Chief Allen Onyema, the chairman of Air Peace, in this interview, talks about the aviation challenges.
Among other things, he specifically takes a swipe at the open sky in Africa- the Single Africa Air Travel Market, SAATM. He describes it as a fraud saying while Nigeria keeps to the principles of SAATM, other countries that endorsed it have refused to abide by those principles for Nigerian airlines.
The challenge to Nigerian airlines operating international service is how to take passengers beyond point to point. Does Air Peace have code-share partner for your Dubai operation?
First and foremost I thank God almighty for what happened yesterday 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 a 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 this one, it is a straight connection, we don’t unburden the person’s luggage, we take it to the next flight. It is seamless arrangement. So, Air Peace is a one-stop shop for people travelling to some cities in Asia.
Now that you have started international flights and you have acquired long-haul aircraft, Boeing 777, what other destinations are you looking at?
Apart from Sharjah, you know the federal government of Nigeria has given us some six destinations, Mumbai, Guangzhou, China, Atlanta, Houston (US), Heathrow (London) and Johannesburg (South Africa). We have started Sharjah (Dubai); the next to follow 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 to us.
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 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 pilled 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 now to come in. They have audited Air Peace and they have found us okay to come into their country.
We are looking for partner airlines to do that. Air Peace does not just 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.
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.
If you wish to fly to China and you don’t have up to three long-haul aircraft they won’t give you the permit. So we went to China to present our papers and the Nigerian Ambassador in China cooperated with us.
He did everything possible to make it easy for Air Peace. But as at that time our third plane had not arrived. Before they give you permit, you must show them the registration of your three aircraft, either by way of dry lease or outright purchase.
Many national carriers in Africa are approaching Air Peace to give them aircraft. We want to give some of them planes, we have signed the agreement already sooner or later you will see it. I am sure the authorities know because they have visited Nigeria already
Would you want to partner with another African airline to go to the US?
Yes, a major African airline approached us; there was negotiation for us to have professional partnership. In aviation all over the world there is always partnership but the issue is what kind of partnership it is.
However, it is true we were approached; it is true we agreed to have partnership, it is true that we even went to sign a MoU with the airline. That was MoU that will precede the real agreement. But when it got to the real agreement Air Peace disagreed. We don’t want to be receiving royalties from any airline even though it will enrich our purse without us flying, even though it will makes us have more money without flying, it is going to make us richer but where does that leave the employees of Nigeria?
Where does that leave numerous Nigerians that are unemployed roaming the streets when I am taking royalties from another airline flying in my name to that country and I will remain behind collecting money, am not caring because I am collecting money?
We wrote them and I said I will not shortchange my country, that I will not accept it. I will not allow anything that will make another country to come here and be flying in the name of any airline and there is capital flight out of Nigeria, which is not generating jobs for Nigerians.
How do you intend to combat aeropolitics with your international operations because it is obvious that your competitors would want to drive you out of the market through various strategies?
Let me make this clear, Air Peace will never be able to combat international aeropolitics without the support of the government. We can only combat it if our government supports us. It is a shame that several Nigeria 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 the plan of sustainability, to sustain our operations to the best of our abilities. That is so far as we can go, if we are not supported. So Air Peace needs the support of everybody.
As you start operations to Dubai, India and Johannesburg, what will be the number of workers you will need and what will be the projected number of workers you will employ?
You don’t want to know the kind of employment Air Peace has generated in the last four years. We have generated over 3,000 direct workers; over 9,000 ancillary jobs, even the people doing catering, the other day I went there, I saw about 500 people working in the factory. That factory is filled up with Air Peace stuff. These people are employed because of Air Peace, because they are the ones doing 110 flights daily. It is because of that these 500 people were given jobs.
Government must discourage unfair competition, the American government did the same thing for their airlines. The Gulf airlines brought unfair competition, the airlines in America complained and the American government stepped in and that stopped. Multiple and proliferation of designations to foreign airlines into Nigeria, multiple frequencies are disservice Nigeria. I don’t see why a foreign airline, when we are trying to make our own airlines grow, be allowed to be doing local flights in the name of open skies.
I don’t see the reason why Turkish Airline should land in Abuja, from Abuja to Port Harcourt, Port Harcourt back to Abuja, Abuja back to their country. When you talk some people will tell you it is good for competition, competing with whom? Competing in denigrating your country’s economy? Is that what you are competing with?
We should stop giving multiple designations to foreign airlines. Let me tell you about America, even with your private jet, when you land in America, they only allow you one more stop. If you land in New York and you want to go to Atlanta, they say okay, they take it, as you want to refuel. The next one you are not allowed to fly again, you must use their local airlines to move about, then when you come you take your plane out of their country.
If government continues to encourage us we will grow and be able to create more jobs.
How are you connecting 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 closets 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 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 place. 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 to help us.
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 Nigeria 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.
Can we know the number of passengers during your inaugural flight? And also the Nigerian Ambassador to UAE said if you keep to time in your operations, in six months you would have a cut of the market. Do you think you can keep to that time?
We can keep to time, although we didn’t keep to time yesterday but it was deliberate because of the events in Sharjah. They called on us to delay our flight because if we had left by 6:00 pm we would have arrived 5:00 am. And being a non-working day here they didn’t want to have us that early. And their Sheikh died, that is why you didn’t see water salute, they scaled down the ceremony. So they asked us to delay, so while we were in Lagos they were communicating. So on the international scene, we have the equipment and you know we just started, we didn’t want to grab everything at the same time that is why we staggered it, so we learn our ropes and build on that before we go daily.
For now three times a week flight is good. It gives us time to fly, 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 or thereabout, we had 274 paying passengers, so about 30 plus were non-revenue passengers. The aircraft is a 364-seater plane.