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Following a four-year stint as Abuja Office Manager for EgyptAir between 2009 and 2013, when he succeeded in growing the airline’s frequency from two flights weekly to daily flights, Muharram Abdel Rahman has returned to Nigeria as General Manager overseeing EgyptAir’s affairs in Nigeria from Lagos. In this interview with Demola Ojo, he talks about the increasing trade and cooperation between Nigeria and Egypt, the airline’s special packages for Nigerian travellers, the forthcoming African Cup of Nations and more…
What is the relationship between EgyptAir and Nigeria?
Egypt and Nigeria share a very close relationship. There are several Nigerians studying in Egypt, others come for treatment and others for training in many of our aviation schools.
EgyptAir is one of the oldest airlines operating in Nigeria. We started flying from Cairo to Lagos in 1960, almost 60 years now. Can you imagine that?
EgyptAir was founded in 1932 and is the oldest airline in Africa and the the Middle East. We now fly to 80 destinations with a good fleet consisting of 79 aircraft.
In Nigeria we fly from three points: Kano, Abuja and Lagos, each one of them, five flights a week, making a total of 15 flights per week from Cairo to Nigeria. And we intend from next year to increase the frequency to 21 flights a week.
In future, we’re also looking at a fourth point to fly from Nigeria. We’re looking at either Enugu or Port Harcourt.
How has business been for EgyptAir in Nigeria so far?
Our market in Nigeria is divided into different segments. We give each one of them the attention it deserves.
We have a market for religious tourists. So for example, we target Christian pilgrims going to Tel Aviv. We have daily flights from Cairo to Tel Aviv. We are giving these tourists from Nigeria to Tel Aviv the opportunity to spend two days in Cairo and visit Coptic Christian museums and Christian sites in Egypt.
You know that the Holy Family stayed in Egypt for six years. So we have many monuments and a rich Christian history.
We also offer Christian pilgrims the opportunity to travel the Holy Family Road from Cairo to Jerusalem and to rest at the points where they rested.
Also for the Muslim pilgrims going to Medina or Jeddah, we have an offer where they can spend two days visiting Islamic sites in Cairo. For both sets of pilgrims, we have Greek monuments, pyramids, the Sphinx and many ancient Egyptian monuments they can visit.
Egypt is central to Christian and Muslim holy sites and the fastest way to connect these sites is through Cairo. Egypt is the centre of the world, which is why all the prophets passed through Egypt at some point.
A second segment is the medical tourist. We are offering Egyptian hospitals to Nigerians for them to get treatment. We have famous doctors in various fields and the prices are very affordable. Imagine you can have a full medical check for an amount equivalent to less than 200 USD.
You know, many famous doctors in Europe – London especially – are Egyptians. An example is Magdi Yacoub, a famous cardiothoracic surgeon. So instead of going to Europe and spend more money, you can get the same quality of medical attention in Egypt for less.
The third segment are students, especially from the north of Nigeria. Many students from Abuja and Kano study in Egyptian universities. We have American university, we have French university, we have German university, and many more universities and schools. And we are marketing these schools to Nigeria so that they can get high quality of education at comparatively low cost.
In addition to offering our schools in Egypt for Nigerian students, we know that Nigerian students go to Saudi Arabia, London and Toronto. These are the three main destinations for students. So now we are giving Nigerian students 25 per cent discount.
We’re also particular about training. Egypt Air has a training centre at Cairo Airport and we’re offering these services to Nigerian civil aviation authorities here. They can send their staff to Egypt and get good training.
For Nigerian traders going to Guangzhou, Beijing, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Bombay and other cities in Southeast Asia, we’re offering them a good product. You know they need to carry extra pieces of baggage, so we’re giving them unlimited extra pieces at a discount. For all these destinations, we have daily flights.
Which would you consider lucrative routes, both within and outside Nigeria?
All three points in Nigeria are important. From Kano especially, we have traders who need to go to Guangzhou. They also go to the Middle East, Jeddah and Medina for umrah and hajj.
Abuja is similar to Kano’s market but in addition, you have the diplomatic delegation, government officials and various organisations who travel to Egypt for research.
Here in Lagos, it’s a different market. You cannot narrow Lagos down to a particular market. You find different markets here in Lagos. You can target Middle East, you can target Far East, you can target Europe, you can target America. It’s a huge market here in Lagos.
Talking internationally, you have to understand that we’re a traditional airline like Air France, British Airways and the like, which means we do a lot of long haul flights like Cairo to New York, or Cairo to Guangzhou, or Cairo to Toronto. At the same time, we fly a lot of short and medium haul routes.
However, commercially, these long haul routes are not as profitable as the short haul flights. So for us at EgyptAir, we concentrate a lot on the Middle East, because it is just two or three hours from Cairo. We are increasing frequency to the Middle East because it gets us more profit.
So for example, we fly from Cairo to Beirut four times a day because it’s just an hour and a half away. So it’s profitable.
But to fly from Cairo to Guangzhou, I need two wide-body aircraft to cover this route, because while one leaves Cairo on a nine-hour flight, it will be another one that will leave Guangzhou for Cairo.
Operating daily flights on any long haul route will take at least two wide body aircraft which is more expensive to operate than the narrow body aircraft. But as a traditional airline, we have to operate both long haul and short haul.
With the African Cup of Nations due to hold in Egypt from June 21 to July 19, does Egypt Air have any special arrangements for Nigerian travellers?
For AFCON, we are giving special prices to tour operators, like Wakanow, Travelstart and others so that they can sell packages. These inclusive tours will include tickets, sightseeing, hotels, transportation and more. We’re giving these tour operators lower prices to enable them sell packages.
We’re also offering travellers 50 per cent discount on reservation charges because their return might be tied to how far the Super Eagles progress.
What advice do you have for tourists for them to get the best out of the destination?
Egypt is a wonderful country. I’m not saying this because it’s my country but because it’s a unique destination you cannot find elsewhere. It is a historical country.
Nigeria are lucky because they’re playing their group matches in Alexandria. Alexandria is a very historical city and was the capital of Egypt before Cairo. It is a cosmopolitan city where you can find many nationalities. You will enjoy it.
Alexandria is located by the Mediterranean Sea, so you find citizens of other countries by the Mediterranean in Alexandria; Greeks, Italians, Cypriots…
The famous Cleopatra ruled Egypt from Alexandria. It has Greek history, Roman history, Ptolemaic history, Christian history, Islamic history. In Alexandria, you have one of the oldest libraries in the world, along with many other attractions. The lighthouse in Alexandria was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
In other parts of Egypt, you can find Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada, seaside resort cities that people love to go. They are by the beautiful Red Sea coast.
The south of Egypt is famous for ancient pharaonic temples. You have Luxor (which the Greeks called Thebes), a pharaonic city where you find many temples and statues of pharaohs. So there’s so much for tourists to enjoy.
Egyptian people are very kind people. Nigerians will like Egyptian hospitality.
Are there any cultural similarities between both countries?
Nigeria and Egypt are very similar countries. Both of them are important hubs within Africa. Both also have significantly large populations. They are also very religious countries, with both Muslims and Christians in abundant numbers.
I don’t find it strange that I’m here, I feel like I’m in my country, because we have similarities in culture. And I hope that EgyptAir will strengthen the relationship between Egypt and Nigeria because there are many aspects of relationship between Egypt and Nigeria and we can help each other.
Now that you’re back in Nigeria but in a different city, what are your impressions of Lagos?
Lagos is like Cairo. If you’ve lived in Cairo, you can feel the similarities. Cairo is a highly populated city of about 20 million people, the same as Lagos. There’s also a lot of traffic.
Lagos is a very good market for me. You can find all segments of customers that we are targeting. I’m happy to be in Lagos in spite of the competition.
We have many Egyptian companies working in construction, IT and communications in Lagos.
I always tell Egyptians that Nigerians are kind people, that they’re not difficult to deal with. And now we’re encouraging Egyptian companies to invest here in Nigeria.
During the three to four months I’ve spent here, I noticed that many Egyptian companies are coming here looking for opportunities.
For example, at the end of this month, we have the Egyptian universities fair, which will be held in Abuja, Kano and here in Lagos. We’re also preparing for another fair for Egyptian industrial companies.
From my point of view, the movement has changed during the first time I was here from 2009 to 2013, and now. Many more Egyptian businessmen and corporates are investing, especially in Lagos.
This is due to the efforts of the Egyptian Embassy through His Excellency, Ambassador Assem Hanafi, and the Egyptian Commercial Service led by Muhammad Abdullah. They also help Nigerian businesses with information on Egypt.
While I earlier talked about passengers between both countries, I didn’t talk about cargo. We have very good movement of cargo, one flight a week from both Lagos and Kano and in future we plan to increase this to daily cargo flights to Lagos, because the volume of the trade between Egypt and Nigeria is good.