Managing Director of Medview Airline, Alhaji Muneer Bankole has called on the federal government to support Nigerian airlines to grow and increase capacity. He spoke to Chinedu Eze. Excerpts:
What is the history of this aircraft that just returned from major checks?
You know this is our first baby that we bought at the commencement of our operation, so we took much interest in the aircraft and when it was due for this C-Check we decided to spend money on it. The challenges are enormous because at the time of sending the aircraft for maintenance, there was no forex. So the maintenance was supposed to take six weeks maximum, but it took three months. We had to source the money locally from the parallel market and the money was not available, but we give glory to God that we finally brought the baby (aircraft) home. We did a total clean up of the equipment. Everything you are seeing on the aircraft is new. We now used the opportunity to remember our partner, First Bank of Nigeria Plc. The bank has been our strong backbone over the past years. They worked tirelessly with us; that is why we remembered them by recognizing the bank on the aircraft.
This year marks the 10th year we have operated on Hajj and we are expecting that in the next one month we are going to deliver a Boeing B747 for Medview and we are also expecting another Boeing B777 to be delivered as back up to the B747 for the Hajj. These are the things we are celebrating. We now have six aircraft in our fleet. I made a trip to Boeing Company in Seattle. I just came back. I was a special guest to Boeing. They are putting two Boeing B737-800 in their production for Medview. They were interested in us because of our long patronage to Boeing aircraft and they want to know what they would do for us. They even offered us a Boeing B777, which I went to inspect. So, with God on our side we only pray that our government will quickly improve the economy because airline is a driving force for the economy. The air transport industry is a catalyst to the economy because it moves people and goods at a very fast rate from one destination to another and it is the means of transport for the critical segment of the population who propel the economy and decision makers who churn out the policies that determine the nation’s economic growth. The capacity of this aircraft is 116 passengers. It came all the way from Estonia and stopped at Tunisia from where it transited to Nigeria without any incident.
Some of the Nigerian airlines that sent their aircraft for maintenance have not been able to bring them back home because of the high cost of dollar in relation to cheap Naira. How were you able to do it?
The word is determination. We are sincerely committed to bringing back the aircraft after the checks because we needed to get things going. We paid a lot for it. We changed dollars at N370. That is very painful. We had to source for the money from different local areas, from partners and friends and at the end we succeeded in bringing the aircraft home.
Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) is demanding more dollars from the federal government?
I was there at the meeting. From the interaction we had with the Minister of State for Aviation, he means well for the industry. He is a wonderful person. He has seen it that he has to carry everybody along. He has done wonderfully well. He had to leave everything he was doing to go with us to Nigeria Customs Service where we cleared the issue of Customs duty on aircraft and aircraft parts. We met with the Comptroller General of Customs; we also had to meet with the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and also the Minister of Finance. That shows he is committed to improving the industry, so we want to thank him for that. I think the best he can do for us is to tell Mr. President the importance of this industry; this is the driving force of the economy, without aviation the economy is grounded. Without airlines you cannot travel anywhere.
Back to this foreign exchange issue, there seem to be competition between the foreign airlines and the Nigerian airlines, which allege that preferential treatment is being given to foreign airlines. What is your take on this?
Over the years the foreign airlines are doing business in Nigeria but they do not invest anything here. They cannot be moving all their money like that; they must have to invest something here. I operate in Saudi Arabia; I have investment so I employ the indigenes there. So the foreign airlines that have been operating here and profiting from here should invest in the country. They should create window for employment. Nigeria has been nice to them. Government gave them over $200 million while Nigerian airlines are groaning. But we are not complaining for now; we just want a level playing field. But the lesson for government this time is that it should know that it is important it enhances the capacity of Nigerian carriers. If it does that it will create more jobs for the people. By supporting the domestic airlines you create more jobs, earn more money from the airlines and boost ancillary services, which will further create more jobs and pay their taxes to government. So the right thing to do by government is to support the domestic airlines to grow.
The foreign airlines have threatened that they may stop operations to Nigeria. Do you feel they can do that?
I will tell you not to be afraid of that because none is leaving the country; except those that have not been doing well. Nigeria is one of their major markets worldwide. I can tell you Emirates is not thinking of leaving Nigeria. Not all of them are threatening to leave and if anyone leaves it will create market for those that stay. Those that are not marketing very well can crack jokes that they are leaving.
Are you adding more aircraft in your fleet soon?
We are also expecting a new aircraft by next month. We are starting West Coast and you know, our Lagos-London route is doing very well. Throughout July and August we have no seats available. They have all been sold out. I have been discussing with my partners on how to deploy Boeing B747 in late July to bring Nigerians home from London. This will help them for the summer and in the December we do the same. Also our Jeddah route is doing very well. We are doing the Umura and we are doing three flights a week. We are also doing charter. We have charter in Sokoto and Gombe.
With the progress you are making how do you see your operations in the next five years?
We have a passion for this job. We have been in this business for 34 years. We sleep aviation; we dream aviation and we know the job. What we are looking at in future is precisely Dubai and New York. We are holding on strongly in London with the big boys; we are also holding on strongly in Jeddah and very soon we start operation to West Coast. We can compete effectively with the big boys in London because the people who are flying are Nigerians, not the foreigners, so the taste of the pudding is in the eating. We provide our customers homemade food on-board our flights.
What is your view about government’s plan to concession the major airports in the country?
We are in support of it. That is the way to go because government may not be able to provide the funds that will improve airport facilities and modernise them so that they would be like any other international airports elsewhere. This will enable government to deploy its funds to other essential needs like education, hospitals and others. Most airports in the world are privatised. They want to privatise the major airports because that is where the money is, so that the investors will be encouraged to invest in other airports after the major ones. Most of the governors who built airports did not think deeply before embarking on the projects. They should have consulted with the airlines. They should have considered the viability of such airports before embarking on building them. They should have partnered with us before starting the projects. What the government would probably be looking at is how to generate revenue. Government is looking for where money is coming in. Look at this airport terminal (MMA2), it is good facility and it is making money. It was built by a private organisation.