HIS PASSION AND ENTHUSIASM ABOUT HIS CURRENT JOD AS VICE PRESIDENT OF ARIK AIR IN CHARGE OF U.S OPERATIONS IS ALMOST INFECTIOUS. THRILLED BY THE CHALLENGEOF STARTING THE U.S OPERATIONS FROM THE SCRATCH, BOB BRUNNER RESUMED FOR WORK BUT SOON REALISED THAT “ENTIRE INFRASTRUCTURE THAT I WAS USED TO DIDN’T EXIST.” RATHER THAN BE DETTERED, HE WAS NERGISED. ACCEPTING THAT HUMBLING REALITY HELPED HIM NURTURE THE THEN FLEDGING AIRLINE WITH CLEAR VISION. SHAKA MOMODU ENGAGED HIM AT THE NIGERIANS IN DIASPORA ORGANISATION, NIDO, HELD TRADE AND BUSINESS CONFERENCE IN WASHINGTON DC RECENTLY
So tell me how you got to into Arik Air
It was back towards the end of 2009 and Arik Air began services into JFK from Lagos and I happened to see an advertisement looking for a country manager to run their US operations. It really fit very well with my background working with British Airways for a number of years where I had worked in everything from reservation to sales to marketing to cargo, lots of administration. I spent time in London doing accounting and them systems development. So I have a very broad background in aviation. So, I saw this as an opportunity to utilize my skills in one area. In speaking with the Chief Operating Officer and Dr. Michael Arumei-Ikhide, it felt like a very good match. The mission statement that Arik has of being dedicated to safety, security and customer care were really the base premise of the things I valued as a base premise of starting and running an airline. We also had a very philosophical match and I’ve been blessed to now have been working for the company for two and a half years and it’s been nice to see that we live up to that core statement.
So what has been your biggest challenge?
Over a period of two and a half years, we’ve had different challenges and then we knocked them down and go on to the next one. The current challenge I am trying to knock down is to allow international to international transfers at the airport in Lagos. In fact it might be every place in the world except for Nigeria.
I don’t really know but certainly most allow a person to land into their secure area and you can remain in that secure area when you go to your next international flight. In Nigeria you have to actually collect your luggage then go through security then go through immigration control which means basically entering the country and for a lot of people that means you have to buy a visa. A visa to Nigeria costs approximately $150 from the US. That is a price deal breaker. Nobody going over London or Germany, France or Atlanta will need to spend that $150
. So it’s an added cost, especially if you think of a family of four which is overall $600. So people are not doing that and we need to be able allow that service happen and not just for Arik Air but for every airline that flies into Nigeria. If you look at a country like Amsterdam, Amsterdam is a very small country but the amount of people that go through and to Amsterdam is exponentially growing because they have put themselves up as a transit hub.
More people go through Dubai than go to Dubai and they’ve been able to make a lot of money because when people are going through, they stop at duty free, they eat they drink and spend money and that money gets invested back into the airports. Sometimes people may get a one day visa just to get into the country for one day and come back out.
I myself just did that a few months back. I got a day room at a hotel I did so many things and I spent money. I think Nigeria has a big upside because geographically it is very well placed as entry point to all of Africa. So, to get people to come through with the ability of airside transfer would enable people have a one day overnight and continue, I think would bring in a lot of people and a lot of economic growth to Nigeria.
So how are you getting around this issue?
As I understand it, FAAN has not yet agreed to a set of standards that will allow this to happen and I put pressure on my people in Nigeria to handle this. I don’t personally get involved because I deal mainly with the US. The reason that it’s so important to us is that we have a lot of very good connections to Gambia, Senegal, and Sierra-Leone, Monrovia, Liberia. We can go to many countries and deliver a lot people there. That growth in passenger traffic would increase our profitability on the route and even consider expansion of the route. Until we can grow the volume of people needing to go to Africa, we are going to be stagnant and nobody wants to be stagnant. We want growth, we want opportunity and this is opportunity for both Arik Air and the nation of Nigeria.
In the two and half years you’ve been operating at JFK what has the passenger traffic been like?
The passenger traffic growth has been exponential in the double digits every year. The economy class business is very well regarded by the Diaspora and our business class is growing rapidly but not enough. We still have some issues between the lack of frequency, the frequent flier program and importantly, American Express and those 3 things are challenges that we face every day here and are the challenges we are trying to overcome.
What was the feeling like coming to work with a new airline considering your long years and experience with British Airways?
Clearly it was excitement. I was charged up the first day and ready to go and I walked into the office and realized that the entire infrastructure that I was used to didn’t. But that didn’t scare me rather, it truly energized me. It said to me that you even have more to do than you thought you had to do. And I just kind of reevaluated my priorities and got to it. There were really only two of us at that time working in the management area.
We had a few people at the airport handling the operations and we decided, ok we have to go out and buy computers, we have to go out and buy office furniture. It was just like you were starting a business from scratch. And we did that. It probably set us back a month or two in getting our sales and marketing going but you always want to build on a strong foundation and that’s what we set out to do so that we can start building on it. The response especially with NIDO was encouraging. They were one of the first groups that reached out to us and said how can we support you because we want you to be successful.
So working with them and all the other community organizations has truly been a wonderful collaborative experience for us supporting their organization and their organization turning around and supporting us back. Everybody we talked to once, wanted to see succeed and everybody that flies us once tends to fly us the second and the third time. We need to get the people out there the first time and then our product really speaks for itself and people want to come back again and again. There is nobody flying across the Atlantic with more legroom that what we have.
Our seat width is wider than what you get on most of the other carriers so people get more generous space. We have African food and we have western food. We have the Hollywood movies and we have the Nollywood movies. We have western flight attendants and we have African flight attendants. We truly try to cater to the needs of everybody that is going to be flying our aircraft. The Africans have complained about a lack of respect on a number of carriers flying out of America. We don’t have that issue.
They can fly with us and feel comfortable that they are going to be treated the way they expect to get treated certainly as we treat any other passenger and that is an important thing. So our opportunity is big and great and we are chipping away at the little and not so little challenges. I would say by the end of this year another hurdle would come down when we start the ability to interline with other US airlines and that means they can feed us with other Americans flying from let’s say Chicago or Washington DC and they can connect on us without having to and I say again collect their baggage, and then recheck-in at the US airport. That will be a big thing that opens more of the US market to us as well. For now we fly JFK to Lagos 3 times a week and that is the plan we are going to continue for right now
So that means there are no plans to increase the number of flights or expand to other cities?
We have expansion plans but we haven’t just put a date against them. We have certainly identified where the market potential is and now is a question of just putting what I will call pressure on the hull. The more volume we get on these aircrafts the more reason there is to expand. It means all the hurdles knocked down or at least the 3 big ones which are the airside transfer, the US feed through the US domestic airline network and hopefully we can get the American Express card being accepted. If those 3 things happen then I would say we can say we can really start planning for expansion because the volume will start growing.
Aircraft maintenance has been an issue in Nigeria; tell me about it with your airline?
I don’t want to speak to airline maintenance in Nigeria but I’ll speak to aircraft maintenance at Arik. We outsource our aircraft maintenance and the management of the company recognized at inception that there wasn’t enough training of Nigerian people to maintain aircraft. It is a very technical job that requires intensive training. There aren’t t he schools in Nigeria to teach this. In the United States it’s called getting your ANP license and that is the license you need in order to touch an aircraft mechanically. So we went out and said who is the best-in-class and we centered Lufthansa Technique according to the research that we did.
So we hired Lufthansa Technique to maintain all the aircraft in our fleet. One exception is the A340 500 series which we fly into New York which is actually handled by Iberia deemed to be experts in that particular aircraft. So we go and hire the best we can find and it’s been good for us because we’ve been able to get IATA designation and we’ve passed the first round of IOSA testing which is IATA safety audit and we got that last October. We are being reviewed again now to see that we maintained that and improved. That just shows our dedication to safety and security. Arik is the only West Africa owned airline that is permitted to fly into the United States
Is that because you have new aircrafts or what?
Well aircraft age is not a criteria to get those designations but how you maintain your aircraft, how you train your people and your services on the ground and in the air, that’s what they study. For the audit they took a look at us in Nigeria and they looked at us in New York, they looked at us in London. They also looked at our books and our policies and procedures. They truly look at every piece of paper including all manuals and files. It’s very in-depth and it takes a long time and they have very well trained people doing this and we passed. That’s a credit to our people and not just the expats coming in but the local people who are assigned tasks they supposed to do every day and over and over again and there is no margin for error on some of these things and we take it all very seriously.
What is your biggest challenge interfacing with the Nigerian base?
I don’t have any really big issues; I can tell you that we communicate really well. Yes there are times like in any organizations you send an email out and you don’t get a timely answer. Then I pick up the phone and it’s taken care of. I would say I would like us to connect to more cities around the world but because we are not driving the volume at this point because of the airside transfer my voice is not heard as strongly as one would want it to be and it makes sense to first drive volume and profitability. So things are not necessarily structured necessarily to best help the New York for when we do get the airside transfer.
I think we are doing most of the things the right way and that is what is sometimes frustrating to the passenger who asks why we can’t have this but it’s because we have to do some other things first. Everything in the airline industry costs a lot of money, so you have to choose where you are going to put your investment and if you want to invest for the long term you really have to build that solid foundation first then growth. It is almost like an inverted pyramid where you start with the small things and you build the big on top of it and that is not sustainable. So very often you have to build more at the bottom of the pyramid in order to keep the growth going. We had to do just that.
Recently, we had to take out our old reservation system and install a new reservation system because we outgrew the first one. United Airlines also just went through that, Virgin America just went through that. So we are in good company in the things we have to do.
Every company so often needs to take a step back to fix their foundation in order to go forward, and those are very expensive decisions that need to be made. However we are growing with 23 aircrafts and we just leased two more aircraft A330’s that have been painted and tested in the hull. So we would soon add those to our fleet that will allow us to grow to more destinations. Any day now we will be announcing new flights to another neighbouring country of Nigeria which should be announced any day now and it’s really exciting.
That is the beauty of working for Arik is that we are growing and doing very exciting and great stuff in a great nation on a continent that is poised for an explosion of growth. It’s just an exciting time. While at other airlines you see a lot of shrinkage. I just saw an article recently that US airlines are actually flying less aircraft and less destinations. There are more people, so everything is lot more crowded than they were last year.
There have been some complaints about your business class, what are you doing to address these complaints?
Let’s change complaints to comment. The comment was that this gentleman likes to make business contacts in the business class cabin and he would like the cabin to be a bit fuller so that he can meet more people. This is one area we are totally in sync with him. That’s why our sales people go out every day knocking on doors one person and one company at a time to convince them to give us a try. The best thing as I said before is that once people give us a try they usually come back again and again.
Then they tell their friends and then their friends also give us a try. But it is hard, to wrestle people way from their frequent flier programs and the fact that the European carriers all fly on a daily basis and we only fly 3 times a week. We will bet there we have a very good plan and we are staying the course and there are signs than it is working for us. The key is constantly be aggressive and assertive in going to those companies and people one by one to give us a try.
We’ve got some of the big oil companies and also some small companies. I think the smaller companies are where we are going to be focusing on now. Yes we want the big companies like General Electric but they use the American Express card and we can’t beat that door down unless we get the American Express card deal. Basically we just need to fish where the fish are and that’s what we are doing.