NIGERIA: Rallying Support For Local Airlines

Stakeholders in the aviation sector are seeking increased Federal Government support for local airlines to overcome the numerous hurdles put in place by some nations around the world against their efforts to operate international flights. 

The call comes against the backdrop of the foray of Air Peace Airlines, a Nigerian airline, into China, India, Israel for medical supplies and evacuation of stranded persons amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Without doubt, the crisis that attended the COVID-19 pandemic offered the Nigerian carrier, Air Peace, the opportunity to showcase its capabilities and prove as mere myth or cheap blackmail the notion that wholly-owned Nigerian airlines lack the managerial, technical and operational expertise to successfully operate in the international market.

Many nations around the world had entered a lockdown, with land, sea and air transports shut down as precautionary measures to curb the spread of the disease and cut down the heavy toll on human lives. That decision saw thousands of people trapped in countries other than theirs and requiring emergency or specially arranged aircraft to return home. From the epicentre of Wuhan, China, to the United Kingdom, Canada, Israel, France, Germany, India, Spain, and the United States the plea was the same ‘get us home please.’

Anselm Ukoh, a travel agent who had some of its clients stranded in Nigeria and seeking to reunite with their families in China, lauded the management of Air Peace for investing in the acquisition of the three Boeing 777 aircraft that boosted its fleet size with the right equipment and capacity to operate long haul evacuation flights to China, Israel and India.

Considered as one of the biggest and most complex twin-engine jet machines in the aviation industry, the Boeing 777 (better called triple seven) has the capacity to seat more than 368 passengers.

Ukoh recalled when the airline purchased three of the B777s and the criticism that trailed the purchase.

“Today, that investment has paid off. It was those aircraft that were deployed to airlift Nigerians suffering xenophobic attacks in South Africa. And under this COVID-19 pandemic, it proved the most useful tool for the evacuation of stranded Nigerians and foreign nationals in some countries.”

“I had friends who wanted to return to Nigeria and those who wanted to head back to China. They needed a reputable and safe airline that can operate the long haul flight without a layover in any country given the COVID-19 challenge. To the pride of Nigeria, when engaged for this operation, Air Peace rose to the occasion in fulfilment of its designation as a flag carrier. These persons who were trapped were able to return to their preferred destinations. It was one of my happiest days as a travel agent hearing and seeing this happen, even though I made nothing in ticket sales,” said Ukoh.

The acquisition of wide-bodied Boeing 777 aircraft might seem the magic wand that enabled the airline make a foray into the long haul flight business, but in a country where businesses are plagued by bad managerial decisions and financial recklessness, the ability to tie the loose ends in negotiations for these deals amid the pandemic as well as the technical expertise and professionalism of the crew counted more.

“From moving the first batch of medical supplies from Istanbul, Turkey, to freighting the second batch of medical supplies and medics from Beijing, China, to evacuating 301 Chinese, the Nigerian carrier showed it had all that was required to operate the 14-15 hours flight on its B777-200 between Lagos-Beijing-Abuja flights. The airline also successfully transported stranded passengers from Nigeria to Israel for the first time and then to India. Air Peace indeed made good use of the COVID-19 challenge to prove what a Nigerian airline can do if given the opportunity,” said an aviation analyst, Michael Obokhale.

Air Peace chairman/CEO, Allen Onyema, however, said the airline was simply rewarding trust by Nigerians and foreign countries who engaged its services for COVID-19 evacuations and medical supplies.

“It is the first time a Nigerian airline would be doing a direct nonstop 14-hour flight to China, and operated another non-stop 15-hour fight to Abuja. All six-man crew were Nigerians,” Onyema said. “We thank the governments of India, China and Israel for having implicit confidence in the operation of the airline. Their choice of Air Peace to evacuate their citizens is a huge testament to their belief in the safety standards of the airline. We evacuated 270 Israelis and that was the first time there would be a direct flight from Nigeria to Israel in 60 years. It gladdened our heart the way the Israeli government and people celebrated that feat.”

Industry stakeholders, however, fear the greater challenge lies in leveraging on the gains and experiences from the COVID-19 operations for the future and the willingness of the government to assist in aspirations of local airlines.

With the county’s planned national carrier, Nigeria Air, no longer feasible given the challenges of dwindling revenue and lack of technical partners to fund it, the right response to the rape of Nigeria and her citizens by foreign airlines lies in the government supporting the emergence of a strong or vibrant domestic flag carrier post-COVID-19 era.

The experience that Air Peace had in evacuating Nigerians from Canada is still fresh and shows the need for the Federal Government to be willing to mediate at all times in favour of the cause of local airlines once a foreign country attempts to frustrate a Nigerian carrier. Onyema calls it “the challenge of international aeropolitics” and lamented that the trend had marred attempts by local airlines to operate internationally. He said foreign airlines, in collaboration with their home governments, deliberately impose impossible operating conditions and fiscal policies on Nigerian airlines.

“I will be making the greatest mistake and also telling a big lie if I admit that this airline can succeed without the support of the Federal Government,” Onyema told Daily Sun.

“We must begin to have deliberate policies that protect indigenous investments. The government must assist local airlines overcome the hurdles of international aeropolitics. We cannot roll out a red carpet for a foreign airline even when in their own country they are trying everything possible to frustrate a Nigerian carrier that is trying to operate there. That’s unfair; there should be reciprocity,” he said.

It is a position corroborated by the chairman of the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), Nogie Meggison, who said the government must place the interest of Nigerian airlines first above other airlines. He urged the government to create the right fiscal environment and also engage in diplomatic mediation for flag carriers on international routes.

He urged government and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to reduce the burden of colossal losses suffered by airlines from COVID-19 to enable them stay afloat.

“Nigerian airlines trade in naira, but we do our business in dollars and the naira has come under pressure since the coronavirus pandemic. Aviation agencies should help the airlines by immediately streamlining the over 32 multiple charges given to airlines which are mostly double billing,” he noted.

He said palliatives was a must for airlines given the loss in capital flight to foreign airlines and the ripple effect on job creation and GDP.

Analysts have said that Nigeria loses about $3 billion annually as capital flight. They said the trend must be halted once flight operations resume after COVID-19.

“It is only through this support that the thousands of jobs in the aviation sector would be sustained post-COVID-19 and new ones created. Also, aviation offers the government the plank to realise its economic diversification programme, the more need the industry deserves all the support.

“Undoubtedly, for a local airline to fly to China, Israel and India under emergency conditions, it means we have what it takes to operate international routes like London, Johannesburg, New York, Houston, Lisbon, Tokyo, Frankfurt, if the government and regulatory agencies show the commitment and patriotism to support the airlines overcome all challenges associated with international aeropolitics as well as put in place favourable fiscal incentives for operators,” Ukoh said.

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