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The legend of Air Peace and myth of Unicorn Air

Finally, Air Peace is flying to London. It doesn’t matter how one looks at it, the conclusion is that this is a triumph for the…

Finally, Air Peace is flying to London. It doesn’t matter how one looks at it, the conclusion is that this is a triumph for the irrepressible Nigerian entrepreneurial spirit. Yet, as always in Nigeria, this moment of triumph has been served with a side dish of controversy and drama. It has also thrown into sharp relief the fiasco that Nigeria Air, that shambolic unicorn airline, was and still is.

The road to this success has been long and hard. The airline’s founder, Allen Onyema, has fought long and hard, both publicly and behind the scenes, to attain his dreams of expanding his international route. Air Peace already flies to Accra. He has constantly been in the media to war and to appeal for the necessary policy support to allow for this expansion. By the looks of it, even the maiden flight to London, which took seven years to actualize, will not change that, as he has emerged in another interview to talk about how Nigeria denied him a Technical Country Operator permit that would have allowed the airline to fly to other European countries.

Feathers where feathers are due. Mr Onyema is a fighter and a patriot. His airline has always been the first or one of the first to put itself at the service of the country when compatriots are stranded in war zones. Only recently, the airline led the way to repatriate Nigerians from the war in Ukraine and Sudan, to mention only a few interventions. That is patriotism.

Air Peace’s triumphant entry into the London route reportedly forced a nearly 300 per cent price drop. While tickets had been in the range of four million naira prior, Air Peace entered with tickets in the range of N1.2 million, and other operators on the route have been compelled to adjust their prices downwards to compete. It is a good intervention. In business, competition is key.

But while this triumph is being celebrated, that side dish I mentioned of controversy reared its head. The conversation has raged around the choice of the traditional Igbo Isi Agu attire the airline dressed its crew in for the maiden flight to London.

While some have seen this as a brilliant adoption of a cultural identity, to which the CEO belongs, and a way of putting a Nigerian culture on the world stage, others have felt it is tribalistic. Others have even felt that, for some reason, it is cheapening a traditional attire of great significance to the Igbo people. Nigerians will always talk, won’t they?

Airlines have always been used as symbolic of a country and its people. They are no longer just means of ferrying people from one place to another but are giant mobile billboards to market a country and its potential to the world. Air Peace had offered to partner with the government when the government was running from pillar to post to establish a national carrier. In the end, the government offered a controlling stake in the venture to Ethiopian Air. Air Peace refused to lie down and die. So, if the airline, as a private venture, decides to brand its crew in a livery that promotes the CEO’s cultural identity, I think he has earned it.

The other controversy, or more appropriately, the other negative impact of this, has been the cloning of the airline’s website by criminals who have used the opportunity to try to scam people by selling fake tickets on counterfeit websites. I hope the airline and the appropriate authorities can intervene and find the criminals behind this scheme.

So, while celebrating this milestone by Air Peace, we must not forget that domestically, airline operations in the country have been shambolic. And they have remained so for years, right under the noses of regulatory agencies.

Arbitrary flight delays and cancellations have become second nature for most airlines. Passengers on a 7 am flight might find themselves departing at 4 pm with hardly any satisfactory explanation from the airline operators, without any penalties from the regulatory authorities, and with absolutely no compensation for the passengers whose travel and business plans might have been completely ruined by these inconveniences.

The complete disregard for passengers has become a deeply ingrained culture in Nigerian aviation that many fear this recklessness should not be extended to its international operations, where the consequences for the passengers would be much worse. Air Peace, along with all the other airlines, has been guilty of this and must therefore guard against it. While the Isi Agu might be promoting a valued culture, this culture of passenger abuse is not one that we would want to promote.

The internationalisation of Air Peace raises another fundamental question that seems to have been overlooked recently. The case of Air Nigeria and the billions that were invested in that venture, which ended up with the bizarre hiring of an Ethiopian Airlines aircraft painted in the fictional Nigeria Air livery in the final days of the last government.

By May 26, 2023, the then Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, continued to insist that Nigeria Air would begin full operations by May 29 when the government would leave office. We were assured that the one aircraft at the Abuja airport we were assured, was the first of many and Nigerians looked to the skies in vain.

Since then, Nigerian Air has become a unicorn, a mythical creature, imagined but never seen. That one aircraft turned out to be a mere imitation, a donkey painted white and adorned with a plastic horn. Why was all that necessary? Why did the minister go out of his way to stage that sham and keep insisting a national carrier was afloat, while every piece of evidence pointed to the contrary? Why was it necessary for that government to bow out with such a needless lie? What happened to the billions that idea claimed, and what is happening to that investigation now?

At the moment, Nigerians are preoccupied with other pressing matters than a unicorn airline, some missing billions, and double-speaking ministers. Those who venture to think about flying and flight tickets would perhaps be worrying about the N8.9 million they will need to cough up to attend hajj this year.

The average Nigerian may consider this as other people’s problem because, for a lot of Nigerians, the priority is to find bread to break, resulting in yet another mass looting of public and private food warehouses in Kebbi this week.

In addition to this, the federal government has thrown an uppercut by proposing a 300 per cent hike in electricity tariffs. The objective of the hike is to cut public spending and save the government some money. The question is if the government is all too happy to throw away billions to float a unicorn airline and seem lethargic about recovering that money, expecting Nigerians to pay more for services not rendered (because we never have enough power anyway) doesn’t seem like the best way to go. Considering the erratic power supply in the country and how poor relations have been between the DISCOs and electricity consumers, it is clear that the power and aviation sectors have a lot more in common—the disregard for Nigerians and their perpetual exploitation.

But this is a moment of triumph for Air Peace and the Nigerian entrepreneurial spirit, despite the uppercuts and southpaws the country throws. There are things that determination and hard work can pave the way for. The challenge is to sustain the growth while improving domestic services as well.

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