The aviation industry is no doubt bedeviled with challenges, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, which recently put airlines at their lowest. As it stands, these are not the best of times for operators in the sector. Nevertheless, amidst the inclement operating environment, some airlines are weathering the storm, scaling up in profile. One that readily comes to mind is Air Peace, which is arguably the biggest private commercial airline, not only in Nigeria but Africa. As the yuletide, the busiest season of the year, approaches and flyers make travel demands, the CEO, Air Peace, Mr. Allen Onyema, speaks with THISDAY on how the airline is surmounting hurdles and preparing to give passengers the best flying experience ever
Now we are approaching the Yuletide season, which is the peak period in air travel, there are fears that there may not be enough aircraft seats to meet passengers’ demand. How is Air Peace being the biggest carrier in the industry preparing to airlift travelers this Christmas?
A lot of people are scared that there are wouldn’t be enough flights. No, will be flights. We are yet to bring out our Christmas schedule, so people should not panic about flights.
On the 20th of this month, we are receiving two more planes. Before the end of the month, we will have another plane. We are receiving two Airbus A320s on the 20th. Airbus A320 carries about 160 passengers. Two will arrive on the 20th November; then before the end of the month another brand new Embraer E195-E2 will arrive and two of our Boeing B737s will come. So, some of the planes that have gone for C-check will start coming in, so we are yet to roll out our Christmas packages. People should not rush and be in a panic, there are enough flights.
Air Peace has enough flights to go around for the Christmas, December schedules and we are yet to roll them out. And we are going to roll out the Christmas schedule soon. People will get flights so they should not panic.
You said you are expecting some aircraft. I have been a victim of Air Peace flight cancellations or delays and people complain about flight cancellation, given what you have said, the season is coming, what do we expect?
Flight cancellations or delays happen for several reasons. I don’t think any airline will cancel flights for the sake of canceling flights. And for Air Peace, other airlines may be doing about 20 flights or 25 flights in a day and if they cancel three flights or two flights, nobody will know about it. In Air Peace, we are almost doing 100 flights a day. So, if you cancel four, it will be all over the place. But the thing is that we fly more than any other person. And if we start flying at full capacity, we will be flying over 130 flights daily. So, there are so many reasons for cancellation, like yesterday (Monday, November 8, 2021) on the brand new plane, Embraer E195-E2, we had a bird strike and this is the second time we are having a bird strike on the brand new plane and that grounded the aircraft. Now, one of them is grounded, we have called on the manufacturers and they are sorting it out. Now, waking up during operations and a bird struck and flew into your engine, you can’t recover from it. You must have disruptions; some of the disruptions might go into cancellations, not only delays. When it happened yesterday, already people have bought into today’s schedule, what are we going to do? We now decided to bring out our Boeing B777 to mop up everywhere in order not to get people stranded. So, the good thing about Air Peace is that we can play with aircraft. If anything goes wrong, we bring in another one.
So what we did today was to roll out our B777 to take over some flight destinations because the other one had a bird strike. But it comes with some changes. So, these are some of the reasons why you have delays or cancellations. Nobody will cancel a flight for the fun of it.
And one thing in Air Peace is that we don’t joke with safety. If we notice any problem, we ground that plane. Maybe it is something that could be managed elsewhere, but we ground our plane if there is any reason to do so. It is not as if the tech might be so serious, but you don’t know when it becomes more serious. We don’t joke with such. One thing you can be sure of with us is that when you go with us, you come back with us. Again, you talked about weather, rains, and thunderstorms. If you wake up in the morning and you want to go to Abuja by 6:30 am and the meteorologists now report thunderstorms en-route and thunderstorms on the destination, you have to wait. So, if you waste two hours or so, the whole day must be affected and every other place that the aircraft is programmed to operate to will be affected. But one thing I discovered is that Nigerians are highly critical of their airlines, especially Air Peace. Maybe it is because it is growing into a big airline, but I am aware that the way Nigerians attack their airline and say bitter things about them is not the way they complain about foreign carriers that come into this country. When they are flying with international airlines and you ask them to wait for five hours, they will wait without complaint. But two hours wait with Nigerian airline; they will start fighting the airline staff. Why is it so? There seems to be so much bitterness and antagonism against Air Peace, which is very disturbing and very worrisome.
Recently I saw an airline, a foreign airline skid off the runway, some five months ago, here in Lagos, nobody published it. And I was happy that nobody published it because writing about it would overheat our system. The aircraft ran into the grass, no publication on it. Nobody saw it on social media. But if Air Peace is moving and a nail enters the tyre, they will use the word crash. In everything about Air Peace, there is sustained negative publicity against the airline.
In addition to being a successful entrepreneur, you are also known as a philanthropist who has intervened in critical periods of our national life, like the South African evacuation of Nigerians and the Covid-19 evacuations. What informed your interventionist approach?
I have always been a man with no inhibitions right from birth. All these things I am doing, I started doing them right from age nine and that is the truth. I am not doing these things for any considerations at all; it is just my nature. That is what makes me happy. When I was in secondary school, I was sharing my little provisions with others that were less privileged. If I noticed that I have and you don’t have, I will give you my own or we share. Fellow students attested to that. I started this right from childhood. When it comes to interventions and making peace, I have been doing that, even between my father and his immediate elder brother. They were feuding for over two years. It took me to stop them at the age of nine. I ran after my uncle. I ran away to his place. My people went to the motor park and said I was missing. My uncle was headmaster of one primary school in Amanike in Anambra State then. I left Onitsha, a city to go to a village and they were looking for me, the police and everybody and they were announced on the radio; I am the only son of my father.
When I got to Amanike my uncle asked me, “Who brought you here?’ I said nobody, I just want to live with you. He now sent a message to my father that your son is here with me. My father left me with him. My father did not even say this man was my enemy and he might kill my son. That was what brought the family together. So, I have been doing this act of seeking peace at all times right from childbirth. So now, God has blessed me, I use what God blessed me with to seek peace in my nation because I believe in peace. So, I use that part of my nature to do what I am doing, intervention in any way possible for others to promote peace and development. Because I believe that if there is peace there will be development and the country will be better for it.
Do you think Nigerian airlines or the industry need tax incentives?
Of course, the airlines are suffering in Nigeria. The ease of doing business here is almost zero. The federal government has been fighting tooth and nail and trying to engender this ease of doing the business programme, but some of the actors are not helpful. Some of the government agencies are not being helpful at all. For example, to clear your goods in Nigeria at the seaports might take you three weeks. In the Republic of Benin, it is within 48 hours and you can plan with that. It is known that when you have anything there within 48 hours it is cleared. In Nigeria, at the seaports, you have Customs, you have police, you have the Navy, Quarantine, Immigration, Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON), National Drug Enforcement Agency, and others. I am sure there are Boys Brigade and Boys Scouts. No country will survive like that, and none of them want to move or allow things to move. You bring in something; it will be there for weeks or months. So, you have all manner of agencies there. People celebrate being posted to the port, it should not be so. It is killing business. Investors are going to other places to invest, creating wealth and jobs for other countries.
We should think of job creation here. That is the only way the private sector must be encouraged. Like in aviation, the federal government listened to us. Immediately we got the National Assembly to pass all those zero VAT, zero custom duties for the acquisition of commercial aircraft and aircraft spares, Mr. President did not wait 24 hours before signing it into law. So, the government was ready to help aviation, but the implementation is now where certain agencies did not follow through. However, the Customs are beginning to understand that aviation is a catalyst for growth. They are cooperating with us, but there is also room for improvement. They even allow us to take our aircraft until we sort out a particular problem of this 7.5% charge on it. That is noble. I applaud the Customs for doing that. That is how it is supposed to be.
We noticed that in your operations, to cut off these flight delays, you have introduced a stricter boarding protocol in the mornings, which is when delays begin to build up, as many passengers turn late to the airports…
Yes, you see, sometimes we live in this part of the world and sometimes your environment determines the kind of approach you apply to certain issues. The rule all over the world is that passengers should be at the airport one and half hours before their flight time. That is in domestic operations. Somebody may have left his home at 4:30 or 5:00 for a 7:00 am flight, depending on where the person is living. And you run into this early morning traffic, you will come to the airport sweating.
You see some people at times going to board Okada with their luggage just to catch the flight. You see that even at your counter closing time, you notice that at the back end, this aircraft is full, but the people that have checked in are not up to 60 per cent of the expected passengers that booked the flight. Others will be on their way. When they get to the airport, they will want to let you know that you should have known that there was traffic and they will start making trouble. So sometimes you wait for them to your detriment. And the same passengers, when he is not late, he would not know that it is his type that caused the lateness. So we now decided that enough is enough. It is giving us a bad name. We must close our gate.
Some people, for a flight of 7 a.m. they all come by 6:50 a.m. and will still say it is still 10 minutes to the time. So, they don’t know that as at that time, no counter will be opened. So, what we need is education for the traveling public in Nigeria.
When there is such delay occasioned by weather or other factors, some people will come and start destroying our systems, our computer systems. Why? Recently one said the flight was not announced because the flight had left him.
He checked in and had a boarding pass. Maybe these days, people get absorbed in social media and he will be there, an announcement will be made, he won’t know. He will be absorbed in his phone, calling on people and watching events, when he must have finished, he will now realise that he is travelling. And they will go to the boarding gate and be complaining and threatening our staff and start destroying things that we did not make an announcement. If we did not make an announcement how come people have boarded the flight? Maybe it was a full aircraft. How did the other people travel?
So, when they destroy your things before you get another set of things to do the job, the next day will be delayed.
Some passengers come to the airport with luggage of about 70 kg when they know that the luggage allowance is 20kg. Although they know that one needs to pay for excess luggage, yet they will come and say be pleading. They will be there and people will be queuing up. And when you want to ask them to move aside, they will start fighting. These things delay flights too. Somebody will get to the foot of the aircraft carrying 20 kg of luggage that was supposed to be checked in. When you tell him to check it in, he will say this bag is expensive; it should not be checked in, why must I check it in? Things Nigerians will not do at any airports aboard, they want to do it here. At any airport abroad, if you shout, they will arrest you, but here the in-thing is to be shouting at people, beating other people’s children, husbands, and wives because you paid money to fly.
The other day in one of the airports in this country, one of the ground handling companies, rammed their staircase onto our plane. The plane just landed when the ground handling company, not Air Peace, drove their truck into the aircraft and tore a part of the aircraft. Passengers were told to come down that this plane would not fly anymore. They started beating my staff. You want to fly a plane that is damaged. Do they want to die? Now, that plane was going to Abuja. It was initially programmed that it would go to Abuja and from Abuja to another destination before coming to Lagos. When in Abuja, my people announced some three hours delay, because we now wanted to route another aircraft to go and do all those things. After explaining what happened, passengers started to beat the duty manager to the extent that he almost lost his life. So, things like this should be discouraged. Nigerian passengers should also know that airline workers have lives and families too. You will see somebody trying to force very big luggage like a woman going to the husband’s house for the first time into the cabin.
When you talk to the person, he becomes angry. One story that trended some time ago was a similar thing that happened when security officials were invited to remove her. The woman delayed us for one and a half hours. She started using social media to be making noise, but we are not giving up. If they like they should keep blackmailing us.
In all of these challenges, and also the challenge of ease of doing business, what encourages you to continue to invest?
Like I said earlier, it all boils down to why did I establish the airline in the first place? It is just to create jobs and give back to society, that is all. My promise to God in the year 2000 is what I am trying to fulfil, that is the motivation. My motivation is seeing the over 4,000 faces of people working in Air Peace and knowing that they are feeding about over 20,000. So that is the motivation that makes me happy. In addition to that is the motivation of moving my country people from one place to another. The fact that I am helping with the development of the nation, trying to energise the economy, and energise the economies of some forgotten places through air connectivity helps. So, it helps in job creation not only Air Peace employing people but the multiplier effects of what we are doing are helping the country and that I know very well.
As another way of making money for the company, do you ever think of going into training, maintenance? And also local refining will soon be available in 2022, do you think that will help in the reduction of the cost of aviation fuel?
As long as the local refinery produces aviation fuel it will help a lot.
Credit: This Day