Africa: Why Air Peace is succeeding when other Nigerian carriers are being Killed to help Foreign Airlines
Chief Allen Onyema is chairman/chief executive officer of Air Peace, one of the leading domestic airlines in the nation’s aviation sector. In this interview with Anthony Awunor and Caroline Kanu, Onyema who is also a lawyer gives insight into airline business in the country, general aviation outlook in the country and how the sector can contribute meaningfully to the economy.
What is your evaluation of the Nigerian travel market vis-a-vis the performance of Air Peace?
The aviation industry in Nigeria is not at the level we have expected it to be, but it is still growing. There is a lot of improvement needed in the industry. When I was coming in, I was warned about the harsh environment under which Nigerian airlines were operating. I dismissed such warnings with a wave of the hand, but now I have seen it all.
Air Peace will be three years on October 24 this year. In less than three years I have received my own baptism of fire. I have gone to the school of Nigerian Aviation; I have seen it all and I make bold to say that there is a lot to be desired. However, Air Peace, as I promised during our launching on October 21, 2014, was coming to revolutionise the way the scheduled flight operations is done in the country. We have lived up to that promise we made.
From the depletion of operational aircraft and the suspension of services by some airlines, it is very evident that if Air Peace had not come at the time it did, one wonders what would have been happening in scheduled operations today. Our coming helped to sustain competitive fares in domestic travel market. We have contributed our own quota to the economic development of this nation and we are proud of what we have been able to achieve as an airline so far.
We have caused a lot of changes in the aviation industry; we brought with us on-time departure that was lacking before we came in. We provided several frequencies right from the first day. It was the first time an airline will be doing 14 flights on their first day of operation. We opened up five different stations the same day. So we took the bull by the horn right from day one and we have never looked back. So, to a large extent, Air Peace has contributed in changing the face of aviation in Nigeria.
What is your fleet size now and what is your plan for expansion?
We started with seven aircraft; four Boeing B737 and three donnier 328 jets. Today, we have been able to acquire 15 more aircrafts. We now have a total of 22 aircrafts in our fleet. So Air Peace is Nigeria’s largest carrier today fleet-wise. We have 13 Boeing B737s, six Embraer 145 regional jets and one Donnier 328 jet. We also have two Boeing777 for our international operations, which are still domiciled outside the country.
This feat could not have been achieved without the cooperation of our banks. And it is also the evidence of our integrity. If we are not effectively servicing our loans, I doubt if the banks would have been supporting us. Today Fidelity Bank has supported us massively, we are keying into United Bank for Africa too. I am sure they will come on stream when they see what we are doing. With Fidelity we are good to go, they have been supporting the affairs of Air Peace massively because we have integrity.
With your long-haul aircraft delivered, why are you not operating international services yet?
We will go into international operations very soon. We planned that we would go into international operations two years after we had started. So it was in our business plan to go international, to help conserve Nigeria’s foreign exchange and to help create Nigerian wealth for the people of Nigeria. Air Peace is not unaware of what the foreign airlines have been doing to our country. A nine-hour flight from Johannesburg to London would cost less than a six-hour flight from Lagos to London. This country has been raped; our foreign reserves have been depleted in the hands of foreign airlines. All foreign airlines are making a kill out of Nigeria because Nigerian airlines are not firmly operating international destinations. So Nigerians are now at the mercy of these foreign airlines in terms of outrageous fares that they charge. So we decided to go international and we are taking it step by step.
As I stated earlier, we have acquired two Boeing B777, very beautiful aircraft, with state-of -the-art equipment. We should have by now started our foreign operations but for some kind of hindrances that have to do with policy. We are ready to touch the whole world but we need the support of government and people of Nigeria. The Boeing 777 aircraft we bought have to be type certificated by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) because before now no Nigerian airline has operated the aircraft type. That is why we are waiting on Boeing and the Nigerian government as represented by the NCAA to come together and type certificate Nigeria on the aircraft type. It is after that NCAA will be able to carry out oversight function on the aircraft.
We have facilitated the training of NCAA pilots and engineers on the aircraft. That is why the aircrafts are not yet in Nigeria and it costs Air Peace hugely to maintain them where they are outside the country. After the type certification we can now bring in these beautiful birds into the country. We will save Nigeria a lot of money when we begin to operate international destinations. We need more domestic airlines to operate international. We have received one approval from one of the countries we wish to fly to, we are not ready to announce it yet but once we get type certificated we will announce that to Nigerians and we will start operations and we promise Nigerians that we are going to compete with the best airlines in the world. These foreign airlines do not want any Nigerian airline to succeed but we are going to break that jinx.
I know that under Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), the airlines have been making efforts to make government review the alleged double taxation on airlines. How far have you gone in this?
The Airline Operators of Nigeria took this matter to the then Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, and he called for a meeting and we met with him and gave him details of our grouses. And he called for an enlarged meeting of all the agencies and the Ministry of Aviation and the airline operators. We held a second meeting where we presented our issues. Osinbajo set up a committee to look at these issues and the committee is yet to meet. So I am sure government is trying to look into our complaints. This is because aviation has to grow in this country.
The industry is beset with a lot of problems which we believe government will help us to tackle. There is the issue of multiple taxation, poor airport infrastructure is there, the attitude of civil servants to investment in Nigeria and to investors is also a matter that calls for concern. In Nigeria people look at the ownership of investment instead of looking at the investment and its contribution to the economy and job creation. Civil servants in government should start looking at investors as patriotic people. Anybody who looks at the investment climate in Nigeria and decides to put his money here should be respected, supported and not the other way round.
Government must protect the investments that create and sustain jobs for the citizens. That should be the priority behind government policies. In aviation, government must ensure that local airlines are protected. Foreign airlines don’t create jobs for Nigerians; they don’t pay huge taxes that we pay; so government should encourage these indigenous companies.
A government official recently told me that allowing foreign airlines to fly to many airports as they want in the country is good for competition. That did not make sense to me because those airlines that come to Nigeria are protected by their host countries. That is what our government should be doing for us.