Mr Allen Onyema, the chairman of Air Peace Airline Limited has become a vocal voice in the aviation industry in Nigeria, always speaking passionately on the challenges facing the domestic airline operators, state of airport infrastructure, policies militating against the growth of the domestic carriers and ways forward. In the last four years, he has grown Air Peace to the biggest airline in West Africa within a short period.
In this interview with Franklin Ihejirika on the sidelines of the recent League of Airport and Aviation Correspondent, LAAC conference in Lagos, Onyema harped on the need for the federal government to fight the international Aeropolitics on behalf of the Nigerian airlines who are the major employers of Nigerians in the industry.
He speaks on the need for the federal government to stop the multiple destinations and frequencies given to foreign airlines to operate in the country, protection for indigenous airlines by the government, its Sharjah among others.
How can the government come in to play the international aropolitics on behalf of Nigerian airlines?
I have always said that our government should play the aeropolitics on our behalf because we discovered that Nigerian airlines are deliberately being frustrated by international aeropolitics. It is not the fault of our government and I am sure the President and Commander in Chief of Nigerian Armed Forces, Muhammed Buhari is very keen in promoting indigenous investment in this country, that I can assure you. You can see his interest in what I have just said, when he removes duties from commercial aircraft import and commercial aircraft spares. So that is a very huge support for airlines in Nigeria.
However, when it comes to international aeropolitics, there is a lot awaiting to be done. Because it is a very dirty industry not just within Nigeria, it is everywhere. If you don’t play the politics right you get your fingers burnt.
Nigerian airlines have been on the receiving end over the years and of course all these other countries will bring one policy or the other to protect their own. Because the indigenous airlines are the ones providing the jobs. In Air peace you have over 3000 staff, in Nigeria one person working takes care of about 10 other people. So Air peace is taking care of over 300, 000 Nigerians every day. These people could have been unleashed onto the streets and they will do some things that are not okay. So, there must be a conscious effort to protect indigenous airlines in this country. Government has done a great deal by removing all sorts of taxation like import duties and all that. Without that Air Peace would not have been able to own the size of fleet we own today. So I am very grateful to the federal government for that. It is not the fault of the federal government, Nigerians are very good people and the government is good. Nigeria and Ghana, we want to play by the rules but these other foreign countries don’t. Look at what happened to Arik on the Dubai route, look at what happened to Virgin Nigeria on the Dubai route. Look at what happened to Med-View of yesterday on the Dubai route and now Air Peace is coming there, they must have seen some competition coming.
The fares on the Dubai route
Before now the fares were sky high but with the entrance of Air Peace within the last 10 days, fares have come crashing. That is good for the Nigerian flying public, but it must be done in a way that it does not breed unfair completion, where you use state subsidy to crash your fare beyond that which is acceptable. Once that is done we expect the government of Nigeria to step in to address it. Of course the multiple designation and multiple frequencies being given to foreign airlines should be stopped. Nigerian airlines can never grow if Turkish airlines and other airlines flies from Istanbul, to Abuja. From Abuja to Port Harcourt and Port Harcourt to Abuja, back to Istanbul. This is not done anywhere. Protecting us is not just bringing up policies to hound any airline but also stooping some of the decision giving this multiple frequencies. It will go a long way to protect Nigerian airlines. If Turkish airlines is interested in Port Harcourt passengers, let Turkish airlines either fly straight to Port Harcourt, from there fly back to Istanbul. Or look for a Nigerian airline to partner, the Nigerian airline will be acting as a feeder, by so doing you are increasing the financial status of these Nigerian carriers and that will promote jobs.
Domestic airlines and job creation
All the 34 foreign airlines flying in this country, all their staff put together is not even up to 100 people. Air Peace alone is putting out about 3000, with about 100 ancillary staff in the last four years. Likewise Aero , Captain Ado Sanusi is doing a great job with Aero , reviving the place, trying to give Nigeria her first real MRO. Med-View Airline is trying to reorganise its processes, these people can never succeed in doing so if we allow things like these to continue happening. That is what we are saying, the government should help us stop the proliferation of destinations and frequencies to these foreign airlines. And one airline came to this country and insulted us by saying that we don’t have strong airlines in Nigeria. That they want to help us to float national carrier and that they want to even establish a local airline. we should not be deceived into this, it is all plan for capital flight out of this country. We should not be deceived by this rhetoric, they are not trying to do us any favour. That African airline is not trying to do Nigeria any favour, that is the truth. Everybody is getting jittery because of Air Peace, they see that Air Peace is getting stronger and stronger. And if there is one Nigerian airline that gets it right on the international scene, doing direct flight out of Nigeria, their situation will be affected badly. And they know that if Air Peace gets it right other Nigerian airlines will start getting it right. So that is why I try to carry my colleagues along with me. I want us to see ourselves as partners for the good of this nation. We are the ones creating jobs not the foreign airlines. So for any foreign airline to come here and insult us and say we are not strong, it is a lie. They have about 100 aircraft in 60 years of flying, Air Peace within four years have about 46 planes now with 20 brand new planes on order. How dare you say such an airline is not strong? So they demean us, demonise us in order to create an artificial vacuum that does not exist. And the continuous perception that we are not strong is making them to continue to push our government into giving them leverages or importance they do not deserve. They don’t mean well for this country, they mean well for their own countries. We need to be protected. The federal government has given me designation to fly to London, US and other places, if you are giving me designation to fly to US, why does a foreign African airline want to come and do the same designation with me, out of my country, direct to USA. Where is it done? It is not done anywhere. Why am I not flying London, what is holding us from flying to the designation you have given us? So these are the issues, Nigerian airlines are trying to get it right. The banks are working with Air Peace, all the banks in this country want to give Air Peace money because they see that we have financial discipline, they see that we are not diverting what we are making. So, the moment we get it right, it will affect other airlines positively. They will begin to give them money and fund them but if we continuously depend on foreign airlines to do our bit for us, we will never succeed.
Multiple destinations and frequencies
Every airport wants an international airline to come to their city, it is not done anywhere, it is like also telling the traders, every Nigerian wants an imported something, but you cannot allow everything to be imported because you want to protect indigenous industries, it is the same thing with airlines. You cannot because somebody from Owerri will like to fly to London from Owerri to New York, another one form Enugu wants to fly from there, and then you say all these foreign airlines should come and flying these routes because of our people. So, the argument that it is what the people wants is flawed. You cannot impoverish the country doing that kind of thing. See every government has good intentions, it is dependent on you and me to offer the right advice. There is no government that will wake up and want to diminish its economy, no. No government does that, no government will deliberately want to do that. It is the quality of advice the government gets that is the problem, and that advice will come from the media, will come from stakeholders. So we need at all times to protect the government too by giving them good advice. Let us help indigenous airlines to succeed, the government is on a good track by giving us all the waivers they gave us. The next thing is the ravaging of this country by foreign airlines, if that is not stopped it will continue to deplete our reserves through the money they pile out of this country and trying to pretend that they love us more than they themselves. If we get it right, with the right policies in aviation, there are so many rich people in this country that can even turn aviation round but a lot are not ready to come into aviation because they are scared of certain policies. Policies of multi designation of frequencies to foreign carriers will not encourage Nigerian investors to invest in the industry and keep the job and the money here.
Your Sharjah operations so far
I thank Nigerians for their patronage, people are expecting us to fail, but by the grace of God, we are not going to fail, on the first day, we scored over 80 percent revenue passengers on our first day, that was unprecedented and since then we have been carrying load factor of over 60 percent going and load factor of about 40 percent coming, but the cargo makes up for the rest, we are just ten days on th route, we have to just pack people out there before we start expecting them to come back with us. But every other day we are doing well, Air Peace has helped this country to conserve some foreign currency already. The airlines have started crashing their prizes, If Air Peace was not there, they would be charging us arm and a leg for six hours flight more than people from other countries paying for nine hours flight, so we should not allow that to continue, if Nigerians do not support us, by the time the run us out, they will get their pound of flesh from Nigerians for even daring not to support them in the first place or for daring to support Air Peace, so the support must be total and continuous.
The problem with Code D’ Ivoire in not allowing Air Peace to fly into their country, AWA also complained of the same problem, to what extent has this problem been resolved
That is why I said Single African Air Transport Market, SAATM is fraud against Nigeria, the other countries are not playing by the rule except Ghana, they put one stumbling block for you or the other even when they give you the permit, they use their ground handling agencies and others to make the thing exorbitant for you so that you would not want to come in. Nigeria should reciprocate whatever they do to us to them, if they do that to us, Nigeria should multiply that by three and give them because we have the population which they don’t have. If they charge us 10,000, when we get to our government and tell them that Code ‘Ivoire is asking us to pay 10,000, and they should multiply it by three, 30,000, and force them to pay, this is what will force some of these African countries to stop doing what they are doing.