Local airline operators, startups inclusive, are fast embracing smaller and medium-range aircraft in a manner that will upset the dynamics of domestic air travel.
In contrast to the popular 120-plus Boeing737-seater airplanes, smaller 50-seaters are fast becoming regulars at airport aprons nationwide.
Though the latter rarely compare with the Boeing series in terms of comfort and affordability, they are primed for wider reach, low traffic routes, better turnaround time, efficiency and cost-effective maintenance. And at a lean time of the devastating pandemic, stakeholders are unanimous that local operators are finally investing in the right equipment that is most suitable for the Nigerian market and operational sustainability.
But the narrative is gradually changing, at least, with some of the latest investments in Embraer and turboprops made by old and new entrants into the beleaguered industry.
The United Nigeria airline, last week, for instance, made its debut into local commercial operations with four Embraer 145 50-seater jets.
Another airline now warming up for launch, Green Africa, has also placed an order for narrow-body Airbus 220-300 aircraft ahead of its entry into the domestic sector.
The market leader, Air Peace, leads the way with the acquisition of mid-range 13 brand new Embraer 195-E2 jets to complement its Air Peace Hopper that operates six Embraer 145 jets, shuttling on low traffic routes nationwide.
Former president of the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), Isaac Balami, said the local airlines and investors are now waking up to the realities of the local sector and the need for good equipment for long-term returns.
Balami, an engineer and CEO of 7 Stars Global Hangar, affirmed that Nigerian carriers had been using the medium-range aircraft for short-haul domestic flights, describing it as the bane of unaffordable cost of maintenance, business failure and a high number of unserviceable aircraft.
He said given the proximity of our airports, low traffic on several routes and maintenance by flight-cycle, the small aircraft types are the most cost-effective and sustainable equipment.
An airline like Overland Airways uses small aircraft like the ATR turboprop aircraft. Aero Contractors and Arik Air have some Dash-8 and turboprops.
Balami observed that part of the problem is that the average Nigerian traveller is over pampered with the more comfortable Boeing jets than less-fancied smaller aircraft that are the norms in domestic operations globally.
He urged the Federal Government to support the new investments with homegrown Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facilities to ease the burden on maintenance cost.
Chief Operating Officer, Air Peace, Toyin Olajide, said they invested in the E2 family because of its super-efficiency, describing it as “an aircraft for now and the future”.
“This is because a lot of money will be saved as regards the operating cost. There are savings on fuel; bearing in mind the high cost of aviation fuel in Nigeria. These aircraft coming into the country will help lower operating costs. The performance is awesome.
“A lot of Nigerians who hitherto were apprehensive of travelling by air, can now rest assured. This is the plane for them. Once onboard this aircraft, you will feel transported to a world of luxury and comfort and most importantly, safety. This is what Air Peace represents.”
Chairman of the United Nigeria airline, Obiora Okonkwo, shortly after the recent inaugural flight said the investment in smaller airplanes was strategic, filling a gap in the industry.
He said: “We have a big plan. The market is huge; there is a need for a lot of aircraft. It might surprise you to know that we have a full load on all the routes we have operated this morning. Today is the first day of our service. So, that is good and it shows what will happen.
“I guess those who are in the business should be competing with us first. We should be the people they should be worried about because we are new. We think that within the next three months we shall be able to expand our routes.”
Okonkwo added that there are a lot of innovations that investors could bring on board, if given the right support, especially in the area of foreign exchange availability.
He observed that aviation is almost 100 per cent dependent on dollars, which are now hardly readily available for operators.
“I think there must be a special window for the airlines. This is because, today, if the bidding process goes through the bank every two weeks, you have to wait for two weeks though you already have spare parts to pick immediately. You need $100,000, but you get $10,000.
“So, there must be a special funding process to support the airline business because almost 99.5 per cent of the volume needs to be paid (in dollars), and your ticket sales are in Naira. You are not even allowed by the policy to receive payment in foreign currencies. I think that a lot has been done but more can be done to make it better,” he added.
“The crew uniform is a judicious blend of African style with Green Africa elements and a contemporary global feel. Made from natural fabrics which make our uniform not only environmentally friendly but also keeps our crew comfortable as natural fabrics are more ‘breathable’. The colours of the uniform which are our brand colours are inspired by the vast and varied African landscape with the basic cuts inspired by the Nigerian prints popularly called Ankara.”
Before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, Green Africa ordered fifty A220-300s from Airbus and also committed to leasing an additional three of the aircraft type from leasing company, GTLK Europe. This was in February 2020. In October 2020, Green Africa formed a strategic partnership with First City Monument Bank (FCMB), which yielded $31 million in a combination of standby letter of credit and rolling working capital.