In this interview, the Chairman/Chief Executive Officer of the airline, Mr. Allen Onyema, speaks on the need for government to support airlines in combating international aero politics and image laundering to get Nigerian airlines off an ‘unofficial blacklist’.
Nigerian airlines historically have had challenges of how to convey passengers from point to point when they start international service. What is the plan to serve your passengers?
First and foremost I thank God Almighty for what happened and what we are seeing today. I thank Nigerians for their support and the media for their support and I thank the Federal Government for its support too. We have started our international operations into Sharjah and into UAE (United Arab Emirates) and we are not just doing Lagos-Sharjah alone. We are also doing every destination in Nigeria to Sharjah and Dubai.
We have an agreement with SATA. They are the ones in charge of Air Arabia and some other airlines. So we have an agreement with SATA, with the consent of Air Arabia and others to act on their behalf as middleman. So when we bring our passengers through SATA on to Air Arabia they will take them to the next destinations outside Sharjar; so that’s what it is. And it is a very seamless arrangement.
So when we check you in, in Nigeria and, for example, if you are going to Jeddah, Mumbai, Medina, New Delhi and some other cities in India and of course even up to Moscow, we put you through SATA or Air Arabia to take you to the next destination. So when you check in your luggage in Nigeria, you will get it at the next destination. Assuming we have connecting passengers like that. It is a straight connection, we take the person’s luggage to the next flight. It is a seamless arrangement. So, Air Peace is a one-stop shop for people travelling to some cities in Asia.
What is the load factor of the Dubai inaugural flight and like some people have said, do you think you can meet the demand of passengers especially in terms of on-time performance?
For now, we are doing three times a week. It gives us time to fly, and review what we did the previous day. And we have seen some things, we were not perfect, we have seen some things that we should have done better. Those things are being corrected. And they are not things bordering on safety; they are things bordering on food, catering and all that. So those ones will be attended to as quickly as possible.
You talked about load factor. You saw it for yourself. Out of about 316 passengers, we had 274 paying passengers, so about 30 plus were non-revenue passengers. The aircraft is a 364-seater plane. The inaugural flight was delayed because of some events in Dubai, they were communicating with us.
What other destinations are you looking at after Sharjar with the number of aircraft you have acquired?
Apart from Sharjah, you know the Federal Government of Nigeria has given us six destinations – Mumbai, Guangzhou, China, Atlanta, Houston (US), Heathrow (London) and Johannesburg (South Africa). We have started Sharjah (Dubai); the next to come in is Johannesburg. The Nigerian government was magnanimous to give us our destinations some three years ago. We have written to these countries since then but it took them a long time to respond. This is why I keep on talking about open sky in Africa, the Single Africa Air Travel Market (SAATM).
Sometimes I say SAATM is a fraud against Nigeria because while our country keeps to the principles of SAATM, other countries that endorsed it have refused to abide by those principles for Nigerian airlines. We made requests to these countries but it took them three years to answer us. It was the Director-General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) that intervened on our behalf as we put pressure on those countries before they answered us. I remain grateful to NCAA and the Federal Government. So South Africa has given us the permit to come in.
They have audited Air Peace and they have found us okay to come into their country. We have already started setting up our structures in South Africa, Johannesburg. And at the same time we are looking for a partnering airline in Johannesburg so that when we drop you in Johannesburg, our partnering airline will take you to Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and other cities and even beyond South Africa – to Lesotho and to some other neighbouring countries around. We are looking for partner airlines to do that. Air Peace does not want to do Lagos to Johannesburg only, we want to be able to have these alliances with other airlines to be able to move Nigerians and the flying public seamlessly to destinations they will want to go.
I believe that will help us to succeed in the long run. This is what our airlines were not doing before, so we are learning from that. We are not going to start South Africa without having an agreement with partnering airline, which we are already very close to signing. So any moment now we think we are going to start Johannesburg; before August 30, 2019. And by then we must have signed an arrangement with another partnering airline. After Johannesburg, the next in line is India, depending on what happens, we might be starting India and South Africa almost the same time or at most September by God’s Grace.
The Indian community in Nigeria is yearning for Air Peace to come in. You must have heard from their Ambassador in Nigeria. They want a direct flight from Nigeria to India; so they are in the forefront; they are the ones pushing and the Federal Government has designated Air Peace to that destination. The Federal Government even wrote them to support us. So I thank President Muhammadu Buhari for giving us that support. We have even employed Chief Security for Air Peace because that is part of the Indian requirement. You must employ somebody who has been in their military or any of their forces as your chief security officer and he must be a citizen of India, we have already done that in India. They recommended somebody to us and he is highly placed.
In the near future and after we have succeeded in these first three international destinations, we would look at flying to Guangzhou. That is why I believe that the government of Present Muhammadu Buhari is very, very eager to change the economic narrative of Nigeria. He is a pan-Nigeria nationalist. There is no doubt about that. He is very eager to support indigenous investment. We pray that other people, all the civil servants and appointees should also imbibe the vision of the president and everything will be okay. When we went to Beijing, we were given utmost cooperation. The Nigerian Ambassador did everything possible to make it easy for Air Peace.
But as at that time our third plane had not arrived. You see, before they give you permit, you must show them the registration of your three aircraft, either by way of dry lease or outright purchase. And most importantly in the outright purchase they prefer that you own it before they can give you permit. So we went about trying to equip Air Peace in such a way that we won’t go out there in the international arena and be unable to face competition.
How do you intend to face aero politics with your international operations?
Let me make this clear, Air Peace will never be able to combat international aero politics without the support of government. We can only combat it if our government supports us. It is a shame that several Nigerian airlines have come here (Dubai) and they were pushed out either through unfair competition or some arm-twisting tactics, it is very unfair. The only plan we have is of sustainability; to sustain our operations to the best of our abilities. That is, as so far as we can go if we are not supported. So Air Peace needs the support of everybody.
We gathered that an airline from UAE wants to increase its frequency to Nigeria. If government allows that, it will count against its indigenous carrier. Like in other countries, the first obligation of government is to protect its own. In the past, government officials will say Nigerian airlines don’t have capacity, but I am sure they cannot say that against Air Peace now. If they give them another frequency they will make it uncompetitive for us and that will force us to close this route and I will let Nigerians know why I closed the route.
So, let us think of Nigeria first. Air Peace can only stay here as long as we are protected by our government.
How do you intend to connect other airports to your international service?
That is what we are doing now. We are taking passengers from every part of the country, using our local flights. Today, we had people who checked in from Abuja, Kano, and other cities in Nigeria. And we checked them in from the airport closer to them. When they get to Lagos we put them on our buses. It was seamless. We also gave them rebate. You know, if you fly another airline outside Air Peace to UAE or to anywhere, you pay a domestic airline to take you to Abuja or Lagos where you will connect the international airline that will take you out of the country.
So we save you money. We can save you as much as N80,000 for a return ticket in a domestic flight to and from your international trip with other airlines. When you fly with Air Peace we will take you from where you land. Once you clear with customs we pick your luggage. We take it and take you to our awaiting plane. Like today when they landed, people were saying they have never seen a thing like that. That is so good. So, we are spreading our tentacles to other parts of the country. What we are doing is the best we can do.
And when they say the airport in Lagos in congested, there are lands there, we can open up the place, build more aprons. If any airline is ready, let them give land to the airline to build the apron and manage it and they will be taking their taxes. After all, all over the world you see airlines owning some things at the airport, so they can give us. That is the enabling environment we are talking about. FAAN (the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria) can decide to give Air Peace a piece of land without charging us and when we develop the facility they will be collecting their charges. We can seek the support of our banks.
Would you want to get more airplanes on lease to meet your passenger demand in the near future?
Yes. But now there is an unofficial blacklist of Nigerian airlines. I can tell you for sure, it exists. We lost about 10 aircraft we wanted to acquire through leasing. You cannot survive in this business without leasing; even all these big airlines we know in the world, majority of their planes are leased or financed. So we need leasing and the only way we can do that is to start polishing our acts. And the government will also have to do a kind of image laundering that things have changed. Any government official tomorrow that goes out to say our airlines in Nigeria are bad, talking about us in the negative, will not help our image. It will affect not only the airlines but other sectors of the economy. This is what Air Peace is trying to change.
By Abdullateef Aliyu