One good way to earn foreign exchange and reduce capital flight is to enable local airlines venture into international flight operations. Over the years, Nigerian airlines have found it very difficult to successfully operate such routes. In this piece, ANTHONY AWUNOR examines ways local airlines can break the jinx and sustain long haul flight operations in the country.
Since Nigeria Airways Limited (NAL) ceased operations in 2003, most local airlines in the country have found it extremely difficult to fly and maintain international destinations like New York, London, Paris, Dubai, South Africa and others. Since then, other domestic carriers have made efforts, including: Bellview, Arik Air, Medview and most recently Air Peace. In all these attempts, aviation experts have attributed previous failures to lack of government support, lack of local patronage, corporate governance, aeropolitics, lack of capacity, funding amongst other things.
Med-View commenced domestic operations in November 2012 with a fleet of two Boeing 737-400 aircraft and one Boeing 737-800, which was acquired a month later. Two years later, the airline acquired another Boeing 737-400 Classic aircraft with a capacity for 150 passengers in business and economy classes. Later, Med-View airline decided to spread its tentacles beyond the shores of Nigeria with the London route first and later, the Dubai route.
Six years later and in 2018, Med-View Airlines suspended all international operations while also reducing regional routes on its flight schedule to just two cities due to myriad of challenges, ranging from aircraft fleet to aeropolitics.
For Arik Air, the airline started operating Abuja-London route in November, 2009. The flight which operated from Abuja to London was the airline’s first international operations out of Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja. Not too long, they started, the British airport management cancelled the old arrangements of reciprocity of frequencies in the Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) and insisted that the Nigerian airline should pay for landing slot, which was a huge amount of money. When the airline could not pay the money, the British Airport management stopped Arik from flying to London from Abuja. Although, the federal government then, made efforts to fight for Arik but gave up midway. Again, that was how Arik Air’s efforts to maintain international operation fizzled away.
Bellview Airlines started operations successfully with Airbus A300-600, Boeing 737-200, Boeing 737-300 and Boeing 767-200ER in its fleet. The domestic carrier operated flights within Africa as well as to London. The airline however, ceased all operations in 2009. Before it closed down completely, the airline had been frustrated out of the London route, just like other airlines. Although, the airline had Airbus 300 and Airbus 800, which was the biggest at that time, sold at $52million.
As at today, Air Peace is the only domestic airline doing long haul international flights across the African continent. Before now, most of the airlines that went international collapsed due mainly to aeropolitics which is 85% the role of government to play. The airline with just four aircraft at the start has grown to an unprecedented 30 airplanes fleet in about five years of operations. The airline has also sealed a deal with Boeing Co. to acquire 10 new Max aircraft.
On the International front, the airline restored the pride of the nation with Lagos-Dubai operation, as a forerunner for London, India, Beijing, Johannesburg, and New York operations. So far, the airline has assisted the federal government in the repatriation of over 500 Nigerians from South Africa at no cost to the returnees or government.
In what seems to be a departure from the previous experiences, the airline since commencement of Lagos-Dubai flight services on 5th July, this year, has maintained a very smooth operations with on-time performance. Three months down the line, the Lagos-Dubai operations have been running without hitches.
In the same vein, Air Peace demonstrated its capability for good service delivery during the carrier’s evacuation of Nigerians that were victims of xenophobic attacks in South Africa recently. So far, a total of 502 Nigerians have been evacuated from South Africa in the wake of renewed xenophobic attacks against foreigners.
What Has Changed
With the current capacity of Air Peace, there are indications that local carriers can get it right, if the government would listen to their yearnings, which is basically the need for government support in areas of aeropolitics, funding, policy framework, reduction of taxes, aviation fuel, interest rates, local patronage and others. Most hopeful aspect is that, Air Peace has been able to put up an optimum capacity for both local and international operations. The airline was recently financed by Boeing for the purchase of 10 Boeing 737-8MAX airplanes in a deal valued at $1.5 billion. With another 4 B777 acquired, the airline is said to have grown its fleet to an unprecedented 30 airplanes fleet in about five years of operations. With such feat, industry analysts have said that the airline has what it takes to operate both its local and international routes.
Speaking on the fleet size, Chairman of Air Peace, Barrister Allen Onyema had told LEADERSHIP that, despite the recorded progress, that the airline is poised to fill some gaps in the international scene which has been a source of worry to the government.
He said “that is why we went for 10 brand new plans at a go. We want to fill those gaps being occupied by international carriers coming into Nigeria. We want to represent this country proudly, Nigeria will be proud.”
On the new plans by the airline, Chief Pilot of Air Peace, Captain Victor Egonu told LEADERSHIP that with about 136 pilots alone, the carrier is doing a lot of in-house training amongst its entire staff.
Domestic Operation As Litmus Test
While Arik Air is breaking new barriers and forging ahead both at local and regional operations, Medview had since suspended its commercial operations. However, Air Peace, has continued to reiterate its commitment to the safety and comfort of its passengers five year after it commenced operations.
Before it clocked the fifth year recently, the carrier had put up the no-city-left-behind initiative to integrate cities across the country with low-capacity but strategic Embraer jets.
Onyema, who described Air Peace as a multi-country airline, said that it has been five years of steady progress, while adding that the airline’s vision of creating seamless connections and network options for its domestic, regional and international markets, is being achieved.
Corroborating Onyema, Chief Operating Officer, Mrs. Oluwatoyin Olajide, disclosed that the airline chose to celebrate with the flying public because the airline recognises that its customers are the reason for its existence. She said that without the customers, there will be no Air Peace. According to her, the passengers are a key part of the airline’s success story, and must be celebrated.
Olajide, who stated that Air Peace has experienced a consistent rise to become an airline of global repute, noted that the last five years have not been devoid of challenges, but such challenges have only made the airline a stronger brand in the aviation industry. In her words: “The past five years have been laden with challenges but our loyal customers have made the journey worthwhile for us, and we owe them as well as other stakeholders immense gratitude”.
She revealed that from seven aircraft at launch, Air Peace now has 25 aircraft in its fleet, excluding the 10 brand new Boeing 737 Max 8 and 30 Embraer 195-E2 aircraft it recently ordered. She stated that in five years, the airline has recorded a number of firsts in the aviation industry in Nigeria and West Africa. She said: “From seven aircraft and five routes at the launch of our operations on October 24, 2014 to 25 aircraft and 22 routes, our esteemed customers have consistently supported us and now, we can boast of being Nigeria’s and West Africa’s largest airline”.
In the area of economic empowerment, Air Peace has employed over 3,000 Nigerians while the CEO keeps executing rare corporate philanthropy.
According to Olajide “Air Peace has created thousands of direct and indirect jobs for Nigerians and expatriates without any form of discrimination”. She said the airline is doing a lot in unifying Nigeria through air transport, adding that it has positively contributed to the economy of Nigeria, and those of her regional and international counterparts”.
For progress in both local and international route operations, Chairman of Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), Nogie Meggison had called on the federal government to put its full weight behind Air Peace and give the carrier all the support it requires to succeed on the route in the face of stiff competition and aero politics which the carrier will face in the near future.
According to him, “Air Peace has taken a bold step and they should be encouraged by Nigerians. The airline’s maiden flight to Dubai means more jobs for our Nigerian youths; it means jobs for over 600 unemployed Nigerian pilots; it means hope for our various Aviation Training Academies at NCAT, Zaria, International Aviation College, Ilorin and the International Helicopter Flying School, Enugu.
Meggisson therefore, appealed to the government to rally round Air Peace as a proud Nigerian operator and give the airline all the support to succeed.
Preferring solutions, secretary general of Association of Nigerian Aviation Professionals, Comrade Abdulrasaq Saidu said that domestic airlines are too few in Nigeria and therefore, require serious government attention to grow them.
According to Saidu government should always see a means to bail out the domestic airlines as there are also a wheel to the development of the national economy.
The labour leader lamented that, although, intervention funds were in the past given to airlines but that the funds were diverted by some people. He therefore, appealed for support to the existing airlines which are struggling to provide service for both Nigerians and non- Nigerians.