with accessing foreign exchange and we are still here. Some people couldn’t survive it, but we weathered the storm. You can imagine what has happened to Nigeria in 85 years and we have been here through that history. There are times you don’t make money, there are times the competition is so much but hey! That’s why they employed people like us so that we can make things work.
Are there policies in place in Nigeria that is hindering your business?
My answer will be a true no because when you go into any country, we look at the country, study the laws, abide by it and operate within the ambit of those laws. However, if we feel that there are things that we feel are not quite good, we have avenue that we talk between the two government– UK and Nigeria.
British Airways is seen as one of the most expensive airlines to fly, how have you been able to keep your customers?
I don’t think they are saying that. I just said that we are full, so I will change that to British Airways is one of the airlines or the airline that gives good value for money, not expensive because if you are most expensive, you will run yourself out o, not expensive because if you are most expensive, you will run yourself out of business.
If I go to a shop to buy a shirt and it is expensive, I will not go back there but if I find something in the shop that can convince me to pay a little higher I will keep going back there so what the customers are saying to us is not that we are too expensive, but they are saying they get value for their money here. But let me reassure you, with the competition, we are always checking what others are doing so we can’t be very expensive.
You were named one of the safest airlines to travel with, how did you achieve this?
Quoting our CEO and what I strongly believe in, safety and security is our number 1 priority. No compromises at all. So, I am not surprised that we were named the safest airline to travel with. I will rather say in the world not only in Europe and we don’t make noise about it. When a customer steps on the plane they assume they are already there.
When I step on a BA plane, I just go to sleep because I know I am getting there by the grace of God. We do not joke with it and I can site instances for you where you consider very small but in the books of BA there is nothing like that because we know accidents don’t work with aircrafts and one single accident can actually put you into very serious trouble as a company.
by Medinat Kanabe