Akwa Ibom: Sustaining State Owned Airline

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Last week the government of Akwa Ibom state unveiled an airline, Ibom Air. Chinedu Eze writes that while the new carrier would create jobs for the people, there is worry about its sustenance

Last week the government of Akwa Ibom state celebrated the arrival of three aircraft for the kick off of the state owned airline, Ibom Airline. As at Wednesday last week, two aircraft, Bombardier CRJ 900 had already arrived the state built airport, Victor Atta International Airport, Uyo, with another that arrived this Tuesday.

The arrival of the aircraft was the actualisation of a dream that started about three years ago, almost at the same time the planned national carrier, Nigeria Air, started. Ironically, Akwa Ibom delivered its own airline, while the federal government decided to suspend its plan indefinitely. But that goes to show that it is not easy to establish an airline, especially in Nigeria where almost everything is sourced from overseas—technical support, maintenance and training.

Ibom Air is a child of vision, which started several years ago when the former governor of the state, Obong Victor Attah decided to go into aviation. In his conception, he wanted to build an airport, an airline, establish maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility and build aviation hub in the state.

Spurred by the desire to create jobs for his people, he wanted Akwa Ibom citizens become high bred human resource in aviation who are usually sought after all over the world as pilots, aeronautical engineers, schedulers and others. He did not fully actualise his dream before the end of his tenure. Admittedly, some aspects of that vision suffered a lull under Godswill Akpabio as governor, but credit must go to the latter for the completion of the airport, which received the first commercial aircraft, Arik Air flight under his tenure.

Renewed Efforts
When the current governor, Udom Emmanuel took over from Akpabio, he dusted the blueprint of Attah’s aviation development plan and decided to complete it. In 2016 the government started the plan to establish an airline. It allowed it to be private sector driven and as a professional in his own field, Emmanuel got two major Nigerian banks involved in the project and recruited aviation experts to midwife the project.

They worked assiduously to realise the project and as the Governor promised, the airline has become operational. The state government would now go back to complete the MRO facility which is at advanced stage. With its completion, it would become a huge revenue earner for government. What are currently lacking in Nigeria are a comprehensive aircraft maintenance facility and the attendant technical expertise that can conduct high-level maintenance on single isle and double isle aircraft up to D check.

Nigeria loses about N20 billion on capital flight annually on overseas aircraft maintenance and manpower training. So having such facility in the country would be a welcome development and a huge relief for domestic airlines and others in the West African sub-region.

Unveiling Ibom Air
At the unveiling of the airline, Emmanuel said the state aims to create thousands of direct and indirect jobs with the airline and enhance the acquisition of advanced skills by the people of the state who would benefit from aeronautical training as pilots, engineers, cabin crew and others.

The aircraft were unveiled by the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki at the Uyo airport.
The Senate President said he was happy for being part of the historic event created by the state government, which was not just about to celebrate tourism and aviation but also a historic event for sons, daughters and government of Akwa Ibom State.

Governor Emmanuel while speaking said the airline was a monumental achievement of his administration saying the aircraft, which are about six years and configured to 90 passenger capacity were leased from a lessor that had agreement to deliver 10 aircraft type for Ibom Air.

He noted that Akwa Ibom is the only state in the country to run a state owned airport and run an airline, adding that the government is running Ibom Air as a business.

The governor explained that the Ibom airline would operate routes that would give preference to Akwa Ibom people, and that the government would soon launch one of the best terminal buildings in the country.

According to Governor Emmanuel, the investment in the aviation sector is part of the plans to focus development of the state economy on land, air and water, noting that so far, the state government has constructed over 1,000 kilometers of roads across the state while plan to construct the most digital seaport, the Ibom Deep Seaport in the state is on-going.

“The launching of Ibom Air is a monumental achievement in Akwa Ibom state and indeed Africa. The journey to achieve Ibom airline started in 2016 and today, it is a reality. I want to charge my people that we can achieve a lot if we come together. This is the only state across the country that runs and operates an international airport. We are the only state that runs a category two runway.

“I want to reassure the former governor, Obong Victor Attah that very soon the MRO will be a place that will maintain fleets of aircraft across the country. We are running Ibom Air as a business, paying particular attention to Akwa Ibom people.” he said.

Former governor of the state and initiator of the airport project, Obong Attah, lauded the governor for carrying on the project he started, adding that he was happy that the governor was running the state as a business.

“I thank God that we have Governor Udom Emmanuel who has deemed it necessary to carry on the project we started years ago. I was accused of running the government as a business but I am happy that Udom Emmanuel is running the government as a business. Today we have in front of us the beginning of something that will bring economic development to the state.” he said.

The Chairman, Ibom Air, Idongesit Nkanga, said with the launch of the aircraft, the state governor has shocked critics with his managerial prowess. The two aircraft that arrived that Wednesday had registration numbers C-FWNL and C-FWNK. They were leased from Canada’s Avmax Aircraft Leasing.

Success of Ibom Air

The Technical Consultant of Ibom Air, Mfon Udom gave credit to Governor Emmanuel for the project which he reiterated commenced three years ago, noting that successful airlines across the world have been run by governments, disclosing that the third aircraft would arrive two days later, on Friday. He said another aircraft would be delivered in August, three others in 2020 and 2021 respectively, which would make it 10 aircraft in the next two years from 2019.

“The project commenced about three years ago and has been made possible by the governor. The Governor came up with the drive and we carried it out. Ibom Air is one of the vehicles to drive Akwa Ibom economy and the state will benefit immensely from this.

Future of the Airline
Many Nigerians are happy that a state government was able to establish an airline, but some are anxious about the future of the state carrier. They ask: will it outlive the tenure of Udom Emmanuel? What are the factors put in place to ensure it has longevity and how is the company going to be run?
A source told THISDAY the future of Ibom Air is guaranteed because “the airline is a key element of Governor Udom Emmanuel’s economic development plan for the State.”

According to the source, to leverage off the comparatively good infrastructure already in place, the Governor launched an ‘Industrialisation Program’ and a ‘Visitors Program’ (to drive tourism).

“The idea of the ‘Visitors Program’ is to intensely market the state as the ideal destination for all sporting, social and corporate events, while also offering superior leisure activities. Ibom Air is here to provide the much needed capacity as well as ease of access into Akwa Ibom to facilitate both the Visitors and Industrialization Programs.

“Ibom Air is also the critical third leg of the tripod of major investments by the State Government in a world-class airport (still the best in the country) and a world class Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility. With the airline now in place, the airport becomes hugely more viable, the MRO facility gets activated and Akwa Ibom State is well positioned to become the ‘centre of excellence’ in the air transport industry in Nigeria,” the source said.

He also explained that because of the capital-intensive nature of the airline business, the process of setting up Ibom Air has been meticulous and professional.

“The Governor, being a high level corporate player himself, relied on the expertise of top notch professional consultants (local and international) to prepare a comprehensive business plan and financial model for the airline.

“Thus, everything from the choice of equipment all the way to the airline’s business model stemmed from this business plan. It is not far-fetched to suggest that the process of establishing Ibom Air will become a case study in ‘how to start an airline’ in Nigeria. The airline is set up to quickly become the ‘go to’ airline for air travel within Nigeria and the Region,” he said.

The ource also explained that the carefully put together business plan of Ibom Air, took into consideration the history of the local airline industry and all the pitfalls and leanings therefrom. He noted that though the Akwa Ibom State Government is the airline’s shareholder, the business model of the airline is as a purely private enterprise, employing top notch and tested professionals working within a world-class airline culture and unencumbered by ‘interference’ from the State Government.

Another inside source involved in the technical details of the airline spoke in the same vein, saying, “Ordinarily, what I have seen so far is that the state is enthusiastic about the project. They put together aviation experts to start the airline.

“If it continues this way Ibom Air will succeed. Two major banks are supporting it. If another governor comes and supports the project, it will succeed. The state government has no control in the running of the airline. Only one person representing the government is on the board,” the source said.

By making the management of Ibom Air independent from the state government interferences, it is likely that it would even succeed better than privately owned commercial airlines.