Onyema: Our International Operations Will Create more Jobs for Nigerians

Allen Onyema

The Chairman and CEO of Air Peace, Allen Onyema, in this interview said the airline’s foray into international destinations will create more jobs for the country, cut back capital flight and provide competitive fares for Nigerian travellers. He spoke after the successful inaugural flight of the airline to Dubai via Sharjah last Friday. Chinedu Eze who was there brings the excerpts:

The challenge to Nigerian airlines operating international routes is how to take passengers beyond certain points. Does Air Peace have code-share partner for your Dubai operation?
We have started our international operations into Sharjah and into UAE (United Arab Emirates) and we are not just doing Lagos-Sharjah alone, we are also doing every destination in Nigeria to Sharjah and Dubai. We have an agreement with SATA. They are the ones in charge of Air Arabia and some other airlines. So we have an agreement with SATA, with the consent of Air Arabia and others to act on their behalf as a middleman. So when we bring our passengers through SATA on to Air Arabia they will take them to the next destinations outside Sharjar, so that’s what it is. And it is a very seamless arrangement. So when we check you in, in Nigeria and, for example, if you are going to Jeddah, Mumbai, Medina, New Delhi and some other cities in India and of course even up to Moscow, we put you through SATA or Air Arabia to take you to the next destination. So, when you check in your luggage in Nigeria, you will get it at the next destination. Assuming we have connecting passengers, it is a straight connection, we don’t unburden the person’s luggage, we take it to the next flight. It is seamless arrangement. So, Air Peace is a one-stop shop for people travelling to some cities in Asia.

Now that you have started international flights and you have acquired long-haul aircraft, Boeing 777, what other destinations are you looking at?
Apart from Sharjah, you know the federal government of Nigeria has given us six destinations – Mumbai, Guangzhou, China, Atlanta, Houston (US), Heathrow (London) and Johannesburg (South Africa). We have started Sharjah (Dubai); the next to come in is Johannesburg. The Nigerian government was magnanimous to give us our destinations some three years ago. We have written to these countries since then but it took them a long time to respond to us. This is why I keep on talking about open sky in Africa, the Single Africa Air Travel Market (SAATM). Sometimes I say SAATM is a fraud against Nigeria because while our country keeps to the principles of SAATM, other countries that endorsed it have refused to abide by those principles for Nigerian airlines. We made requests to these countries but it took them three years to answer us. It was the Director-General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) that intervened on our behalf as we pilled pressure on those countries before they answered us. I remain grateful to NCAA and the federal government. So South Africa has given us the permit now for us to come in. They have audited Air Peace and they have found us okay to come into their country, so they have given us the permit to come. We have already started setting up our structures in Johannesburg. And at the same time we are looking for a partnering an airline in Johannesburg so that when we drop you in Johannesburg, our partner will take you to Cape Town, Durban Port Elizabeth and others cities and even beyond South Africa, to Lesotho and to some other neighbouring countries around. We are looking for partner airlines to do that. Air Peace does not just want to do Lagos to Johannesburg only, we want to be able to have these alliances with other airlines to be able to move Nigerians and the flying public seamlessly to destinations they will want to go. I believe that will help us to succeed in the long run. This is what our airlines were not doing before, so we are learning from that.

We are not going to start South Africa without having an agreement with a partner airline, which we are already very close to signing. So, we think we are going to start Johannesburg before August 30, 2019. And by then we must have signed an agreement with another partnering airline. After Johannesburg, the next in line is India, depending on what happens, we might be starting India and South Africa almost the same time or at most September by God’s Grace. The Indian community in Nigeria is yearning for Air Peace to come in. You must have heard from their Ambassador in Nigeria. They want a direct flight from Nigeria to India; so they are in the forefront, they are the one pushing and the federal government has designated Air Peace to that destination. The federal government even wrote them to support us. So I thank President Muhammadu Buhari for giving us that support. They have written the Indian government urging them to give us every support. We have even employed Chief Security for Air Peace because that is part of the Indian requirement. You must employ somebody who has been in their military or any of their forces as your chief security officer and he must be a citizen of India, we have already done that in India. They recommended somebody to us and he is highly placed. So we have done that, it is just some little more process remaining, so I am sure by God’s Grace at most second week of September Air Peace will be flying to Mumbai. And we are looking forward to discussing with Air India their national carrier, which has a better spread to be able to spread for us within India. And their government also is urging us to partner with Air India. In the near future and after we have succeeded in these first three international destinations, we would look at flying to Guangzhou. We planned to do international routes. When we started this airline we outlined our growth pattern and we have religiously followed it. So when Air Peace was importing one Boeing 777 after another and bringing them and keeping them at Lagos international airport, we were criticized.

We had to do so because if you wish to fly to China, for example, if you don’t have up to three long-haul aircraft they won’t give you the permit. So when we knew this, we went to China to present our papers and the Nigerian Ambassador in China cooperated with us, he really offered a lot of help to us. And that gave me hope because we came from a country called Nigeria. The man took us like his brothers and took us everywhere we needed to go and helped us and made it very easy for us. That is why I believe that the government of Present Mohammadu Buhari is very eager to change the economic narrative of Nigeria. He is very eager to support indigenous investment.

We pray that other people, all the civil servants and appointees should also imbibe the vision of the President and everything will be okay. When we went to Beijing, we were given utmost cooperation. The Nigerian Ambassador did everything possible to make it easy for Air Peace. But as at that time our third plane had not arrived. You see, before they give you permit, you must show them the registration of your three aircraft, either by way of dry lease or outright purchase. And most importantly in the outright purchase they prefer that you own it before they can give you permit. So we went about trying to equip Air Peace in such a way that we won’t go out there in the international arena and not be able to face competition.

Now, let me tell you, if Air Peace did not buy the number of aircraft we bought, on Friday, July 5, we would have disappointed Nigerians. We dropped the first aircraft we wanted to use because at 2:00 pm the previous day, a snag showed up, these are man-made machines, but assuming we had only one aircraft, that flight would have been cancelled. You know what that would have done. We were sweating, but because we had backup, we rolled out our Boeing 777-300, which even had more capacity and opened it up and within hours people were boarding it. So if we didn’t have that capacity we wouldn’t have been able to operate. So, that is why we acquired more aircraft and we are still acquiring. There are two more that are about to come because we really want to make Nigeria proud. God willing before the end of this year Air Peace will own six Boeing 777.
Many national carriers in Africa are approaching Air Peace to give them aircraft. We want to give some of them planes, we have signed the agreement already sooner or later you will see it. I am sure the authorities know because they have visited Nigeria already.

Would you want to partner with another African airline to go to the US?
Yes, a major African airline approached us; there was negotiation for us to have professional partnership. In aviation all over the world, there is always partnership, but the issue is what kind of partnership it is. I am a nationalist and I have even been given award on it before. I believe in the country and I believe that if everything is well done, Nigerians will not have any cause to regret being citizens of the country. And I am always calling for everybody, in your small space to do things that would not short change the country. Now, about the interlining or agreement or partnership with another airline you talked about, it is true we were approached; it is true we agreed to have partnership, it is true that we even went to sign a MoU with the airline. That was MoU that will precede the real agreement. But when it got to the real agreement Air Peace disagreed. We don’t want to be receiving royalties from any airline even though it will enrich our purse without us flying, even though it will make us have more money without flying, it is going to make us richer but where does that leave the employees of Nigeria? Where does that leave numerous Nigerians that are unemployed roaming the streets when I am taking royalties from another airline flying in my name to that country and I will remain behind collecting money, am not caring because I am collecting money?
We wrote them and I said I will not short-change my country, that I will not accept it. I will not allow anything that will make another country to come here and be flying in the name of any airline and there is capital flight out of Nigeria, which is not generating jobs for Nigerians. Even though it is going to favour us, it does not favour the Nigerian public. I lead by example. I have been criticising such things and when it came to my table for me to take raw money, I rejected it and I have a letter to it. So I am waiting for anybody to come and do it and I will bring my letter for Nigerians to see that I rejected this before. So if I want to do partnership, I want it to be a level-playing partnership whereby we do it in such a way that it will benefit our country. Anything that will not benefit Nigeria and the Nigerian unemployed masses, I will not accept it.

So for me to do that kind of partnership to the US, Air Peace must first of all have the landing permit in the US on its own as an airline. Then when we start flying to the US then you can now bring in another airline. But anything other than that is an aberration. Nigeria is too big for that kind of negotiation; it is too big for that kind of thing.

How do you intend to combat aero politics with your international operations because your competitors may want to drive you out of the market through various strategies?
Let me make this clear, Air Peace will never be able to combat international aero politics without the support of the government. We can only combat it if our government supports us. It is a shame that several Nigeria airlines have come here (Dubai) and they were pushed out either through unfair competition or some arm-twisting tactics, it is very unfair. The only plan we have is the plan of sustainability, to sustain our operations to the best of our abilities. That is so far as we can go, if we are not supported. So, Air Peace needs the support of everybody.

We gathered that an airline from UAE wants to increase its frequency to Nigeria. If government allows that it will count against its indigenous carrier. Like in other countries, the first obligation of government is to protect its own. In the past, government officials will say Nigerian airlines don’t have capacity, but I am sure they cannot say that against Air Peace now. If they give them another frequency they will make it uncompetitive for us and that will force us to close this route and I will let Nigerians know why I closed the route. So, let us think of Nigeria first. Air Peace can only stay here as long as we are protected by our government.

We have BASA (Bilateral Air Service Agreement) with UAE. It is a country we love so much. We have BASA with them, Etihad is coming to Nigeria, Emirates is doing two frequencies into Lagos, one frequency to Abuja, this is the only time that a Nigeria airline is coming so we should be allowed to be. Air Peace is energising the economy of our country; Air Peace is acting as a catalyst, an airline doing about 110 flights daily, moving Nigerians around in the economy. That airline should be supported.

As you start operations to Dubai, India and Johannesburg, what will be the number of workers you will need and what will be the projected number of workers you will employ?

You don’t want to know the kind of employment Air Peace has generated in the last four years. We have generated over 3,000 direct workers; over 9,000 ancillary jobs, even the people doing catering, the other day I went there, I saw about 500 people working in the factory. That factory is filled up with Air Peace stuff. These people are employed because of Air Peace, because they are the ones doing 110 flights daily. It is because of that these 500 people were given jobs. I shed tears, and my tears were born from the fact that some people in government agencies do not share in the same dream as even the President of this country. The President and I share the dream of creating more jobs for Nigerians.

We want to create an enabling environment; we want to create the platform for people. There are some people that have not seen N500 in the last three weeks. There are many Nigerians out there that cannot even eat for a day. These are the people we are picking. When you go to Air Peace counters, you will see that some people are like village people. Are we going to leave those ones to die because of where they come from? They are not polished. I have so many of them from the north; I have so many from the west, and from the east. We are changing the dynamics. Some of these people we employed after two years they become better human beings. Those are the people we are fighting for. The truth is, if we are not protected by the government in our international operations, we will not last, no matter what we try to do. Government must discourage unfair competition; the American government did the same thing for their airlines. The Gulf airlines brought unfair competition, the airlines in America complained and the American government stepped in and that stopped. Multiple and proliferation of designations to foreign airlines into Nigeria, multiple frequencies are disservice Nigeria. I don’t see why a foreign airline, when we are trying to make our own airlines grow, be allowed to be doing local flights in the name of open skies.

I don’t see the reason why Turkish Airline should land in Abuja, from Abuja to Port Harcourt, Port Harcourt back to Abuja, Abuja back to their country. This is when you have Nigerian airlines aspiring to come onto the international scene. When you talk some people will tell you it is good for competition. Competing with who? Competing in denigrating your country’s economy? Is that what you are competing with? Again, and at the same time, the President of the country, I can assure you, wants the survival of indigenous airlines, that I can swear to and I know why I said this.

That is why it didn’t take him anything to remove VAT, remove import duties, which helped us today to be buying planes. If we were to be paying duties, we might not be able to buy the planes we are buying. So I thank President Muhammadu Buhari for doing that, I am very grateful to him. When somebody does something good let us praise him and when somebody does something bad, let us find a way of correcting the person with love. On this he has done everything possible to improve our situation as airlines. But we beg others to emulate him; the President cannot be everywhere; so they should help in carrying the vision of this President. We should stop giving multiple designations to foreign airlines. Let me tell you about America, even with your private jet, when you land in America, they only allow you one more stop. If you land in New York and you want to go to Atlanta, they say okay, they take it, as you want to refuel. The next one you are not allowed to fly again, you must use their local airlines to move about, then when you come you take your plane out of their country. When you protect Nigerian airlines and they thrive, they create jobs. If people have jobs, you won’t have Boko Haram. If people have jobs; maybe, we won’t have militancy or kidnapping or others. Let us begin to engage Nigerians meaningfully by giving them jobs. And it is not for government alone to create jobs; the citizenry must also help the government to create jobs. The private sector only need the enabling environment to create more jobs; that is what Air Peace is doing.

If government continues to encourage us we will grow and be able to create more jobs. This will be good for Nigeria. The more the airlines come up, the more jobs they provide for Nigerian people. The sky is too big for all of us, if two airlines are doing UAE from here, two more airlines can do it from Nigeria also. But if we don’t give opportunity for airlines in Nigeria to survive, they would continue complaining that airlines are not strong, and it hurts me. It hurts me when they say our airlines are not strong, that they are indebted. I am not indebted, but even if we are, we are servicing our debt.

How are you connecting other airports to your international service?
That is what we are doing now. We are taking passengers from every part of the country, using our local flights. Today, we had people who checked in from Abuja, Kano, and other cities in Nigeria. And we checked them in from the airport closets to them. When they get to Lagos we put them on our buses. It was seamless. We also gave them rebate. You know if you fly another airline outside Air Peace to UAE or to anywhere, you pay domestic airline to take you to Abuja or Lagos where you will connect the international airline that will take you out of the country. So we save you money. We can save you as much as N80, 000 for a return ticket in a domestic flight to and from your international trip with other airlines.

When you fly with Air Peace we will take you from where you land. Once you clear with customs we pick your luggage. We take it and take you to our awaiting place. Like today when they landed people were saying they have never seen a thing like that. That is so good. So, we are spreading our tentacles to other parts of the country.
What we are doing is the best we can do. And when they say the airport in Lagos in congested, there are lands there, we can open up the place, build more aprons. If any airline is ready, let them give land to the airline to build the apron and manage it and they will be taking their taxes. After all, all over the world you see airlines owning some things at the airport, so they can give us. That is the enabling environment we are talking about.
FAAN (The Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria) can decide to give Air Peace a piece of land without charging us and when we develop the facility they will be collecting their charges. We can seek the support of our banks to help us.

Would you want to get more airplanes on lease to meet your passenger demand in the near future?
Yes, but now there is an unofficial blacklist of Nigeria airlines. I can tell you for sure, it exists. We lost about 10 aircraft we wanted to acquire through leasing. You cannot survive in this business without leasing; even all these big airlines we know in the world, majority of their planes are leased or financed. So we need leasing and the only way we can do that is to start polishing our acts. And the government will also have to do a kind of image laundering that things have changed. Any government official tomorrow that goes out to say our airlines in Nigeria are bad, talking about us in the negatives, will not help our image. It will affect not only the airlines but other sectors of the economy. This is what Air Peace is trying to change.

Can we know the number of passengers during your inaugural flight? And also the Nigerian Ambassador to UAE said if you keep to time in your operations, in six months you will raise your market share. Do you think you can keep to that time?
We can keep to time, although we didn’t keep to time yesterday but it was deliberate because of the events in Sharjah. They called on us to delay our flight because if we had left by 6:00 pm we would have arrived 5:00 am. And being a non-working day here they didn’t want to have us that early. And their Sheikh died, that is why you didn’t see water salute, they scaled down the ceremony. So they asked us to delay, so while we were in Lagos they were communicating. So on the international scene, we have the equipment and you know we just started, we didn’t want to grab everything at the same time that is why we staggered it, so we learn our ropes and build on that before we go daily.

For now, three times a week flight is good. It gives us time to fly, review what we did the previous day. And we have seen some things, we were not perfect, we have seen some things that we should have done better, those things are being corrected. And they are not things bordering on safety; they are things bordering on food, catering and all that. So those ones will be attended to as quickly as possible. You talked about load factor. You saw it for yourself. Out of about 316 passengers or thereabout, we had 274 paying passengers, so about 30 plus were non-revenue passengers. The aircraft is a 364-seater plane.