By Dele Sobowale
“Things are not always what they seem”. Anonymous Russian Jewish Writer.
Ask any Nigerian if we have airlines in Nigeria and he would probably answer “yes”. And for good measure, he will list the names of existing airlines – Arik, Aero Contractor, IRS, DANA (it is still in business and we need DANA more than it needs us; believe me), Overland, Medview (which started operations in November this year) and that is almost the entire list – for a nation of 167 million people and suffering from delusions of grandeur by aspiring to become one of the top twenty economies in the world by the year 2020.
Incidentally, the second largest domestic airline is “Presidential Airways”, owned and managed by the President of Nigeria and our Ogapatapata, Goodluck Jonathan, CGFR. That airline has a fleet of ten crafts to its credit and has never, and will never make a profit for its owner.
In fact “Presidential Airways” demonstrates all that is wrong with the Nigerian aviation sector and mostly explains why we are missing out in the Age of Aviation. Because it has never, and will never be subjected to the discipline of adequate profit, the calculation of returns on investment, as well as other parameters governing investments in the private sector, globally, it can only end up being a loss leader.
Procurement, operation and maintenance of an airline, even if it has only one plane in its fleet, is a top level economic decision calling for all the skills required by entrepreneurs wishing to succeed in the business. Anyone who has opened his eyes, while at our nation’s airports, would readily observe the carcasses of planes once flown by hastily and ill-advised Nigerian entrepreneurs since the deregulation of the sector was undertaken by President Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, IBB, in the 1980s.
Among the first airlines to be air-borne by those with any memory was OKADA Airlines. Today, the existence of that carrier is a distant memory even to its owner. Since, then the aviation landscape in Nigeria had been strewed with the corpses of what were once promising carriers.
There is no need to list them seriatim; but the demise of Air Nigeria can serve as a metaphor for our increasingly failing attempt to join the Age of Aviation. One could easily have picked Belleview, ADC or Sosoliso. But, few people would re
member those corporate corpses.
For some, one crash was all it took to send them packing; for ADC it took two. Some did not even need a plane to crash before they closed the booking offices. Air Nigeria was one of them; and that was what makes its exit, among others so remarkable.
No regular watcher of CNN News could have missed the Air Nigeria advertisements. It made me proud that a Nigerian airline could afford to pay the steep price of advertising on CNN alongside the Qartar Airways and South Africa’s main carrier. But, just as we were getting ready to start taking the Air Nigeria serious, it was grounded for reasons still very obscure.
That by itself explains why we are still largely fringe players in the sector which is almost 120 years old. Airlines in Nigeria are run like a secret society; few people actually know what is going on in the companies; their financial statements are not published and few people know those in charge.
The other side of that coin is that few people trust the airlines. As a result there is very little brand loyalty; no widespread support and when troubles come they go down, sometimes literally, without anybody missing them because the owners have operated the airlines to please themselves and nobody else. That is the fundamental flaw; for Nigerian airlines customer satisfaction is a theoretical idea not central to the business.
A comparative illustration will help to demonstrate what is at stake here. Most air travelers globally, including Nigeria, seek to save time and to avoid the discomfort associated with road travel – given the atrocious condition of our roads. For those reasons they first of all travel long distances; endure traffic hold-ups and end at airports at least one hour before departure time.
Invariably, in Nigeria, all that sacrifice is in vain. The flights never take off on time; delays and cancellations remain the rule; even for those who booked in advance. And when, the flight finally takes off, hours behind schedule, not every pilot, or Captain as they call themselves, has the good manners to apologise to the “captives” on board the aircraft.
Elsewhere in the world, in places where the countries have fully joined the Age of Aviation, a passenger starting from Eket, Akwa Ibom State; travelling first to Lagos and from there to Abuja; and finally wanting to catch a flight to London, can check his luggage through to London carrying only his carry-on luggage. Not in Nigeria; the luggage checked will never arrive in London.
More serious, the passenger who expects to catch connecting flights at Lagos and Abuja might discover that his flight to London had departed a long time ago – leaving him/her stranded in Lagos or Abuja. Obviously, all the advantages of air travel over any other means have been eroded by Nigerian airlines leaving only one – the lack of good alternative means of getting to our destinations.
THEIR OWN GRAVE DIGGERS
Unknown to the few Nigerian airlines still in operation today, they have become their own grave diggers. For instance airlines servicing Lagos-Benin; Lagos-Warri; Lagos-Ilorin continue to enjoy patronage only because two major roads have been allowed to become death traps.
The two roads still saving them are the Lagos-Ibadan and the Shagamu-Benin Expressways. Once the Federal government of Nigeria becomes responsible and restores those two roads to their former status, nobody will again accept the insult of having to wake up in the morning; head for Ikeja airport only to wait until 3.00 pm before the Benin or Warri or Ilorin flight takes off.
In fact, any customer, specifically, those residing at Victoria Island, Ikoyi, Lekki, Ajah, etc, will need to have his/her head examined for driving two hours to the airport; wait three or four hours for a flight to Benin when the journey would have been completed in three hours by road. When that time comes, as it inevitably must come, the only thing that will save the airlines from total extinction is good customer service – an idea which, at the moment is totally alien to them.
Let me provide an example from a recent personal experience with two Nigerian airlines – Arik and Aero Contractors. I was travelling to Uyo in the last week of November. To ensure a seat was available, the booking was made two days in advance on Arik. The flight was scheduled for 13.30 initially.
Not wanting to take chances with traffic, I left home at 11.00 a.m. It was just as well. The hold-up from Maryland was terrible. Just as the taxi conveying me to the airport was descending the fly-over near the General Hospital, a text message came through informing me that that the flight had been shifted to 14.40. I had no choice but to proceed to the airport.
Just before 14.20, there was “a special announcement” (why they call announcements that have become routine “special” is mystery which only Nigeria airline operators can fathom) informing intending passengers on this service that the flight had been delayed till 17.30.
That was not the end of the story. There was no announcement at five thirty. Passengers were just left on their own. Incidentally, the Uyo flight was not the only one suffering from the delay. At one point, the new GATT airport, which is already obsolete in many respects and is a disgrace to whoever constructed it and approved the work, was packed full with intending passengers. By six o’clock in the early evening, there was standing room only. It was atrocious by any standards imaginable.
It was about 7.00 pm by the time the flight was called; but with a catch. The service had been merged with the flight to Calabar – whose passengers had also been undergoing the torture Uyo passengers had gone through. The flight would stop first in Calabar (lucky people because that meant adding another hour to the plight of Uyo passengers.
We finally landed at Uyo airport at about 9.45 pm. Clearing luggage ate up another thirty minutes and driving to time yet another half hour. At least three of the passengers who were heading for Ikot Abasi and Oron were forced to fork out money to stay in hotels at Uyo that night. An Akwa Ibom Government Bus taking off from Jibowu or Ojota, having as free a road as planes enjoy when airborne would have finished the trip by six pm.
The experience with Aero on the following Saturday was only slightly different. The flight was scheduled for 9.00 am. I got up at 7.00am and rushed to the airport hoping to have a cup of coffee before departure. Coffee went down alright; later it was followed by two bottles of Gulder before, we were mercifully released from bondage by the airline at about 14.00. We landed at Ikeja at about 3.00 pm – about the same time that a bus from Uyo taking off at 7.00 am would have arrived Ojota.
The airlines are living on borrowed time (as well as borrowed money), which like the funds they borrowed is running out. They are digging their own graves. Once the roads get better passengers will have nothing good to remember about them. Right now they are taking a lot of money and dispensing a lot of pain. That is a recipe for disaster. They should learn from NITEL which nobody now patronises.
The modern Age of Aviation is one of service; the only lasting competitive advantage and survival strategy is superior service. Airlines which fail to compete on service delivery are on their way to the grave yard of aviation history.