Last week, Air Peace Airline commenced flight operations on the lucrative Nigerian/United Arab Emirates (UAE) route. The Chairman of the airline, Mr Allen Onyema, in this interview with Shola Adekola, spoke on the airline’s preparations, expectations from government, operations and subsequent plans.
The challenge to Nigerian airlines operating international service is how to take passengers beyond point to point. Does Air Peace have code-share partner for its Dubai operations?
First and foremost, I thank God almighty for what happened recently, I thank Nigerians, the media and the Federal Government for their supports. We have started our international operations into Sharjah and into United Arab Emirates (UAE) and we are not just doing Lagos-Sharjah alone, but also doing every other destination in Nigeria to Sharjah and Dubai.
We have an agreement with Sharjah Air Travel Agency (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 Sharjah, which is a very seamless arrangement. For instance when we check-in passengers from Nigeria going to Jeddah, Mumbai, Medina, New Delhi and some other cities in India and 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 like this one, it is a straight connection; we don’t unburden the person’s luggage, but 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 some six destinations, Mumbai, Guangzhou, China, Atlanta, Houston (US), Heathrow (London) and Johannesburg (South Africa). We have started Sharjah (Dubai) and 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.
However 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. We have already started setting up our structures in South Africa, Johannesburg. And at the same time we are looking for a partnering airline in Johannesburg so that when we drop you in Johannesburg our partnering airline 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. So any moment from now we think we are going to start Johannesburg before August 30, 2019. 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.
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 a meritorious award to show for that. I believe in the country and I know 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 and it is also true that we even went to sign a MoU with the airline. That was a 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?
How do you intend to combat aero-politics with your international operations because it is obvious that your competitors may want to use that 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 Nigerian 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.
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 to 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.
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.
Nigerian Ambassador to UAE said if you keep to time in your operations, in six months that you would have a cut of the market. Do you think you can keep to that time and how many passengers were on your inaugural flight to UAE?
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 5:00am. 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 and 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 and review what we did the previous day.