Muneer Bankole

Nigerian carrier, Med-View Airline, recently had its inaugural flight from Lagos to Dubai. The Managing Director of the airline, Alhaji Muneer Bankole spoke on pertinent industry issues and the company’s plans to sustain the route. Chinedu Eze brings the excerpts:

Med-View Airline has just increased its capacity by adding Dubai to its route networks, what informed your decision to venture into the route?
We thank God almighty for giving us this opportunity and for making this inaugural flight a success story. When you do domestic alone, you are limited in connectivity. When you do regional operations, you are limited to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) communities and African Union (AU). When you venture to go into any of the countries where we are now and the one that we intend to go, you have gone global and you have no hidden corridor any more.

Here in Dubai and London, we are open to the whole world and we are contesting with the great masters of the industry such as British Airway, Lufthansa and KLM amongst others. We need to play the game the way it is played globally. We started this venture in Saudi Arabia, when we went into this country for pilgrimage; we were maintaining this position and contesting along with the global masters that come to play the same Hajj operations. For over 11 years now, we have been the only Nigerian carrier that has been consistent and we have carried over 330,000 pilgrims that have fulfilled their Islamic obligations. When we came in, there were 14 carriers, but today, only two are still in the market and I hope more will come. From the Saudi Arabian position, we built the capacity by having a very strong base. For our Hajj operations, we do not only carry Nigerians, we carried from other countries.

We ventured into the United Kingdom and people thought we will not last up to six months, but today, we have operated for two years on the London route. We have gone through various huddles, but in UK now, we have been accepted side by side with British Airways and that is the beauty of it all. This is what informed us and gave us the strength to come here. This is a global market where everyone wants to play effectively.

We have been in talks with the Dubai Government for three years and we have done the ground work by establishing a cargo company here, we have our workers here and we have an agency of travel and tour packages. We went into negotiation and got our first two sets of slots. We were working strongly to build the capacity. We sent our staff here to work and some went to the university here. Today, we can raise our heads; we have everything on ground in Dubai. On our flight arrival flight, we came in with about 12 tonnes of cargo and on the first departure flight to Nigeria, we have 15tonnes of cargo. We had about 80 per cent load factor on arrival flight.

On 24th of December, we will launch in Kaduna Kano Jeddah routes and we will be doing two flights weekly. We will start with Thursdays and Sundays and that is why we chose 24th December. This is the journey so far. We will soon start Texas operations and intend to have four flights weekly and Washington, but we have narrowed them down to two flights, so that we are working. We have a consultant working with us. We give ourselves six months, we will be looking at 2018 and that will be the close of the international network.

We went to Anglophone and Francophone countries and we are in the Middle East and UK now. The next stage is to be in United States and China will be the next by the grace of God. We are going step by step. We do it slowly and close it. We are spending and building capacity. We are not making noise. God has been the driving force and we thank God for it.

Service appears one key factor to drive the Dubai route, how are you looking at making your service a top notch?
Ethiopian Airline is owned by Ethiopian Government, Emirates and Saudi Airlines are championed by their government. They subsidise everything for them. I am buying fuel at $51 and I buy it in Nigeria at N220 for no reason. You can understand the challenge we are facing. We do not have government that is championing our cause, but these big airlines have their governments supporting them. So, we know God has been the one driving this cause. The issue of having that standard is gradual. We have started. We created an ambassador on-board, introducing Nigerian attire and culture. These ambassadors are added value.

What they are going to do is to supervise what others are doing. It is not something you find anywhere. The only place you find it is on Ethiopia Airline. The lady you find on-board putting on Nigerian wear is like a supervisor, as they run the show too. We will not compromise in our delivery of service. I went on the flight, I made comments and I took comments and I will go back to them and we will discuss. We will get there.

In the area of on-time departure and good food, what are you doing to ensure this is of international standard?
We need to change a lot of things. Structures and discipline are always problem in Nigeria. We saw the whole delay. Passengers were held up with immigration. There is no basis for the delays. We should have gone past this level. Once passengers check in, they have minimum time and there is no need delaying them. We still have to get there. That is why Vice President Yemi Osinbajo brought up the idea of ease of doing business to show Nigeria the way to do business. We will get there. We will improve our service delivery on-board.

How strong is your tour package?
For you to come to Dubai on Thursdays; we can package your things, deliver your cargo and you will be able to board Med-View flight. You have an advantage. This is one idea we are trying to sell so that Nigeria will have this culture of getting out and getting something better for themselves and their family members. We are too money conscious, but we need to move out, no matter how little we have.

Aside from service, are you leveraging on price to drive this destination?

We have subsidised the price on this route so that people can afford it. We reduced the rate by 50 per cent. What we are selling is mileage. Going from London to Dubai is six hours by flight and while coming from London to Lagos is three times the price. What makes it different? It is the same cost. We have done the cost analysis and we have subsidised our rates.

As a Nigerian airline wearing the country’s flag, what form of support have you received from the federal government so far?

This is like a one man flight, but we have a Minister who is listening. He is a friend and a brother of mine. He is a young guy, he is dynamic, but he has limitations. He came here and how many of Nigerian airlines have been given letter of designation, yet has nowhere to go? We have two seasons in aviation, the winter and the summer. So, let us wait for another time if one time is not favourable. We should be disciplined. We need to first assess ourselves at home. Today, we are only five airlines flying in Nigeria, the remaining 23 are gone.

So, something must be put in place to ensure people do not close shop. We came here and they asked us to go to somewhere far away. This took me about eight months to fight. For almost one year I have been fighting it. Whoever is behind this scene has to open up. I told the authority that I won’t accept it. What makes Emirates do three flights in Nigeria, two in Lagos and one in Abuja? Why don’t they go to Yola? So I wrote to everyone and the government wrote me back to be patient and Sen. Hadi Sirika, the Minister of State for Aviation told the people that they have to support me. If not Sirika, this our dream would have died. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are doing 21 frequencies and I am doing only four and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) told me I could only do two and I refused their allocations. So, I decided to write a protest letter against it and that is why we are doing four frequencies weekly today. God is the one supporting us.

With all these challenges, how do you intend to sustain these routes?
For you to survive, you must build a foundation for yourself. If you do not have a solid foundation, you will not succeed. I don’t just come to the air. I build capacity in Dubai for three years for me to be here. The rest we have left in the hands of God, since government comes and goes.

Poaching is a popular practise in the Nigerian aviation industry, what plans do you have for training and re-training of technical personnel in the sector?

Thank God for our life, most of the guys you see in the industry flying for other airlines some of them are Med-View products. We are happy to have blazed the trail and some of them that have been poached from us, we have no regret about that, but we at Med-View, we are one family and when you are one family, you have the best. I have young pilots that were trained by us and they are around 17 and 18 years old. The company spent lots of money on them to train them because I know I am not going to be there forever.

We have a succession plan in place. I have a Deputy Manager, I have Executive Director. As I am talking to you right now, I no longer do the bulk of the job. I have given out the job to people to run. We have trained a lot of people in the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria. You see, one thing about spending money on people is that they will never betray you because you are building the foundation for them. That is what I have achieved. I have trained a lot of boys; they are disciplined and when they came here, they have a completely different orientation.

The first two months when you come here, we do what we call orientation or indoctrination. You will know this company well. That’s your first entry point. That means you will go everywhere; you will go to cargo, you will go to engineering and you must read and understand. Then, you are expected to send me a report, which will judge if you are fit to be in this company or not because those areas that you went, there must be comments from there. Those bosses you went under their supervision they will come and say to me, ‘that guy looks very brilliant, sir if you don’t mind, you can give him to me. He’s sound in Information Technology,’ and so on and so forth.

And if I want to employ professional people, I give it out to consultants to handle for me. I don’t get involved. The only one thing that everybody knows is that your final entry point is me; you must meet me one on one and that committee will be seating. What makes their judgment to say negative or positive? I will see every soul; I have 370 employees and I know them all by their names and I know each person’s level and capacity.
Every Monday, we have meetings in the office; we do it like the Federal Executive Council (FEC). We exchange blows there. Most of the people don’t like to come, but they have no any other choice than to be here and if you don’t come, you are instantly marked absent, which would lead to loss of things.

What areas of civil aviation do you think the federal government needs to improve upon?
For me, I don’t want to look at government. We should ask ourselves what we have done from our own side. As the CEO, I just went to different units to see things myself. So, this is a private business, so we are investors; we bring business to Nigeria. The only thing is that we have been shouting to the government over the years to help in the construction of a Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility for the operators. They have to call for this one – training and simulator. Airline is not manufactured here; we should partner with manufacturers to bring the price down so that we won’t be going through a third party.

Also, the government needs to increase the capacity in aircraft and we are telling Nigerian youths to get into this aviation business to reduce unemployment. Fuel is God’s gift. Warri or Kaduna refinery produces our fuel at a reduced price. This is an asset that we have and we need to develop so that we can sell the product to our neighbouring countries. Foreign airlines do not care about Nigeria’s oil anymore; they bring sufficient fuel from outside the country before coming here. So, we need to improve on our fuel. And other government agencies charge us excessively on taxation. For instance, we pay the Federal Inland Revenue Services (FIRS), Lagos Inland Revenue Services (LIRS), the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), the Nigerian Aviation Management Agency (NAMA), the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and several other organisations.

You have partnership with foreign airlines like Euro Atlantic. What are the gains of such partnership?
We call such relationship synergy. You cannot get everything on your own. Nigeria doesn’t have that structure for maintenance. We get maintenance support from this partnership. Nigeria does not have its own maintenance facility and we must have to keep to the culture of international standard rating. We do a lot of training of technical personnel and aircraft maintenance. Without the support of Euro Atlantic where am I going to train all those people? I spent 80 percent of my money in Panam, in CAE and in South Africa maintenance facilities. There are no maintenance facilities in Nigeria. There is no MRO (Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul) facility; nothing, so why are you going to say, you want to stand alone? Don’t deceive yourself, even the strong airlines form alliance like the Sky Team, Star Rise, Star Alliance, One World, so it is never a one man show. Medview with Air Atlanta and Euro Atlantic have become a family for the past 10 years, so I remain with them for now.

What is your level of partnership with the operators in the area of tour arrangements and cargo?
We brought three serious tour operators in our inaugural flight. They are some of the best agents who are committed to the course of this project. In any project we want to do, we first of all call the agents. We have a very strong relationship with them, we believe in them, because Med-Vew started like them as a travel agency in September 9, 2000. The agency was called Med-View International Travels and Cargo. Med-View went into consultancy to create Med-View Consult which deals on consultancy on the package on hajj and it went into Med-View Airline.

There were three basic issues on ground in Nigeria’s aviation industry then. The last of it was to liquidate the Nigerian Airways Limited (NAL). The eventual liquidation of NAL was a great mistake made by the Chief Olusegun Obasanjo government. Liquidation was the worst decision because it was not the answer at that moment.

The airline would have survived because it had 62 Bilateral Air Service Agreements (BASA) (it was NAL that used to negotiate commercial flight agreements with foreign airlines and it was generating huge revenues from there) and we had 75 percent of property in GRA, both in Ikoyi an Ikeja GRA and in principle of fairness, when you have assets that outweighs your liability, you are bound to succeed, Med-View today has a solid assets of over N18 billion. Med-View realised in three to five years between 3.5 billion; today Med-View is over N37billion. This is not a secret because it is published at the Stock Market.

We are looking at the best in 2017 when we give you the books, our projections, we have surpassed it now. In November during the third quarter we were N28billion instead of 25 billion and we are not sleeping, we are at the Stock Market, we are not hiding anything from anybody because we have a lot of stakeholders and we must follow the rules of the Nigeria Stock Exchange. We follow principle of openness, we must publish our books and we must certify it before you talk anything, so the third quarter is perfect, we preach to you the story in 2013 when we published our books, it was N3.5billion, we rose to N10billion and from there to 13 billion, rose to N26 billion; today we are talking of N35 billion and who knows what tomorrow will be?

Our dream is to hit N45 billion when we get the two Boeing B777 aircraft. Look at those Arabs sitting there, they are shareholders in Med-View, my partner is a Saudi. My chairman is a Saudi national, he has been in the business from the beginning, so that is why I told you, to be honest to everybody here, God is the answer, keep Him as your companion, you will not be deceived, don’t even look up to anybody, just look up to Him. I repeat, I am not a Reverend Father or Imam, but it will tell you the secret behind any success story, if you play game you will lose, if you dance to anything, you will lose because the government will come and go and who will listen to you, but if you stay with Him (God), he’s there to give you an answer, that is the secret.

What are you doing to take your passengers beyond Dubai, Houston, London, China and other destinations in-terms of code share?

As am talking to you now, there are discussions with Southern China Airlines out of here, but we don’t talk, I want to tell you this with open mind, first to come to that destination, second is to keep your On-Time Performance (OTP) because if you don’t keep your OTP status, people need to connect and you must keep that time. We are just here for now and when we start, we go two flights, we are doing three for this week because of the inaugural flights, but we will maintain two flights to stabilise and grow, then we go three, by then any airline you are connecting, you have to be on that time, that airline will know that you are bringing so, so number and there must be a determination for code share with your partner, so we are going there by the grace of God, we are just starting, let’s go slowly, step by step.