Many Nigerians are familiar with the domestic destinations from Lagos to Abuja, Kano, Port Harcourt, Owerri, Enugu, Warri, Benin, Yola, Ilorin, Calabar, Uyo, Kaduna and the connection of these cities also from Abuja.
But there are many other cities that are not connected by air and recognising the fact that air travel is catalyst to economic growth, these cities might not have grown to their full potential because entrepreneurs and investors consider air connectivity before citing their businesses. Commercial cities like Aba and Onitsha which do not have airports would have had their businesses boosted if they have air link to other cities.
Aviation industry observers are of the view that non air connectivity curtails quantum of businesses that could exist between cities. For example, THISDAY learnt that businesses between Kano and Enugu would have grown significantly if there were direct flights connecting the two cities. In fact, a businessman disclosed in Kano that every night nine luxurious buses leave Kano to Enugu conveying businessmen and women and others involved in daily socio-economic dynamics of the country.
This is a market niche that has not been exploited by air travel till now. But Air Peace, Nigeria’s rising domestic carrier, has started to close the gaps between cities through air travel. The airline said it would connect Port Harcourt and Warri, the hub of oil and gas business in Nigeria. It would also connect Kano and Enugu, Uyo and Kano, Kaduna and Yola and Kano and Port Harcourt, including all other underserved and unserved domestic destinations.
Over the years industry, experts have excoriated Nigerian airlines for using the wrong equipment for operating short distance flights. According to them, the popular aircraft type in Nigeria, the Boeing B737 is not good for 50 minutes-one hour flights, which is the common distance between Nigerian cities, except Lagos-Maiduguri, Lagos-Kano and Port Harcourt-Kano.
They noted that while Boeing B737 is good for the burst of passengers on the busy routes like Abuja-Lagos; Port Harcourt-Lagos because it has average of 140 seats; the airlines also need smaller aircraft types like 50-seaters, which can airlift passengers to such destinations like Warri-Port Harcourt; Lagos-Warri and possibly new destinations like Kano-Yola.
Air Peace seemed to have responded to that call with the procurement of six Embraer 145 jets which have average of 50 seats and created a subsidiary, known as Air Peace Hopper. And with this, the airline hopes to boost the nation’s economy by connecting hitherto unconnected cities in Nigeria.
The Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the company, Mr. Allen Onyema told THISDAY that: “The idea behind the subsidiary, Air Peace Hopper is to interconnect Nigerian cities. Personally I want every part of this country to be developed, no matter the geographical location. This is a beautiful country of 180 million people, of over 378 ethnic nationalities. We have not even realised half of our potential, if only we know the potential in this country we will be celebrating every morning. So I want to use Air Peace to interconnect Nigerian cities. That is why we created this subsidiary Air Peace Hopper.”
Another huge market for Nigerians is the West Coast. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), West Africa trade would be boosted by effective air connectivity if countries in the sub-region would establish strong carriers and connect cities in West and Central Africa. For Nigeria, this is critical because the country consist the largest market in the sub-region and its citizens have to take advantage of this market.
Currently the business between Europe and West African countries far surpasses trade in the sub-region. IATA and the African Civil Aviation Commission (AFCAC) believe that with effective air connectivity inter-African trade would generate over N397.8 billion ($1.3 billion) and would enable higher volumes of trade, expanded tourism and growing commerce between African nations and with the rest of the world.
On Monday, Air Peace launched inaugural flight to three destinations in the West Coast: Freetown, Banjul and Dakar. Hitherto, there have been intemperate flight operations between these countries and others in the sub-region and Nigeria; that sometimes a passenger from Nigeria would have to travel to Europe to connect flight to another West African country.
During the inaugural flight, Mr. Onyema identified seamless air connectivity as pivotal to the socio-economic development of countries within the West Coast of Africa and other nations on the continent.
Travel expert and the organiser of Akwaaba African Travel Market, Ikechi Uko said West Africa needs efficient flight service. For now, travel between cities in the sub-region is very expensive because there are no efficient, regular flights connecting cities of the West Coast.
Uko said that Air Peace’s foray into West Africa is critical because it is Nigeria that moves the economy in the sub-region.
“I want to go to Cotonou but I cannot get direct flight from Nigeria to Cotonou so I am going to spend $1000 because I will have to go to Abidjan first, wait for a long time before I will connect flight to Cotonou which is very close to Nigeria.
“Flight connections in Africa are messed up. West Africa needs open skies. During the time of Nigeria Airways Limited (NAL), the airline earned huge revenues airlifting cargo from the West Coast because the businessmen and women did not want to face immigration and Customs hindrances you go through travelling by road; so they chose to airlift their goods. We are missing that market in air connectivity now,” Uko said.
When Air Peace marked its inaugural flights to Kano and Yola and now to three destinations in the West Coast, concerned authorities and stakeholders emphasised on consistency and efficiency of service. Many airlines have had their efforts in the past but they failed on the wayside because they could not sustain the routes. Will Air Peace sustain its operations to these destinations? The airline’s Chairman, Onyema said Air Peace would make a difference this time.