Onyema: Nigeria Has Improved Significantly in Air Safety

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Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Air Peace, Mr. Allen Onyema, reasons that Nigeria has maintained A good safety record in aviation due to the efficiency of the regulatory authorities. He spoke to Chinedu Eze. Excerpts:

Last year Nigeria had a very good record in terms of safety and this year everything seems to be going that way too. So how do you see the regulation of the industry?
First and foremost I have to thank God Almighty for what He has done for us so far. Like you said, last year there was no accident or any major incident and by the grace of God it is going to continue like that. I pray for Air Peace every morning and pray for all my aircraft and I commit all my aircraft into the hands of God every morning and I call the planes by their names when I am praying. And I pray for other airlines in Nigeria. I always pray to God that there should never be any other form of incident or accident in our airspace again to the glory and honour of His name.

So I commit all the airlines to his hands because what happens to one affects everyone. I don’t wish anybody evil because of competition. When I was coming to the industry I said I was going to bring peace. It is a very competitive environment, at times devilish. But we in Air Peace we want to do healthy competition.

And talking about regulation, I think the Nigerian airlines are well regulated. The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) is doing a wonderful job on that. It is not easy, sometimes you don’t feel comfortable with the way they are doing it but they have to do it.
The kind of regulation NCAA brings to bear on Nigerian airlines cannot be compared to any other; even in advanced countries.

For instance, we had a bird strike on our first day in Kano and the pilot made air return back to the airport. We sent our British engineers to Kano to rescue the aircraft. Then we sent another aircraft to Abuja to go and airlift the passengers. Do you know that after the British engineers rectified it, NCAA insisted on being on the flight when we carried out a test flight? I was happy when I heard that.

I urge NCAA to continue, they should continue whether we, the airlines, like it or not. They should continue carrying out their regulatory duties in that form. They went into the aircraft, not sitting down and waiting for the airline to come and tell them that everything was okay, they saw for themselves. So I was really impressed and that was one thing that gladdens my heart. So when you talk about regulation, NCAA is doing a wonderful job about safety.

I wish to use this opportunity to especially commend the Director General of NCAA, Capt. Muhtar Usman and his team for the revalidation of the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Category 1 Safety Status. I can describe Usman as a silent operator because he does not make noise. His achievements speak for him. This is the second time Nigeria has passed FAA audit. The first revalidation was in 2014. This is the second time.

People are surprised the way your airline is growing and you seem to be providing capacity for Nigerian passengers in the domestic routes and with your plan to expand to international destinations. How did you come to this level of operation knowing that you didn’t have aviation experience?
Yes, I didn’t have any experience at all; I learnt on the job. I never had any experience on aviation and I have been saying this but God led me to do what I am doing. This is not the first time I am going into a field I had no experience of. You remember what happened in Niger Delta when I went in there and said, okay, this violent situation I am going to do something about it. And I set my sight and my soul and my body into it and God showed me what to do.

I trained myself in non-violence, trained my staff and a whole lot of Nigerians and I entered Niger Delta to start doing what I did, which helped to bring peace to that region. At a time even the military, both within and outside didn’t know what to do again. So when I went into aviation, it is the same thing that is happening now. I have the passion, the sincerity of purpose to succeed, because I am a businessman and that is exactly what I am doing.

A lot of people are asking questions, “How did he do it? Within a space of two and half years he has bought in additional 17 aircraft?” There is nothing impossible under the sun, it is not rocket science; it is about honesty. I want Nigerians to know that this is part of the progress of the country. They should not see it as the success of Allen Onyema, the owner of Air Peace. This company has created jobs for thousands of Nigerians- Hausa, Yoruba, Fulani, Igbo and many others. Air Peace is a melting pot for all Nigerians. They will tell you that they never knew me from Adam and they are getting jobs. That is the first success factor and that is the way it should be in order to build a united nation.

It makes me happy when it downs on me that I am realising an old dream. It has always been my desire to create a company that will provide jobs for Nigerians, no matter which part you come from. I have about 15 northern pilots working in Air Peace. I trained about seven of them. When we bought our Boeing B777, I took one Igbo, one Yoruba, one Hausa and one Urhobo and sent them to be trained on the B777.

No Nigerian airline has owned a 777 before now and they became the first set to be trained. So I don’t discriminate and because of that the workforce are happy. Decision makers and entrepreneurs in Nigeria should work towards bringing our people together. Such integration will strengthen our unity.

So Air Peace workforce is doing everything to ensure that the airline succeeds. They put their lives and souls in Air Peace because they believe in the vision of the airline. These are Nigerians from every state in this country, they are all here and they feel at home.

We regard Nigerians as Nigerians first and foremost, and don’t forget I am the National Chairman of the Foundation for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria. So I have always believed in this country. This is one factor a lot of people neglect in their businesses in a multi-cultural setting like Nigeria. You must be a broad minded person to succeed here, so that is what I have done in Air Peace.

How are you getting funds to run Air Peace?
Yes it is true that we get money at 27 per cent, but my bank Fidelity Bank Plc is deeply committed to our company because I have been banking with them for over 15 years and they know my pedigree. I don’t like owing anybody; I don’t want anybody to come after me over debts. No; it is not in my character. Fidelity is always eager to offer the airline credit facility. Sometimes they prod us to take more money. They can offer us N10 billion facility.
I created a sinking fund which I do not control. I use the sinking fund to pay off loans even before they are due for repayment. I was the one that suggested it to the bank because I don’t want debt burden on me. This is because bankers funds are depositors’ money, so when people go and take money from banks and they divert it to real estate, divert it to other businesses and siphon it abroad; you are taking away ordinary people’s money.

The advantage of the sinking fund is that the company does not even know when it has fully paid back the loans. You won’t have stress when you schedule the repayment of the loans this way, but when you wait until the end of the month, bank writes you to say, come and pay us money, you start running around because you must have committed that money to several other things. Because of the way we schedule the repayment, sometimes maybe the repayment is for two years at the end of one year the loan has been paid. The bank most times will persuade us to retain some aspects of the loan to continue to make more money out of us.

So I don’t have problems about funding. If I wake up tomorrow and I realise that 10 planes are necessary for our strategic plan and they believe in my judgment and I say Fidelity Bank I need these 10 planes, Fidelity Bank will provide the financing. UBA has come onboard to Air Peace too, they are ready. They provided us forex the other time because we pay. Go and ask the fuel marketers, we don’t owe fuel marketers. I told them from the beginning, please let me have your invoice within 48 hours or 24 hours it must be settled. I don’t owe.

So talking about the factors responsible for our growth, one, is God Almighty. This is because God is with us; anything I touch is gold. At times I am surprised. This is because of so many things that have happened in my life, right from when I started in 1990. So mine has been a success story all through. The second reason for our success is our creation of a sinking fund for our bank, for the loans they give us. So our bank is comfortable, most times I don’t even apply, they will be the one to say we have this line of credit for you come and access it. So I keep on buying planes and the bank keeps on making its money.

We are not a risk to depositors’ funds, so that is the secret of our expansion. And again there is need to have an open mind on how to run your business. When you owe hotels, fuel marketers, your staff and banks what do you expect? These things I don’t do, I didn’t even learn it from the experiences of the other people; these have been with me since I was growing up.

How do you intend to maximise the airplanes? When we went to Kano one man said that nine buses leave Kano to Enugu every night; that if you can operate Kano to Enugu, it will be very, very profitable and you will be helping a lot of people. With this your new subsidiary, Air Peace Hopper, are you envisaging operating from Kano to Enugu and connecting other destinations that may not have been part of the domestic market before?
The idea behind the subsidiary, Air Peace Hopper is to interconnect Nigerian cities. Personally I want every part of this country to be developed, no matter the geographical location. This is a beautiful country of 180 million people, of over 378 ethnic nationalities. We have not even realised half of our potential, if only we know the potential in this country we will be celebrating every morning. So I want to use Air Peace to interconnect Nigerian cities. That is why we created this subsidiary Air Peace Hopper.

The Boeing B737 jets are too big to do this interconnectivity. Some big airlines all over the world have their subsidiaries. British Airways has Com Air they are using in Denmark; Delta Airlines has Delta Connection, using the same kind of jet we are using. United Airlines owns United Shuttle, American Airlines owns American Eagle. So I studied the American landscape and I decided to adopt it. We have been planning to connect Enugu and Kano, Port Harcourt and Kano, Kano and Yola, Lagos and Markurdi. We want to be able to take people from here to Taraba, Gombe, Markurdi to Kano or Kano to Markudi.

We want to connect Benin and other cities, Warri to Port Harcourt Air Force Base. We want to fly from Calabar to the north directly. I want to be able to do two flights a week from Calabar to the northernmost part of the country. We are going to open up this country
So we are going to do Enugu-Kano and Kano-Enugu, Lagos- Markudi, Lagos-Taraba, Lagos-Jos, Lagos – Yola, Lagos – Kaduna, Kaduna- Yola and Yola – Kaduna. We are going to do from Owerri- Kano and Kano to Owerri. So by the time Air Peace helps to energise this intercity connection, it is going to boost the economy of this country. Look at what we did with Akure. May God bless the Governor of Ondo state, Rotimi Akeredolu. This man humbled himself, pleaded with us to come to his state to open up his state.

He meant well for his people. We went into Akure because I saw a Governor who is determined to develop his place. He pleaded, he came himself, did everything possible and we went in there in order to help another Nigerian state. We started Akure, as a huge lose to this airline but in order to propel the people of Ondo state and propel other Nigerians to see what they have, we offered them fair of N10,000 only. N10, 000 per passenger cannot even pay all the 37 charges we pay to government agencies, but we did it. If you go there today Chinese people are going to Akure, they are visiting Ondo State to know what they can offer. We have helped in boosting the economy of Ondo State by doing that.

The Governor even called me few days ago. We started that route with Boeing B737, we are not supposed to be doing it with Boeing but we wanted to do it. Because he was determined to get his state developed, we supported him. It is rare seeing a politician like that. So I am not that myopic, my broad mindedness is the secret behind Air Peace. So we went into Ondo and today the place is developed. The Governor called the other day and said, I learnt that your Embraer jets have come and I said yes, two of them have come remaining four. He said when are you going to bring them in, we need them, so that you can cut your cost. He was feeling for me. So, with the Air Peace Hopper, Nigerians will see something that has never happened in this country before.

When we came in many experienced people in the industry were sceptical that we may not be able to pull through. But we have proved them wrong; that with the right focus and dedication, the right fleeting, you can get it right. Another thing is your type of fleeting, you just don’t go buy aircraft for buying sake, the fleeting matters and that is what we have done now.

When are you putting the Embraer jets into service?
We shall put them very soon. We are waiting for NCAA to give us a go ahead. We are going to do demo flight for NCAA, just like we did with the Dornier.

How is your regional operation going to be?
You know we are expanding into the region, so we started the regional operations since early 2017, we started with Ghana and on February 19, 2018 we started the other parts of West Coast; that is Dakar, Banjul and Free Town. And after that we hit Lome, Abidjan and Liberia. We will use the Air Peace Hopper to connect to cities in the sub-region that are close to one another. At least when you carry 40 people you can break even. So in some cases we will put the Boeing B737 and we are going to increase our flight operations into some cities with the hopper.

So, besides connecting underserved cities in Nigeria, we are also going to serve even the served ones better using the hopper in certain times of the day. So all those underserved places in Nigeria like Minna, Jigawa, Gombe, Bauchi, Sokoto, Kano, Yola, Maiduguri are going to experience more flights. We are already here and the planes have started arriving and in the next three weeks we will start connecting Nigeria. So it is not about running to do international and running to do regional, within the country there are a lot of gaps.

When you want to operate international destination, which destination will be your first choice?
The federal government has given us the right to fly into London but we are yet to apply to the London authorities because NCAA said we should wait first. Air Peace is prepared. We have the equipment. Two of our Boeing B777 came from Emirates with all its luxury. So I don’t see the reason why we cannot do well on international scene. And again we are not rushing into anything. The same way Air Peace has been doing its thing, studying things and taking our time. Dubai has given us their approval, so we are going to start Dubai first followed by China and then London.

There are indications that many international airlines do not want Nigerian airlines to operate into their countries. This is because they see Nigeria as a market they record huge load factor. So if indigenous airlines begin to fly their destinations, they will lose that market. One of our cabin crew was traveling the other day n Emirates flight and she told the Emirates cabin crew that she is a cabin crew too. And she asked which airline? She responded by saying Air Peace. The lady said, you people are coming to Dubai; we are going to run you out. We are waiting for you. We even increased our flight because of you. We will run you out and you will not last 30 days.

That was what she told my staff. Competition is really tough; even in Dubai a lot of the airlines have been trying to scare us. But nobody is going to run us out on the route. We are going to succeed because we are not going to go into any place unprepared. We are going to have a healthy competition with whomever; it is going to be healthy.
So we are not scared of competition what we ask for is a level playing field, especially from our government. We should look at what those countries are doing for their own airlines and allow us to get on the same level. Multiple frequencies given to them into our country will not help us because they try to regulate us one way or the other from coming into their own country.

How will Nigerian airlines make the federal government understand the challenges they are facing flying into other countries in Africa, especially as the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) has liberalised flight movement from one country to another in the region?
Let me tell you something. Aviation policies over the years seem to create the feelings that we are fighting our own airlines in this country. If we are very, very sincere about making Nigerian airlines come out of the doldrums, there are so many things we have to do. This Single Africa Air Transport Market or Open Skies, when the airlines in Nigeria said it does not favour us; not because we cannot compete and it is not true that Nigerian airlines are sick. If any other airline is sick, Air Peace is not sick, Nigerian airlines are not sick. We are not indebted to anybody because every airline must borrow money; the most important thing is how you are servicing your loan. We are servicing our loans accurately and adequately to the satisfaction of our bank. So not every airlines are sick. I disagree that all Nigerian airlines are sick; that they are unhealthy and badly run; no. We have a structure in Air Peace and it is run according to the best known universal practices. So when we cry that this SAATM does not favour us, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) might say otherwise, but SAATM does not really favour us at this stage, except a level playing field is created.

What we are demanding is not peculiar. When Emirates was ravaging America the airlines in America cried out and their government did something about it and put policies that try to stunt the spread of the Gulf airlines into America. That is how it is supposed to be. Bombardier came up with new aircraft they manufactured, CS 300 which would have been competing vigorously with Boeing 737, Boeing cried to their government and they came out with 300 per cent duties on that Bombardier aircraft type in order to protect their own. So we must try and protect our own in this country; if we don’t protect Nigerian airlines they will continue to struggle.

These other airlines in Africa access loans at 2 per cent, 3 per cent and 4 per cent. I get my loans at 27 per cent from Fidelity Bank, how do I compete with them? Their countries cannot afford our airline to operate there more than one flight in a day because of their population. I cannot even go into Ethiopia at all because nobody from here goes to Ethiopia to do business; neither do you have Ethiopians do business here. But they can afford to come into our country five times a day. This does not favour Nigeria. So we have to regulate the number of times they come in order to create room for our own airlines.

But 23 countries have agreed to adopt the treaty and they will open their airspace and fully implement it?
No country gives blanket approval for whatever treaty they signed, no country does that. So SAATM does not favour Nigerian airlines as it stands today. Have the authorities bothered to find out the landing charges these other countries in Africa give to Nigerian airlines that are coming into their countries? Look at Abidjan (Cote de Ivoire), have they bothered to find out what their countries do for them in terms of charges? They are not paying the same charges as we do. In Ghana, AWA (African World Airlines) is not paying the same charges in their country as we do. So they can afford to crash their fares. We cannot afford to do so because when we get into their country they over charge us.

Why have we not started operation to Abidjan? Because they gave us something out of this world. They charged us $6000, to $7000 per landing. How many people are you carrying to justify paying such exorbitant charges? But when they come to Nigeria they pay peanuts. So why won’t they run out the Nigerian airlines? This is what we are saying. Air Peace is the biggest airline in West Africa for now. Asky is not bigger than Air Peace; Air Cote d’voire is not bigger than Air Peace. There is no airline in West Africa that is bigger than Air Peace. But we cannot compete even with those smaller airlines.What we are saying is that the area they will run us out of the market is on charges because they don’t pay the same charges as we do. We are over taxed here in Nigeria. For every passenger you bring into Cote d’lvoire you are paying about $100s or more than that. The total charges for a Nigerian airline in that country is about $7000. The aircraft is not even carrying up to $3000 so how can you succeed? That is why I have not started my Cote d’Ivoire route. And even the other ones like Senegal is the same thing.

So what our government can do for us is to call these other countries and urge them to streamline the charges first before they will allow full implementation of SAATM. I am not against SAATM, Air Peace is not against the Single African Market but it has to be streamlined to benefit everyone, so that we will not have a parasitic union with these African countries. It has to be symbiotic. Ethiopia for instance, does any airline in Nigeria go to Ethiopia? They don’t have anything to offer us, so they should regulate the number of times they come into our country and tell them if you want to do more key in with other Nigeria airlines.

In South Africa this is the way it is done, it is done like that in other countries. So why is our own different? Why are we killing our own industry? We need to provide jobs for Nigerians. The monies these airlines cart out of this country they use it to develop their own; while our people are left on the streets. There are many Nigerians who can invest in airport infrastructure; Bi-Courtney has proved that by setting up and employing Nigerians. When we invite foreigners to come and invest in certain sections of the economy, we have to look at what they will repatriate from the economy at the end of the day. And they usually come with certain conditions, so we have to be careful about SAATM.