Italian-born Paolo De Renzis is the Head of Middle East, Africa and Central Asia Sales for British Airways area. Having joined British Airways in 1988, where he entered the sales department after having successfully finished his university studies of law, business and commerce. Over roast lamb and British rice pudding at Gordon Ramsey’s Restaurant, Grill Park Walk, Chelsea, London, he reveals some details to Omolola Itayemi about BA’s 80 years operation in Nigeria and its new 787 First Class cabin
British Airways has been in Nigeria for 80 years. Isn’t that a long history?
A very long and rich history indeed. Eighty years ago, a largely unreported event took place which could help pave way for modern air services between Nigeria and the rest of the world. On 9 Febuary 1936, the Weekly Imperial Airways flight from London to Khartoum connected with another fight to Kano, heralding the start of services to Nigeria. These pioneering flights carried air mail rather than passengers, but apparently the initiative was successful because by October the same service was extended to Lagos. The limited records available showed that there was great enthusiasm shown everywhere the first service landed. According to Imperial Airways’ staff newsletter from 3 March 1936. “The captain of Daedalus (the name of the aircraft) was entertained by Sultans, Shehus and Emirs enroute.” There were plenty of opportunities to celebrate the new service as De Haviland DH86A biplane took seven days to complete the journey. Today, Imperial Airways’ successor British Airways operates daily, direct Boeing 747 and 777 services to Abuja and Lagos. It’s amazing to think that in just 80 years, we were operating biplanes that could carry seven passengers and it would take a week to complete the journey. Today’s aircraft can carry between 226 and 299 customers and you can be in London five and half hours after leaving Lagos or Abuja. The onboard experience has also evolved beyond all recognition. We have a distinguished history in Nigeria and eighty years on we are proud to still serve it, connecting Africa’s largest economy to the rest of the world. We have been a pretty successful airline. I cannot tell what will happen in the next eighty years but we are very strong in products and operations and will definite keep on growing and adjusting our capacity to profit the whole demand
Is there anything new, say medium, long term?
We have quite a lot of premium capacity increase. We have new Boeing 747 with additional Club World seats, Business class. We have quite a lot of them to Riyadd, Kuwait, Dubai.y week to Tehran from London.
Is there anything specific on the West African, Nigerian route in terms of new products?
At the moment, we operate a mix of B747 and B777 to Lagos and Abuja. We keep on reviewing our work as network changes. We operate B777 in Abuja and B747 and B777 in Nigeria.
Tell us about your operations in terms of capacity and market share?
Unfortunately, I cannot share commercial sensitive information when it comes to market share. We have been operating to Nigeria for 80 years. That means that our operation is strong but I cannot be specific when it comes to commercial sensitive figures.
How will the rate your market in West Africa includingNigeria, Middle East, and North Africa?
In Africa, we have a very strong position in particular in Nigeria. As I said, Africa is one of the most important markets; particularly South Africa and Nigeria are some of the biggest markets.
In the course of your explanation, you talked about bringing in B777 to replace the B747 . Will you still have the first class configuration on that airplane? What informed this decision? Could it be as a result of shrinking market?
Absolutely, the B777 operates to Nigeria with First Class both to Lagos and Abuja. The First Class is a very important market for us. We keep on reviewing our capacity and we have been quite flexible with our capacity. We keep on operating B747; now but we will be reviewing this in the week.
Does the economic crisis in Nigeria have any impact on British Airways especially in terms of passenger volume?
We are aware of challenging times in Nigeria. Load factors are very strong but cannot be more the statistics. Our operation is very strong and Nigeria remains our very strong market. We are still very positive about Nigeria.
Nigerian airlines are very weak and fragmented. Is there is anything BA has to assist Nigerian carriers?
This is a question for AIG. I cannot answer this question. This is something I cannot comment on. Strategic decision is taking up with our company because they take strategic decision on airline partnership.
BA will be 80 years very soon. What are you going to give to Nigerians in terms of fare?
I am not going to reveal what we are going to do in Nigeria for our 80 years. When it comes to fares, our fares are very competitive and we keep on reviewing our price.
Just last months, foreign airlines had problem repatriating their huge fund. Has that been resolved? What is the collaboration between your airline and the Nigerian government in view of foreign exchange policy?
As you know, there are some challenges at the moment with the Nigerian government. At the moment we are working on it. There are ways things are resolved. A partnership of 80 years, if you don’t have the understanding at 80 years of being together, you will never have. We are constantly working with the arms of government, the Central Bank of Nigeria, Ministry of Finance, IATA to ensure that we can get support. We are getting support from government. The matter will be resolved in a matter of time.
Operating in an economy for 80 years means something is unique. What is that uniqueness that has kept BA going?
I will say the people. We have a very strong base of loyal customers. Some spanning four/five generations of particular families. In Nigeria, whatever you sell, you are good to go. We have the population. By our sheer population, we are very strong market for any product. When you take our product which is airline, we continue to be the bridge to bring people from Nigeria into the world, connecting investors from the world back into Nigeria. It is the number and loyalty we have enjoyed over these years. We have a strong position of point to point.
How would you describe the Nigerian market to British Airways and how can the government help to grow the sector?
From this point of view, the Nigerian market is not different from many other markets globally. There is a lot of competition, challenges with the economy, but again, this is similar to many of the markets am responsible for in Saudi Arabia Kuwait and Abu Dhabi. But we are very dynamic company; we adjust our products and aircraft among demands. Nigeria is a very strong market and still a strong market and will be strong for another 80 years.
Apart from Lagos to Abuja, are you planning to extend your operations to other destinations in Nigeria?
At the moment, it is no. But we should ask you that question. There is a big issue in Nigeria about multiple designation and the local airlines are raising eye brow. We are guided by the agreement between Nigeria and the UK which is the Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA). No matter how you like, you can’t just say you want Port-Harcourt, if it is not in the agreement, you cannot go there. If it is not in the agreement you cannot do it no matter if we want it until Nigerian and British government come together and we are designated to do that. So, we may really like Port Harcourt because we have a lot of customers there, but we are guided by the law that exists between the two countries.
British Airways used to have a lot of CSR projects. In 80 years, can you list some of the projects you have done as a gift to the communities?
There are lots of things we are doing in that area. I remember the Kuje school in Abuja. The support is on-going. I was in Kuje late last year to look at the computer class that we started. If you know the history-that was a school in which people study under the tree. BA actually rebuilt the school, provided portable water. Last year, we were involved in Leaders of Tomorrow project. Some of you were involved where we identified six promising Nigeria students in aviation and tried to get them ready for the future. That was phase one. It was a fantastic programme. We brought them to London. They spent a week in a place in Lagos before we brought them to London where they spent one month themselves in different areas of the airline including mentorship from our CEO, Keith Williams to get experience on civil engineering side of the operations. We like to continue that and roll out the second phase. Those students were from the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria and Aviation school in Ilorin, Kwara State. I suspect that the second phase will be better and bigger than the phase one. The Britishness stops us from making too much noise. Even the Leaders of Tomorrow, you just want to impact on lives without making too much of publicity stunt. We impact on lives and want them to be the ones talking. We are also in partnership with Comet relief to ensure that people’s lives are impacted.
Is British Airways going to deploy its A380 to Nigeria in spite of Nigeria’s infrastructural challenge at the moment?
We constantly review our aircraft deployment globally. If there will be opportunity, there will be no doubt that we will do it. At the moment, we have one A380 flying into Africa, Johannesburg. We daily deploy A380 to Johannesburg. We will keep on reviewing our A380 operations globally. We deploy them to Singapore, Washington, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco etc. There are constant changes.
What are BA’s challenges operating in Nigeria and Africa?
Everywhere is challenging. In fact competition is challenging. The fact that you have competition is challenging. As far as you to deal with some common issues, it is challenging. What we are trying to do is to as a company, what we are trying to do is to rise above the challenges by making our operations safe and successful. If we have been there for 80 years, it means we can master challenges.
BA has been accused of selecting a particular set of aircraft that operate to Nigeria. How true is this?
Do you believe it? The aircraft you flew, do you like it? I know that you like it. The aircraft look the same. Aircraft have registration. If you want to check, you can do that with Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) for the registration. It does not make sense to keep aircraft on ground. They are made to be flying; you don’t even to ask us. We came in London yesterday at 4.30am and there would be 8amflight to New York or 10am to Atlanta. They will roaster that aircraft that came from Lagos to first destination within that period that you operate with B747. They won’t wait for that aircraft to be returned to Lagos. Let me give you a tip. If you go to the toilet, right in front of you right opposite the door, you will see the registration. We have a lot of B747 but the registration will be different. That is why if you look at the seats, the numbers are different. We will not take bad aircraft to one of our biggest markets. As a matter of fact, we do not have bad aircraft.