Nigeria: A great article with the Air Peace CEO


The Chairman/Chief Executive Officer, Air Peace, Allen Onyema, in this interview says the airline is set to start international operations. He also explains that for the airline to succeed, it requires the support of government, saying that no airline can succeed in the world without the support of its host government. Chinedu Eze brings the excerpts:

How far have you gone in your preparation for international operations?

Well, you know doing international operations is not the same as doing domestic operations. It is a different ball game entirely.  A lot of things are involved. Besides your technical preparations, you will also think of the international aero-politics and you think of the cost of having to do these flights. When you want to do international operations the very first time, it is like you are obtaining AOC (Air Operator Certificate) afresh and trying to start airline operations for the first time. So, you must make sure that everything is in place before you go into it.  We have been doing domestic operations for the past four years and now we want to go international. It is a different ball game entirely like I said, there are lots of factors that come to play and you must address every issue; you don’t jump into it without looking. If you leap before you look, you may hurt yourself. First of all, the charges, are you prepared for the charges? Assuming you start operations and the passenger load factor is not there, how long can you take it? Like in Air Peace, we have told ourselves that the next one year, good or bad we must continue. The inability to continue has been the bane of most Nigerian airlines, we seem to go in and then run away. This was why we had to acquire four large aircraft for the long haul flights.  So we want to prepare ourselves. We don’t want to bite more than we can chew.  We want to represent this country well. We want Nigerians to be proud of this airline. We want to be one of the best in the world. We want to set a standard, we want to be recognised globally as a reliable airline with reputation for safety and comfort of our passengers. This is why we are preparing heavily. The time we bought our first 777, some other airlines could have started and before you know it, one day the plane must go technical and you start disappointing people and they start shouting, oh Nigerian airlines. We don’t want to do that. We have acquired four Boeing 777; the third one arrived on Wednesday (March 20, 2019). So this is Air Peace for you; we just don’t want to go out there and just to be counted, no; we want to represent the country very well, so that if any aircraft goes technical at any time, we don’t want to manage our planes. This is the same standard we have maintained at the domestic scene. We don’t manage aircraft. Even when we have met all the requirements after maintenance of our aircraft, we still go beyond what the aircraft manual says by conducting test flight without passengers in the aircraft. This is to make sure that we are flying safely. So we are ready, we have done our over five hours of demonstration flight, flying our planes with only the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) officials to Dakar. We came back, we did another return flight to United Arab Emirates, to Sharjah, we came back. We did another one to Johannesburg we came back successfully.  NCAA has put the first two Boeing 777s on our operational specifications so we can start. That is what we are waiting for. And we hope to start our flight operations in April.

Nigerians are lamenting that no Nigerian airline is operating international service and because of this the country is losing forex revenue. Is there any support you are getting from anywhere for your planned international operations?

I don’t see any help yet. I don’t think we are getting the necessary support we are supposed to get. Because we want to start international operations next month and up till this time, I do not have a business or first class lounge in my own country, while other foreign airlines have. What it means is that these premium passengers would want to patronise Nigerian indigenous airline, but you don’t expect them to do that at the expense of their comfort. They would rather fly another airline, which is a foreign carrier that already has such lounge at our international airport. They will have a place to sit down, enjoy themselves free of charge and then they go into the aircraft. Such passengers may not patronise Air Peace if it is not able to provide that. So the regulatory authorities and all the agencies of government that are in charge of aviation should do everything possible to support indigenous carriers. Indigenous carriers should be protected by government and its agencies because we are the ones providing jobs for the people in the aviation industry. If anybody causes Air Peace to shut down tomorrow, over 4,000 people employed by the airline would be out there in the job market. Half of them or three quarter of them could go into illicit activities in order to survive. I remember my wife going to Kogi and bringing over 200 orphans who have nobody to care for them. They are working here in air Peace earning their livelihood. If they were not provided jobs just think what some of them would become in our society where job is not easy to come by.

In every country, every investment that creates jobs is always supported and not frustrated. At times we feel frustrated, a lot of people are saying Air Peace has not started international service but we are being frustrated. I have had two Boeing 777, you know how much that cost, parked for over one year, going through the processes.  

Another area we want government’s support is the issue of designations being given to the foreign airlines. I am about to start going to Sharja, Dubai, just last week I read in the papers that another airline from that area has been given rights to be flying to Port Harcourt and given a second right to fly out of Abuja, making it five designations in a day out of the same country. And this is a Nigerian airline, the only one trying to operate international. We expect that for Nigeria to cut back the foreign exchange that is being repatriated government should support any local airline that wants to operate international destinations. If we are losing money to foreign airlines, then support your indigenous carriers; the best way to bring it back is not to allow foreign airlines to ravage us. 

To be honest with you, some of these foreign airlines do this deliberately in order to run us out.  Because if you look at the ones they are doing now they are not having full load but because they have state funds, they want to muscle you out, then when you die they go back to their normal frequencies and increase fare. That is what is happening. US has not allowed Middle East airlines to do that in their country. American carriers complain when they feel their business is threatened and their government responds and protects them. Their government responds to them in order to allow their indigenous airline to prosper and create jobs. If you like give the foreign airlines 200 frequencies into Nigeria, all of them put together cannot create 10 per cent of jobs created by Nigerian airlines.

I want Nigerians to put hands together and support Air Peace because it is our airline.

For years now India has been longing for a direct flight from Nigeria to India and it has never worked. So they usually follow other airlines and drop at their hubs then connect. Don’t you see that, that is a potential market for a Nigerian airline?

The federal government has just signed Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) with India and I thank the federal government for giving Air Peace rights to do direct flights to India. You must have heard the Indian High Commissioner to Nigeria making an announcement on it recently, saying that they expect Air Peace to fly to India. They have held meetings with us and they are eager to with us and we are also eager to work with them. To show their willingness to work with us, they are helping us to quicken the process. This is how things are done. So we are going to get cracking with India, once we start direct flight there, Nigerians will no longer have the problems of having to fly to some countries before they get to India. And again we are going to sign codeshare or partnership with an Indian carrier, so that when we take you to Mumbai, the other one will take you to your final destination in India.

This is what we are asking for in Nigeria. Instead of allowing foreign airlines to go to Port Harcourt, from Port Harcourt they go to Abuja before they go to their country, they should partner with Nigerian airlines to distribute passengers for them. They should operate to one airport and then look for Nigerian airline to partner with. If I want to go to Mumbai or New Delhi, Indian authorities will not allow me. They will want you to key in to one of their airlines.  This is how these things are done and when you say Nigerian airlines slack capacity, these are the things that are making them lack capacity. You should lay the foundation for them to have capacity by making it impossible for them to have capacity. How do they grow if you allow them to be competing with airlines that are being funded by the states? Airlines that do not care about profit or about whether they break even. They have other reasons for doing the airlines business. So for us to have capacity government has to help us. For Air Peace with four Boeing 777s we have capacity now to do the number of routes we want to do. So, what we need is the support of everybody, government support, support of people and the support of even our staff to make sure they are doing the right thing. So that is where we are, we are ready to get cracking. After Sharja the next one is India, Johannesburg and others.  And God will continue to help us; our banks are always ready to help us.

When the Boeing 737 Max cashed in Ethiopia, there were lots of questions and comments that Air Peace had the aircraft type in its fleet, some know that you have ordered the aircraft but you are yet to have it. So I want you to throw more light on this aircraft order?

May the souls of those who perished in that ill-fated flight rest in peace, amen. I commiserate with the Ethiopians, Ethiopian Airlines is one of the best carriers in the world, there is no doubt about that. It is one airline I respect so much, it was unfortunate what happened, happened. However, an air incident or accident happened in Ethiopia, Ethiopians have never taken their airline that was involved in the accident to the cleaners. Ethiopians have never up to this moment attacked Ethiopian airlines that bought this aircraft and this aircraft had an accident. South West Airline has so many of these planes, no country has ever attacked those who innocently acquired these planes and who are already using them. We have about 400 of these planes in active service; none of these countries where these plane are operating had ever risen up against their airlines for buying these planes. Not even Ethiopia and Indonesia that had accidents with these planes, their citizens never attacked them. However, Air Peace has been taken to the cleaners by Nigerians for what didn’t even concern us. All the people criticizing are doing so deliberately because they know fully well that we don’t have Boeing 737 MAX in our fleet. They just want to de-market Air Peace.  Whether they are being sponsored or they are doing it on their own. But it is so painful that an accident happened in another country and Nigerians swooped on Air Peace.

Yes, of course, we ordered 10 brand new Boeing 737 MAX 8 last year. Before we ordered it there was no accident involving the aircraft. The aircraft is the fastest selling plane under the sun. It is the most fought-after plane in the whole world. It is unfortunate that the accidents happened; it is the dream of every airline to have a B737 MAX 8 or 9. So we joined other reputable airlines in the world to order the aircraft. When we made this 10 firm orders nobody applauded us. We didn’t see any celebration that, at last, another Nigerian airline has started buying brand new planes. There was no such celebration. What every country that has the plane did was to ground the use of the airplane pending when the result of the investigation comes out. We don’t have the plane. Air Peace does not have the plane. When you order brand new plane you queue up. Boeing 737 MAX has hundreds of orders, we ordered just last year. Those that ordered last year will start getting their planes in 2023, which is four years from now. So we don’t even have this plane in Nigeria, Air Peace doesn’t have the plane. Our own is destined to come four years from now and we never told anybody that we will cancel or that we will not cancel, we never said that and we will never tell anybody that. Because it is not for us to say that now, except you want to run yourself into serious litigation and run yourself out of the industry; that is what they are trying to push us to say. Everybody is waiting for the outcome of the investigation. Don’t forget that every aircraft under the sun, once it is a new model, is expected to have some issues and these are corrected over time. The Boeing 787 had lithium battery issue. Airbus A380 had its own issues, which were corrected. Boeing 787 is flying today as one of the best long haul planes. When something like this happens they go back to the drawing board and find out what happened and what they will modify and what they will change. They have not come up with that. But it is not for us now to jump the gun and say we are cancelling. So Air Peace never told anybody we are not cancelling; neither did we tell anybody that we are cancelling. So such statement is premature we are not going to make that statement now. And the federal government has come out to say that there is no airline in Nigeria that has the aircraft. So the sponsors of that propaganda against Air Peace now changed course and started saying ‘Air Peace dares the world,’ ‘Air peace insists on not cancelling.’  We never said that; neither did we say that we would cancel.

The Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM), which Nigeria is a signatory to enables other African airlines to come to Nigeria but when Nigerian airlines go to their countries, they introduce high and outrageous charges against Nigerian carriers. So is there any way there could be an agreement?

I have heard so many people say that the African market is a cash cow, those people are not talking from practical fact. A lot of people say the west coast is lucrative. People think of the years before, it is no longer like that and I don’t know why.  The cross-Sahara African trade is no longer there the way it used to be before. There were periods the routes in the sub-region were lucrative. Then, Nigerian airlines were the major carriers operating the routes but this is no longer the case.

Presently we have more airlines struggling for fewer passengers; then, of course, we have very inhibitive costs being put out there by these countries against Nigerian airlines. Nigerian airlines are the victims. The costs Nigeria charges these West African carriers is relatively little, about 25 per cent of what they charge Nigerian airlines. But you need to take a flight to Ghana, Banjul, Dakar, Liberia and come back and see what it is like. I have spoken to the chief finance officer and she said that we lose over N500 million monthly to the West Coast. This is money made from domestic operation that we lose to the West Coast. Except this SAATM is readdressed, Nigerian airlines will