The Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Air Peace, Nigeria’s biggest domestic carrier, Mr. Allen Onyema, in this interview, aska the Federal Government to get deeply involved in international aero-politics to protect its airlines and welcomes the suspension of the national carrier project.
Considering the achievements of Air Peace in less than four years of operation, how will you describe the state of Nigerian airlines?
You have been told that the reason for certain things is because Nigerian airlines are not capable, that Nigerian airlines are weak; that domestic airlines can never ever get it right; that there are a lot of gaps in the system both on the domestic scene and the international level; that these airlines are heavily indebted and we will not be able to do anything. Nigerian domestic airlines have been demonized to the heels and this is very unfair. I want to tell you that those are lies. One airline has emerged that is very ready and supported within and outside this country to succeed. There are so many financial institutions all over the world wanting to do business with Air Peace and that is because they have seen serious integrity in this company.
Part of our business plan was to establish integrity with the banks and we have done that 1000 per cent. The problem in Nigeria is that most people borrow money without any intention whatsoever to pay back. Air Peace is different. We borrowed money when we were floating this airline, some from Zenith, majority from Fidelity, they are my equities. We made sure we paid off our loans. We borrowed money to buy more than 10 aircraft from Fidelity. Fidelity told you how it was, that we honour our obligations to the letter. We have never been found wanting for one day.
But where did our airlines got it wrong?
Like I said, the aviation industry world-wide is contacting Air Peace, why won’t Nigeria for once say, ‘how can we get it right with this airline? It is not true all Nigerian airlines are weak. What these airlines need is the support of government to move forward. We are not asking government to give us money. It is the duty of banks to lend money to these companies. I won’t subscribe to asking government at any level to give airlines money, I will never subscribe to that. I will never want to use taxpayers’ money to run Air Peace or any airline for that matter.
So I am telling you that the Nigerian banks and financial institutions want to collaborate with this emerging star coming out of Nigeria to succeed. Why can’t we, as citizens of Nigeria and government of Nigeria, support this airline to represent this country very well?
I am not calling to be made a national carrier. Air Peace will never call to be made national carrier. We are already a flag carrier for this country, Med-View is a flag carrier for this country; Arik is a flag carrier for this country; Max Air is a flag carrier; Azman is a flag carrier, they have all gotten destinations to fly. What I am doing in all honesty, is calling on government, now that they have withdrawn the national carrier thing that has really affected our businesses, that they should support these airlines to succeed.
You believe suspending the national carrier project was a welcome decision?
The President Muhammadu Buhari regime has challenged Nigerian airlines by its suspension of Nigeria Air to rise to the occasion; to show that they have strength; that they can fill that gap which the government in the first place thought of by floating a national carrier which is a moribund idea.
So the government has truthfully challenged us. The rest is left for Nigerian airlines to live up to the expectations of this government which has done something most governments would never do by retracing its step. When they saw something was going wrong, it doesn’t mean that our president does not care about political correctness, he cares about the future wellbeing of the entire nation called Nigeria because many countries are leaving the national carrier thing and our president also decided to halt it.
So this government indirectly and inadvertently has challenged Nigerian airlines to start getting it right and I think they are all going to do that. All we need is for the government to help us fight international aero-politics, this is what is lacking here. The moment government starts helping us by taking charge of the aero-politics, Nigerian airlines would get it right.
Now that Nigeria Air has been suspended, what will it translate to?
I want to point out that Air Peace did not wait for national carrier to be suspended before getting it right. Air Peace’s growth with over 20 planes is not a sudden growth. It was planned. We had a business plan and we are following our business plan from inception till date. We never deviated from that. Part of the business plan is to make sure we establish integrity with the banks and we have done that 1000 per cent.
Now, whatever number of planes we bought, those things are in our business plan. We never laundered money, we never ploughed the money into real estate, whatever we are getting in aviation we are putting it back, that is why we are buying planes and the banks have seen the governance structure in Air Peace; they have seen the financial discipline.
If the banks are ready now to support us, it means that we are going out there to face the world on behalf of this country and we are going to succeed by God’s grace. So what we are asking the government now is to support us; nobody should demonize us. Support us to make sure we get it right. We are going to make this government very proud. We are going to make them not regret the decision they took to call off Nigeria Air whether indefinitely or suspension. Air Peace is going to block that gap and I am sure Med-View is coming out strong too and I am sure other airlines have now heaved a sigh of relief because of the fear of being run out. Businesses outside Nigeria started developing cold feet because of that. What President Buhari has done with that announcement was to restore confidence in the mind of the international community to start doing business with us again.
It is said that you have been allocated international destinations but you are not ready to commence operations?
It is true we were given six international destinations to fly. These are Johannesburg, South Africa; Guangzhou in China; London in UK; Dubai and Sharjah in UAE; Mumbai in India; Atlanta in US and Houston also in the US. Again, we have been given about 17 African countries especially in the West Coast to fly to. I learnt that we are being demonized for not being capable. You and I know that it is one thing for your government to give you the flag carrier status to fly to any country, and another thing for that country to also give you the permit to fly to there. What has happened? We started with the West Coast to use the West Coast region to mop up passengers and bring them here so that we can use Nigeria as a hub. Togo had the effrontery to write to us that they would not allow us. Meanwhile Asky Airline from Togo comes here about four times a day. It took Senegal almost two and half years to allow us in.
I support those countries, there is nothing wrong in that; their governments were trying to protect their own airlines. I now threatened to go to court, I was trying to file a case before Togo now wrote to us to apologize and eventually gave us permit. When we got there, there was no airport office and they slammed us with almost $10,000 as charges.
Air Peace has lost over a billion in six months flying the West Coast. When they presented this to me few days ago, I felt like crying. What we are making here, we are expending in the West Coast region because of their charges. Mind you, some of these airlines are receiving assistance from their governments; some of them are not even paying any tax. Air Peace, right from day one, started paying tax.
The kind of charges we have in our home country, they don’t have it in their countries and when we get there, they put their own which is five times over our own. How do you expect Nigerian airlines to succeed? People should hear our cries, Nigerian airlines are suffering, not because they can’t get it right.
We need to protect indigenous investments that are providing jobs for the teeming masses of this country, we need the government to help us do international aero-politics; it is not within our power to do that. You have given to me the right to fly, I have applied to all the countries and I am ready. I pray for the right support to succeed on the international scene so that Nigerians will begin to enjoy the right fare. Air Peace will make this country proud, that is our promise.
So what are your plans on the international scene?
On the international scene, Air Peace is going to fill those gaps that government is worried are not being filled, that was why we bought four 777s and ordered 10 Max aircraft. With those 737 Max, we don’t want Nigerians to be flying through London to get to Amsterdam. We don’t want Nigerians to fly through Ethiopia to get to Milan, we don’t want Nigerians to pay through their noses in order to get to Frankfurt. Air Peace decided to bring the state-of-the-art 777, brand new Max 737, the latest invention of Boeing in order to do these destinations direct from Nigeria.
We want to start flying Lagos to Paris direct with the Max. We want to deploy another Max from Lagos to Frankfurt; we want to deploy the Max from Lagos to Amsterdam; we want to deploy to Milan; Abuja to Jeddah; Kano to Dubai; Enugu to London and we will deploy our 777 from Lagos to London where majority of our people travel to and from.
So the 777s are meant for the London route, the US route because of its range, China because of its range too and cargo. In some days Johannesburg, because of the traffic there but most of the works like Mumbai and all that would be done by 737 Max which can take about 180 passengers.
But many people say Nigerian carriers have not been able to surpass the feats of the defunct national carrier, the Nigeria Airways, how true is this?
Don’t let anybody deceive you that Nigerian Airways did 1600 routes, it is a lie. All sorts of lies were peddled this period. Nigeria Airways never did 1,600 destinations. With how many planes? In all their years of operations, the maximum equipment they had was about 32 from 1962 till the time of liquidation. And people were singing Nigeria Airways as if it was a success.
Nigeria Airways was a monumental failure which we should not be proud of. This was an airline being heavily subsidized. It never made money of its own. They had budget for Nigeria Airways in the national budget and you said it was a success. Is that how to run business? They saved the country a whole lot by even liquidating it. What they should do is take care of those who worked there because I don’t support people losing their jobs.
If Nigeria Airways had about 30 aircraft in all their years of operations, Arik and Air Peace have surpassed that in few years. We are ready to compete with the best airlines in the world. Government should support us. All we ask now is for government to improve the local infrastructure. President Muhammadu Buhari, to the best of my knowledge wants us to succeed and everybody working for him should look at our president. That is why he gave us waiver on importation of aircraft and spares, that’s why we got waiver on VAT.
In terms of training of pilots, how far have you gone?
We are training a lot of people. We are training indigenous people to go into aviation. Air Peace has trained over 40 pilots in less than four years of operation. And my training and support to the industry cuts across the length and breadth of this country. We do not discriminate, not even against gender. I am an Ibo man from South-East part of the country, Anambra, I have trained over 17 northern pilots and the Yorubas. I believe we are all one nation.
Government wants to concession four airports, what is your advice on this?
I call for the concession of these airports to the indigenous people of Nigeria, not to outsiders because we have people who can afford them. If you concession to foreigners, there would be capital flight. Maybe 80 per cent of the money would go out of the country and we will remain impoverished. I support the Federal Government’s intention to concession these airports and it should be done very urgently. This is the first thing to be done if we want to grow this country.
What plan do you have to partner with airlines outside the country as you start international operations?
Part of the reason we have not deployed our 777s is because I don’t want to operate international route with one aircraft. Air Peace does not want point-to-point international operations. As I talk to you, a very formidable airline has signed up with Air Peace. They are integrating their system with Air Peace so that when Air Peace drops you at the destination, the airline which is one of the Gulf carriers, would pick you. When we drop you in Dubai or Sharjah, another airline picks you. If for instance you are going to Malaysia, they are going to about 36 cities in India.
Everywhere we are trying to go, we are trying to align with other international airlines. We are going to have the same partnership with other airlines in the US. This is why we are taking our time to do it so that when we hit the ground running by November this year, we would make this country proud.