Nigeria’s leading carrier, Air Peace, appears fully poised to etch the nation’s name in the map of the very competitive global aviation market, writes Segun Adekunle
After months of painstaking planning and equipment testing, Air Peace will on Friday, July 5, 2019 commence scheduled flight operations to Sharjah International Airport in the United Arab Emirates. With the commencement of operations on this route, Air Peace would be offering travelers from Nigeria the rare opportunity of connecting 23 other destinations from the United Arab Emirates at a very pocket-friendly cost. The destinations that could easily be connected from Sharjah international airport include: Riyadh, Medina, Jeddah, Beirut, Delhi, Colombo, Dhaka, Mumbai, Kathmandu, Moscow and several others.
Air Peace currently operates scheduled regional flights to Accra (Ghana), Banjul (Gambia), Freetown (Sierra Leone), Dakar (Senegal) and Monrovia (Liberia).
For its long-haul flights, Air Peace has confirmed that it will be deploying its B777 wide body aircraft. The airline recently acquired four B777 aircraft and has since taken delivery of three of them. In fact, local travelers in Nigeria recently had a foretaste of the incredibly comfortable B777 jets when the airline briefly deployed them to a few local routes on test-run. The management of Air Peace has also announced that Dubai, Johannesburg, London, Houston, Guangzhou and Mumbai will join the airline’s international route network soon after the launch of the Sharjah service.
Barrister Allen Onyema, the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Air Peace, asserts that the airline’s international services would give Nigeria and West Africa a sense of pride in the global aviation industry. “Just this year, we launched a number of domestic and regional routes under our no-city-left-behind project on the platform of our subsidiary, Air Peace Hopper. We also made history as the first domestic airline to acquire and register the Boeing 777 aircraft in Nigeria. We also successfully renewed our International Air Transport Association Operational Safety Audit Certificate and Air Operator Certificate after a very rigorous process. We also diversified the aircraft in our fleet with the inclusion of six 50-seater Embraer 145 jets“, Onyema disclosed.
But how prepared is Air Peace to take on the humungous task of operating international long-haul flights? While admitting that he is aware that the challenges would be daunting, Onyema, however, insists that Air Peace is very prepared to ride the storm.
“Before you go into any business, you need to study the business and the environment. You have to know the airline business, for example, is a risky one. What are the factors that have made many airlines in Nigeria to fall by the way side? You really need to know where you are coming from; where the other airlines are coming from and what has been responsible for their failure. All these we did before we decided on the route to take. We knew that most of the problems with Nigerian airlines in the past involved the lack of capacity, and not having enough planes to meet the demand of the teeming flying population. Again, you don’t have any Nigerian airline succeeding on the international scene. So, from the outset, we started with seven aircraft and we have never stopped buying aircraft. At every point in time, we know that when we increase our capacity, it would make us to compete favorably,” the Air Peace chairman enthused.
Onyema revealed that Air Peace draws strength from the very strong support it continues to receive from its bank. “Our bank, Fidelity Bank, has been very supportive, and it is because we pay back our loans. That has helped us to increase our fleet to satisfy the flying public and compete favourably. We have not stopped buying planes.” He said the airline’s driving force is to disprove the notion that Nigeria is a failure in the global airline industry. “We have decided to make the difference. We want to prove that we are different and that we are a very resilient people in Nigeria. We have very resourceful people. They have not been given that opportunity to rise; we are also contending with international aviation politics that is trying to bring Nigerian airlines down. So, we decided to do things differently, both in the way we run our affairs and in the way we expand. We decided to acquire the single-aisle planes for our domestic operations and we have acquired the wide-body planes for our international long-haul flights,” Onyema added.
Aviation experts in the country are, however, piqued that in spite of the best efforts of Air Peace, the airline appears to be contending with very toxic local politics. All over the world, national governments protect and guard jealously, the brands of their leading carriers. In Nigeria, however, the reverse seems to be the case, especially regarding Air Peace. In fact, so extreme are some of the measures against Air Peace by organs of government that operators in the sensitive sector are beginning to wonder if there is an organised conspiracy to halt the growth of this airline that is currently providing gainful employment for thousands of Nigerians.
Series of potentially injurious measures have severally been meted out to Air Peace by regulatory authorities but a few of such actions in recent times clearly stand out and are deservedly being widely condemned by industry experts. One in question is a recent press statement by Nigeria’s Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB), which curiously accused Air Peace of concealing serious incidents that involved two of its aircraft between December 2018 and May 2019, thereby preventing it from carrying out thorough investigations on them in order to prevent reoccurrence.
The management of Air Peace as well as seasoned operators in the nation’s aviation industry that are familiar with the incidents, have since fundamentally disagreed with AIB’s claims that the two occurrences it cited in the press statement were “very serious” warranting such a public opprobrium. They also affirmed that it is not true, as claimed by the AIB, that the two incidents were not reported to the appropriate authorities as at when due.
On its part, the management of Air Peace gave detailed explanations on the two incidents referred to by the AIB. The airline said that on the night of May 15, 2019, an Air Peace Boeing 737-300 aircraft with registration number 5N-BUK made a hard landing in Lagos on account of sudden change in weather at the point of touch down. “However, the AIB grossly misrepresented the facts when it alluded that the airline only reported the incident, after the Bureau’s team visited its corporate headquarters in Lagos on June 6, 2019, which was about three weeks after the incident. Contrary to the press statement issued by the AIB, Air Peace duly notified the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) of the incident on May 16, 2019, before it followed up with a written communication and subsequently filed a Mandatory Occurrence Report (MOR) on May 17, 2019, with reference number APL/QM/279/19,” Air Peace management disclosed in a rebuttal.
It has since been confirmed that the said MOR filed by the airline was received and signed for by the NCAA on the same date. The airline complied with the statutory time-line for the filing of MOR, credible aviation sources corroborated.
The management of Air Peace decried this “deliberate misrepresentation of facts” by the AIB, and questioned the motive behind the press statement. “Was the press statement intended to scare the flying public against an airline that has consistently demonstrated zero tolerance for unsafe practices?” it queried.
The second incident referred to by the AIB was a revisit of an incident, which occurred on December 14, 2018, in an Air Peace aircraft en route Enugu Airport, during which oxygen masks were automatically deployed as a result of change in cabin pressure. The airline has since explained that matters related to masks dropping during flight is not peculiar to Air Peace, but common to airlines the world over.
However, Ifeanyi Ozoka, a former Director-General of AIB who also once served as the Rector of Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria, insists that the AIB’s press statement on Air Peace is unprecedented, unheard of in the industry and far from being altruistic. Ozoka argues, in a statement he issued on the matter recently, that AIB unduly targeted Air Peace and as a result did more harm than good to the nation’s fledgling aviation sector.
He said: “After carefully reading AIB’s statement and as a concerned Nigerian, I have the following observations and comments on the matter: The damage assessment by AIB did not reveal that an accident or serious incident occurred as Hard Landing does not equate to an accident or serious incident. According to AIB, the nature of the damage suggests a high probability of an accident but it is difficult to see how such a conclusion can be reached when a thorough investigation was not carried out. Accident investigation is a pain-staking research work which follows a whole process involving the gathering and analysis of information, the drawing of conclusions after determination of cause(s), and making safety recommendations.”
Ozoka contends that given that the aircraft (B737-300 with registration 5N-BUK) is on ground awaiting hard landing inspection, that is, the aircraft is not operating at the moment, it is difficult to see what wrong Air Peace has committed. “If, according to the airline, a Mandatory Occurrence Report (MOR) was filed with the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) in writing on May 17, 2019 after a notification was made on May 16, 2019 i.e. within two days of the incidents; the NCAA should confirm whether this assertion is true, and if so confirmed, Air Peace has done no wrong,” Ozoka insists.
With regards to Air Peace’s B737-300 aircraft with registration 5N-BUO, he argues that a malfunctioning Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) does not equate to an accident or serious incident and does not ‘make’ an accident.
“The assertion that Air Peace lacks full understanding of AIB’s statutory mandates, functions and procedures does not derive from any investigation with recommendations and such a conclusion can therefore not be reached. So far, no accidents or serious incidents were shown to have occurred in the publication by AIB. If, by chance, Air Peace, which is unarguably the leading airline in Nigeria lacks full understanding of AIB’s mandates etc, then it will be very safe to conclude that other airlines in the country equally lack this ‘full understanding’. The AIB should therefore take appropriate action to brief and educate all airlines in the country on such requirements for the wellbeing of the sector as AIB plays a critical role in aviation safety,” Ozoka further contends.
It is the view of Ozoka that the AIB may well have other reasons for the allegation of wrong doing against Air Peace but opines that the bureau did not say so in the press statement. “In my very candid opinion, and deriving from the information by AIB in the press statement, neither ICAO nor NCAA rules and regulations were breached by Air Peace and it is not clear which aspects of AIB’s mandate and procedures, which should be in alignment with ICAO Annex 13, were breached. Most of the issues in the press statement are under the purview of the NCAA and it is believed that they are alive to their responsibility as the blame did not originate from them. Certainly, NCAA will not make such press release because the Agency understands the industry and does not need to shout to lead,” the former AIB Chief avers, adding that “we should be mindful of what we publish for the whole world to see so as not to be looked down upon and so that the competences of our professionals are not in doubt. In this way, no bias will be imputed. That press statement is not in consonance with ICAO Annex 13 and certainly, not in the best interest of Nigeria. This type of press release is unknown to aviation. A very professional AIB will be a source of pride, and a blessing to Nigeria and the world, and we must all support it towards this goal.”
Sources close to Air Peace also readily recounts that when the airline’s third B777 aircraft was coming into the country, the Federal Aviation Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), for a while, prevented it from landing, claiming that there was no space in the airport terminal for the jet. “The pilots had flown 15 hours from Dallas, USA, and for about 30 minutes they were hovering, they were prevented from landing in the international apron where officials of Air Peace and aviation correspondents for major media organisations in the country were waiting. It is unheard of; the belief was that the airport authorities would be in joyous mood to receive the wide-body jet. The pilots were so disappointed in our system that they almost did not want to come down when they were eventually allowed to land”, the source said. Even then, when Air Peace decided to briefly showcase the B777 jets during the last Easter holiday season, the aviation authorities halted this even after over 600 tickets had been sold to enthusiastic travelers on the designated local routes.
It was similarly learnt that when Air Peace brought into the country its six new Embraer jets, the airline was prevented from flying or deploying the jets to designated routes for over six months. “They were giving all sorts of excuses but of course eventually, prominent officials of the Federal Government intervened and the requisite permissions were given. It is now a well-known fact that Air Peace airline is unduly being targeted by some big interests in Nigeria’s aviation sector and this, of course is not good for the country,” another key operator in the nation’s aviation sector confided.
Interestingly, Onyema, is not fazed. The chronic optimist is brimming with enthusiasm as he leads the very profound Air Peace team to perfect plans for the launch of the maiden long-haul flight to Sharjah, on Friday, July 5, 2019. “A critical point underpinning our international operations is our resolve to market Nigeria to the world. We are totally capable and determined to do that. We invite Nigerians to come and patronise their own. We know some forces are trying to run us down.
Everything is set to give this country what it deserves on the international route, both in fare and the equipment (plane) we will be using. We are using the beautiful Boeing 777 planes which even the legacy carriers will be proud of. We are also conscious of the fact that an aggressive fleet expansion is needed to plug the holes and compete favourably on the international scene. And there is no looking back”, Onyema added.