Aviation: “Why AWA is wining in West Africa,” Samuel Thompson, AWA COO
In just four years of operating in the aviation industry, leading Ghanaian carrier, Africa World Airline (AWA) has become a darling airline to air travellers in Ghana and Nigerian.
The airline which started its operation on the Accra-Lagos route with 3 times weekly flight has consistently increased its frequency and now flies 4 times daily making it the airline with the highest frequency on the route.
While big players like Arik Air, West Africa’ largest carrier and Medview, Aero and Dana Air struggled on route due to the forex crisis in Nigeria, the Ghanaian carrier was consistent in providing prompt service to air travellers on the route.
Chief Operating Officer, Africa World Airlines, Samuel Thompson, said the airline has been able to sustain its operation due to its strict adherence to good corporate governance and carrying out its operations transparently.
In an interview with Atqnews.com, Thompson spoke on the addition of a 5th aircraft to the airline’s fleet and his plans of expanding to other West Africans countries and also establishing a base in Nigeria.
How do you feel about the addition of this new aircraft to your fleet?
Well, the addition of this aircraft gives us the capability of offering more services, both scheduled and charter services and also gives us reliability, in the sense that maybe with four aeroplanes, we plan for fives aeroplanes and when we have a problem we can always pull in another aircraft and ensure that our schedule services are always met.
What is your reason for choosing this type of aircraft for your operations?
When you start an airline you will have a lot of challenges, you have to build up your route, your reputation and your reliability. You don’t want to take an aircraft that is very expensive to maintain and expensive to run as a starter. So the decision to use E145 was basically an economical and strategic decision. To ensure that we don’t have over capacity, the aircraft are not too expensive to maintain and to run, and then you can slowly build up on that. The next step will be to go for bigger aeroplanes but then in the mean time we will still need to develop some routes, so we need more of these aircraft to ensure that when we start these routes we will use an aircraft that is less expensive to run to develop the routes and when the routes builds up then we can put the bigger aircraft on it.
Why did you choose to bring in the bigger aircraft by the middle of the year given the low cost of running the E145?
Well, as we get bigger and better we need to be able to offer our customer more. Presently on the Lagos route one of our drawbacks is that we do not offer business class. So we need an aircraft that offers two cabins. Now you know that a lot of passengers along the West Coast of Africa are also traders and Africans travel quite heavy, so we need an aircraft that can sustain the baggage space. But you don’t want an aircraft that is also too big that you have over capacity. So we are looking at some sort of a medium range aircraft like 100 seat aircraft that would be able to do the kind of operation that we are required to do and we are also looking at the economies of operating all these aeroplanes to make those decisions. So the need for a bigger aircraft is because we are growing and we need to offer our passengers more options in their means of travel.
How strategic is the Nigerian market to your (AWA) operations?
When our bigger aircraft arrives it will be a mix of the smaller one and the bigger one on the Accra-Lagos route. Nigeria is the most populous country in the continent with about 180 million people which is almost 200 million. Even domestic travel within Nigeria is a big time business, so for anybody who is operating any airline along the West Coast, the market you have to look at is Nigeria. So, we want to let the Nigerian travellers know that AWA is reliable, efficient and consistent.
What will be your description of the Nigerian market?
The Nigerian market is good.
What other plans do you have for the Nigerian market?
Well, we will probably start a second destination in Nigeria, probably Abuja when the run way opens. And then when that picks up we will probably look at a third destination in Nigeria. Because we know that it is not all our passengers who stop in Lagos, some of our passengers go to the South, some to the West, so we have to be able to offer them some sort of options, even if it is not direct to the destinations which is their final destinations. So we will look at that and we will continue to always appraise the market and see where it is best to go.
What challenges are you facing presently in your operations?
Domestically we have a VAT on the airfares which we will appreciate if the government would look into it so that it would make travel affordable for everybody and would stimulate the market. We have problem of duty on our spares, when our aircraft is down, we have a problem at the speed at which we can clear our spares because you might have an aircraft sitting down and the spare is with the customs and it takes you about three(3) or four(4) days to clear it. We have the issue of also going into the West African market when the other countries try and raise barriers to prevent you from coming to operate, not respecting the Yamasoukoro Declaration. Because Yamasoukoro Decalartion says that you can go to any Africa country as many times as you want. But we have had problems where we were given the slots to Lagos and we had to reapply to increase the slots and that took like about a month to come through before we could increase the frequency that we are doing.
How many slots do you have in Nigerian now?
At the moment we can do about 27 slots, we are doing four a day and then on Saturdays we do three. And we are looking at exhausting it and even ask for more. On the Abuja-Accra route, I think we will probably start with one flight a day and then see how it picks up. You see Lagos is like a confluence for everybody, so people come there and they leave out of Lagos. Abuja might be a timed passenger thing, when people will travel to Accra in the morning and go back in the evening or come to Accra in the evening and go back the following morning. And we are also aware that there are a lot of Nigerians who live in Ghana and work in Nigeria. Some even go in the morning and come back in the evening, some go and spend two, three days and come back. So we want to be able to cater for all the market. I think that four flights a day gives people a lot of options, so if you want to go in the morning and come back in the evening, we are available and if you want to go mid-day we are there.
What would be you advice to African nations on the issue of the Yamasoukoro Declaration (YD)?
We should just respect it and give people the freedom to compete because once there is healthy competition it benefits the passenger. And we would be able to give our passengers a lot more options. Lets say there are three airlines on the Accra-Lagos route and everybody is doing four flights a day, the passenger has 12 options of who and when to fly. And that makes travel within Africa easier. Now it is even better, gone were the days when you want to go to East Africa you have to go to Europe before coming back to Africa but now it is easy. So once the African countries have signed the YD they have to respect it and make it easier for the airlines to operate.
Some Nigerian airlines had problems in their operations, what would be your advice to Nigerian airline operators on how to better do this business?
I don’t know the root cause of the problems with Nigerian airlines but what we try and do here is that we have very good corporate governance, we make everything transparent for everybody to see. We try and follow the rules and when we come to a hurdle that we can’t jump over we seek the help of our regulatory authorities, and our ministry of transport to help us.
In terms of expanding your route network, which specific countries are you looking at along the West Coast?
We will probably start off with Monrovia, Freetown, we will look at Abidjan, Dakar, Banjul and then we hope that we will be able to get 5th Freedom Rights in some of the countries. I am a pilot and I flew for 30 years I decided to take a brake and I used to fly the West Coast, the number of passenger you pick up between Banjul and Dakar which is a 15 minutes flight is amazing. We used to fill the DC9 to the Maximum between Banjul and Dakar or from Dakar to Banjul.
So it is a big market and we just have to try and explore it, give the passengers the option and the opportunity to choose. Because you have people telling you now that to fly from Freetown to Conakry which is 15 minutes, sometimes you have to wait for three days before you can get a flight. And don’t even try driving because it will take you like two days. I think that the growth of airlines in Africa would help the economy of the region. So we would try and explore it as much as possible with what we have and what we can do, hoping that along the line we will get help from the various governments of the countries that we want to fly into, to give us charges which are reasonable.
You have plans of establishing a base in Nigeria, can you tell us how soon that would be?
Well, we are still talking but that is something that we really want to explore. Like I said the Nigerian market is massive, I don’t think the airlines in Nigeria can satisfy that demand. So we have been approached by some people and we are talking to them to see how best we can set it up. And we are hoping to get 10 more of the E145 by the end of the year, that will give us a good opportunity to setup in Nigeria. We are also looking at other countries as well, Ethiopian has come from East Africa and setup ASKY in Lome, so what stops us from doing it. They are taking over the West Coast, so why would we allow the East Africans to come and take over the West Coast when we are here? I worked with Ethiopian Airlines for 6 and half years and I know how serious they are, so if we are also serious we can make it.
Which type of aircraft would you be deploying on the West Coast?
We will use the E190 but we will develop the route with the E145.
How do you intend to cope with passengers with big baggage given the type of aircraft you are using?
First and foremost if we start with the E145 and people don’t have a choice, they will learn to fly on the E145. And I think that sometimes a lot of the things that affect us as Africans are the disciplines. When we introduced the use of Identity cards for our domestic travellers, that you have to have a government issued identity card before we accept you on the flight, there was a whole hue and cry, and every day I used to get like 10 calls from people at the airport because they will not be accepted for lack of ID cards. But because we stock to our guns, these days nobody calls me, everybody travels, they all have their government issued ID cards. They tend to learn.
When we started operating, we have been facing that problem in Lagos and we are trying to resolve it. We will educate the passenger to travel with hand baggage that is supposed to be hand baggage, something small. It might take a bit of time but people will get used to it. But we have looked at the promise of operating to place like Monrovia with the E145 and we can actually take more, than we can take when we are going to Lagos because it is a long stretch, the landing weight is unrestrictive.
So I think that is something we would have a challenge with but I can assure you that even if you bring a 747 you will still have that problem. So we have to educate the passenger to travel with hand baggage that is hand baggage. And as we grow bigger we will try and maintain and improve our safety record, we will try and maintain our reliability and we will try and improve on our on-time departures.
I think these three hallmarks, safety, reliability, on-time departure are what can make an airline and we will try and maintain that as much as possible. I have heard a lot of comments from Lagos travellers, that the reason why they like flying African World Airlines from Lagos or from Accra to Lagos is that when they say they will leave at 11 o’clock, they will leave at 11 o’clock. So we like those comments and we want to maintain it.