THE COURAGE TO FLY
Nigeria’s only state-owned airline, Ibom Air, has made significant impact in the aviation sector, writes Anietie Usen
His endorsement was heavyweight. It took many by surprise. Never known for flattering any man or organization, Ray Ekpu, a globally respected Nigerian journalist and critic, dedicated his column in The Guardian, a leading Nigerian newspaper of August 16, 2022, to Ibom Air. Titled Ibom Air: The Triumph Over Naysayism, the legendary journalist said: “(Governor Udom) Emmanuel must be given a standing ovation for the courage in establishing a wholly government owned and managed airline. He walked on the path that no one had dared before him by elongating the vision of his two predecessors with the improvement of facilities at the airport and the establishment of Ibom Air”.
The iconic journalist who has played pivotal role in the growth of journalism in Nigeria, was however three years behind his protégée, Anietie Usen, a multiple award winning journalist and technocrat, whose equally independent assessment of the airline within two weeks of operations on June 23, 2019, went viral and drew tremendous attention to the airline right from infancy. It was the first independent review of Ibom Air. It rankled many opposition leaders, who considered it too frank for comfort.
An award-winning author, Usen wrote about a “very fresh and refreshing” experience flying Ibom Air. He wrote about the ‘incredible schedule reliability’ of the new Airline as ‘very unNigerian’. He wrote about the dexterity of the crew, from the cockpit to the cabin, which guaranteed ‘very smooth take off, very smooth flight and very smooth landing”. His conclusion was explicit, express, and specific. “With Ibom Air you can sleep from takeoff to landing, feeling fresh, rested and ready to work on arrival”.
Without doubt this is the true story of Ibom Air today. Three years into the business of making money in the air and despite the rising turbulence in the economic weather of Nigeria, Ibom Air has become the airline of choice and the true pride of not just Akwa Ibom people, but all Nigerian and foreign flyers who value quality and world
aviation services. That’s not altogether surprising, according to one frequent flyer in Ibom Air, Mazi Benjamin Ukonu, a businessman, because ‘when it comes to quality service, whether at the high or low places, Akwa Ibom people have no good second’.
If it is true, as John Milton said in his book Paradise Regained, that “the childhood shows the man, as morning shows the day”, three years is therefore a sufficient time frame for performance evaluation of Ibom Air, especially as Akwa Ibom State, its owners, on November 22, 2022, added two brand new A320 Airbus to its fleet. The A320 can carry 180 passengers each. The timely addition makes business sense as the Yuletide season approaches and the Airline is warming up to go international.
On the surface, records show that Ibom Air with seven aircraft in its fleet before now, has as at July 31, 2022 operated 23, 630 flights, carried 1, 708,439 passengers and taken on routes in Nigeria. Investigations carried out by Ekpu and published recently in The Guardian confirms that “Ibom Air has given direct employment to 540 persons and indirect employment to thousands of other people such as caterers, transporters, sellers of all kinds of goods and of all kinds of services. Last year, the airline’s schedule reliability was put at 94% and the average on-time performance was 95%. It now has an in-flight magazine called Fulcrum and a frequent flyer programme with three membership tiers namely, green, orange and top flyer. The airline has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the acquisition of 10 additional airbuses for its operations”.
In Ibom air, flyers are virtually pampered and treated as very important guests, as they check in to board and hit the air. Those little care combined with reliable schedules has made Ibom Air a darling airline of choice for frequent flyers in all routes of the airline. “It is entirely a new experience. We didn’t even know that the flying public was hungry and waiting for those subtle niceties we provide as a caring airline and they simply descended on us”, Imo-Abasi Jacob, a chartered accountant and chairman of Ibom Airlines Limited told this reporter.
As Ibom Air consistently continues to delight travelers with the three-tier operational philosophy of on-time departure, scheduled reliability and service efficiency, Jacob said the business bloomed. “Our numbers are up, we are always fully booked…I am going to Lagos tomorrow and I couldn’t even get a seat…just praying now for a passenger who may not be traveling again to drop, so that I can get a seat…It’s good business and ran purely as business…No preferences even for me as the Chairman or any government official. I have to queue online or offline and buy tickets like every passenger we carry…”
Although Jacob would not tell this reporter the Airline bank balances, he said Ibom Air recorded a 242% increase in revenue in 2021, “which clearly indicates that our journey to profitability and break even zone is within reach in the not too distant future”. That profitability zone is anchored on the 10-brand new Airbus A220 aircraft which the airline already placed an order for during the Dubai Airshow in November 2021. The new aircraft are expected in 2023 and beyond.
The impact of Ibom Air in the Nigerian aviation industry is significant. Recently it single handedly countered the position of the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) on the latter’s decision to suspend flight operations over the hike in the price of fuel. A terse business-like statement issued by Ibom Air was all it took for AON to back out from the planned strike. In the statement Ibom argued convincingly that its business model does not accommodate strikes. Said the statement: “Ibom Air acknowledges the existential threat that these runaway fuel price increases pose for the air transport industry in Nigeria. We agree that this out-of-control situation is simply unsustainable. However, every airline has its unique business model and pressures. We believe that in spite of the escalating fuel prices, airlines volunteering to stop operations would rather exacerbate an already bad situation”.
It continued: “Ibom Air has financial obligations to suppliers, financiers and staff, which depend on uninterrupted flow of revenue to service. More importantly is the fact that having been paid by customers in advance for flight bookings we are bound by contract to deliver the services already paid for, to avoid exposing the airline to the risk of avoidable litigation. Apart from the above factors, Ibom Air is currently the only airline serving Akwa Ibom State directly and as such, any voluntary stoppage of operations would completely cut off access by air into and out of the State. Such action would be directly in conflict with and detrimental to the interest of our shareholder. In view of the foregoing facts, Ibom Air had respectfully disagreed with the decision of AON to suspend flight operations on Monday 09 May, 2022. Ibom Air cannot in the circumstance volunteer to stop operating and will continue normal operations on Monday 09 May, 2022 and beyond”, the statement said. That was the end of the planned nationwide strike.
The performance of the airline has not gone unnoticed even by experts in the Nigerian and aviation industry. The awards that have accompanied the first State government-owned airline in Nigeria tell a story of success. These awards include the Aviation Company of the Year Award in 2021, by The Independent Newspapers; Award of Excellence by the Nigerian Association of Tour Operators; Most Reliable Airline Award by the African Travel Times; Merit Award by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN), Award for Excellence in Corporate Governance by the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators of Nigeria (ICSAN), Africa’s Best Customer-Friendly Airline of the 2021; Airline of the Year Domestic 2021, Best On-Time Performance For Domestic Airlines 2021; The Aviation Event Of The Year 2021, for the interlining agreement with another airline. The last three awards came from African Travel Quarterly, ATQ News, a pan-African Travel Magazine.
According to the data published by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), quoted recently by Premium Times, the No.1 Online Newspaper in Nigeria: “In March 2021, for instance, Ibom Air achieved 99.8 per cent schedule reliability and 96 per cent on-time performance, a remarkable feat in Nigeria’s aviation history where passengers have become accustomed to several hours of delayed flights and flight cancellations. Ibom Air operated all its 708 scheduled flights for that month, and 706 of those flights were on schedule. It is the airline with the second highest number of domestic flights in 2021, and the one with the overall best on-time performance for that year,” the NCAA said.
Chidozie Uzoezie, an aviation analyst and CEO of The Afritraveller, has also been quoted by the Premium Times. “He was on Ibom Air flight QI0602 from Lagos to Enugu on October 24, 2021, and here is how he rated the flight which was his first with the airline: Check in: 85 per cent, Boarding: 80 per cent, Punctuality: 90 per cent, Aircraft: 90 per cent, Crew: 90 per cent, In-flight service: 80 per cent, Flight: 95 per cent, and Seat comfort: 95 per cent. The aircraft was a CRJ-900LR. Most of my expectations were met and even exceeded, especially with respect to punctuality, crew and the actual flight…Speaking in relative terms, the flight was everything I had expected, it surpassed the average domestic flight in Nigeria. And I’ll definitely fly with Ibom Air again”, Uzoezie said. Mfon Udom, airliner captain and CEO of Ibom Air described 2021 as “another year old exceptional operational performance” in spite of the post-Covid challenges that almost crippled aviation industry globally.
A Twitter user, Nayomi (@Naayoomee) said in June that she went for Ibom Air after her Lagos-Abuja flight on another airline was rescheduled from 3p.m. to 9p.m. “I went down and got Ibom Air, best flight I ever had. Didn’t even know when we landed. I rate them five stars,” she tweeted. Kate Nanyongo (@KateNanyongo), a Cameroonian, said on her Twitter handle that she had a “wonderful experience” on her first visit to Nigeria, courtesy of Ibom Air. She said she could not stop telling people about Ibom Air when she got back to Cameroon. Chinecherem Neche, (WOWNECHE on YouTube), a documentary videographer, was so carried away on his arrival and tour of Akwa Ibom he posted a 12-minute video on YouTube that described Akwa Ibom as the ‘Dubai of Africa’.
It is true that Akwa Ibom has a bit in common with Dubai. The two are States in their own countries, Nigeria and United Arab Emirate respectively. The two own Airlines: Ibom Air and Emirates Airline respectively. Emirates Airline began business in 1985 with two aircraft, wet-leased from Pakistan International Airlines. Ibom Air also has wet-leased two aircraft from Egypt Air. That’s not where the similarities end. Unknown to many even in Nigeria, Ibom Air successes is only a small part of the aviation revolution taking place right now in the serene and hospitable State of Akwa Ibom. The big picture is inspiring and the horizon beautiful and boundless.
Along with Ibom Air, the State government under Governor Emmanuel is investing in a massive aviation infrastructure that is second to none in the country. The State is currently constructing a new International Terminal Building described by experts as “the first smart international terminal in Nigeria”. It is complete with Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul facility (MRO) and two Taxiways at the Victor Attah Airport. The first of its kind in Nigeria terminal is scheduled to be completed in December this year, 2022. It is equipped with the game-changing airport automation technology including facial recognition technology, automated vehicle counter that calculates the number of vehicles entering and leaving the airport, cameras that read the vehicle numbers and detect suspicious objects for analysis. The system also detects foot traffic and is equipped with a complete seeing observation system that makes the work of airport security easier.
Other features of the smart airport include the automated self check-in powered by roving robots, smart lighting control system for advanced occupancy and deeming functions, automated baggage screening and weighing units which complements the robot assisted self-check-in system, infrared toilet system, etc. When Governor Udom visited the site of the International airport with journalists recently, he was overwhelmed with joy at the progress of work. “Honestly from what I have seen here, the contractors have exceeded my expectations, they are quite ahead of schedule. You can say it is at 84 per cent completion and the materials on ground can guarantee the expected delivery date”, the governor said.
The international wing of the airport also comes with a 3.6 kilometers runway and new aprons for all categories of aircraft. The MRO can take two Boeing 747 aircraft series, eight Airbus A-220 300 series and all the five CRJs now in the Ibom Air fleet. All the installations were near completion when the governor visited the airport for inspection. As the governor put it, the new international wing is practically “the newest bride for all the aircraft maintenance companies across the globe”. Top aircraft maintenance companies in Europe and America have already submitted offers to manage the MRO.
At the same time, Airbus experts from France are on ground in Akwa Ibom to train 40 out of the first batch of 100 youths in the first phase of Piloting and Aeronautical Engineering. The second and third phases of the training are scheduled to take place at the Airbus facility in France. Said Governor Emmanuel: “This is a total approach to aviation development…You can imagine the foreign exchange this airport will generate for Akwa Ibom State and Nigeria”. It is a continuation of the vision and efforts of former Governors Victor Attah and Godswill Akpabio, the predecessors of Governor Emmanuel, to position the State economy as a tourism driven economy, just like Dubai.
It is in the context of these mega projects in Akwa Ibom State, (such as the Ibaka Deep Sea Port, Akwa Ibom Vehicle Assembly Plant, the Jubilee Syringe Manufacturing Company, St. Gabriel Coconut Oil Refinery, the Electricity Metering Solutions Services Limited, the Liberty Oil and Gas Free Zone, the 21-Storey Smart Dakada Towers, the Tropicana Mall, the Five Star Ibom Icon Hotel & Golf Resort, the Three Star Four Points By Sheraton, the International Worship Centre, the Oil and Gas Exploration Field, etc, ) that political stakeholders in the State took part in the leadership election process and headhunted a serious minded businessman, rather than a run of the mill politician, as the fit and proper successor for Governor Emmanuel. Hence the surprise emergence of Pastor Umo Eno, a successful entrepreneur as the governorship candidate of PDP, the dominant party in Akwa Ibom State.
The determinant factor and concern, was not only the continuity of projects and programmes but the sustainability of the set economic pathway and destination for the State. The responsibility was to seek out someone who would be able to identify the strategic growth poles already in place, connect the dots and reap the low hanging fruits for Akwa Ibom people and Nigeria; just like Governor Emmanuel, who Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, described as “one of the cleverest governors I have come across”, during his visit to flag off some of the projects.
For Governor Emmanuel, “one of the cleverest governors”, all indications point to the fact that he has a knack for picking the cleverest and best hands for tough jobs. His top choices to run the Ibom Air from onset, speaks volumes. They included the late Idongesit Nkanaga, an Airforce General who commanded the Presidential Fleet for many years and flew many Nigerian Presidents, as Chairman of Ibom Air; Imo-Abasi Jacob, a first class honours graduate and chartered accountant who succeeded Nkanga; Mfon Udom, a renowned airline captain of many aircraft types as CEO and George Uriesi, a man who has served as a General Manager of Cape Town International Airport, South Africa and Managing Director of Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, as COO. Which shows that Governor Emmanuel’s pick to be governor in 2023 must likely be the best hand for the tough and demanding job.
Said Ray Ekpu: “Whatever happens in 2023 and thereafter nobody can deny Emmanuel the credit for being the first governor in Nigeria to establish an airline company that has already raised the bar in the aviation industry. Emmanuel, please take a bow”.
Usen is a Journalist, Author and Technocrat