By Onome Amawhe
BRITISH Airways is the oldest running airline in Nigeria. The company commenced operations into Nigeria February 9, 1936 under its predecessor’s operating name: Imperial Airlines.
At the time, it was intended for flights to terminate in Lagos, but because there were no airports which were suitable for operations, the flights terminated in Kano, and passengers connected to Lagos by train.
A year later, flights from Lagos-Accra were commenced utilizing a four-engined passenger aircraft known as de Havilland Express. It was reported that traffic on the route was held back by health issues, but Imperial Airlines overcame these concerns by installing an apparatus capable of killing mosquitoes in the aircraft.
In 1967, the British government established a Civil Aviation committee to look at certain aviation concerns and one of the recommendations was for the formation of a National Board to control finances and policies. The recommendation came into force in 1971 and Imperial Airlines changed its name to British Airways. Alex Cruz is the new Chairman/Chief Executive of British Airways.
He came on board in March this year and given the airline company’s distinguished history in Nigeria, he is quick to attribute BA’s accomplishment to the consistency with which it has served the Nigerian market.
He says, “British Airways’ predecessor airlines were among the first to develop air routes to Africa.
“Ensuring that these could continue operating successfully meant gaining a good understanding of customers’ requirements at both ends of the route and providing a network, schedule, products and services that customers found attractive. These principles have endured, as competition has increased enormously from established international airlines as well as African carriers, both privately owned and state supported. We’re very proud to have served Nigeria for 80 years and also that the families of some of our loyal customers today have been flying with us for three generations.
‘’Given that air travel seems to be here to stay, it’s at least encouraging to note that more and more airlines are trying to reduce their carbon footprint. It’s true that, to a large extent, airlines have been motivated by the rising cost of fuel. Still, the good news for conscientious travellers is that airlines are beginning to realize that their sustainability policies are being closely monitored, and that the greener they get, the more likely we are to fly with them.’’
Making known what he thinks has sustained BA in the Nigerian market for such a long time, Cruz thinks: “It has to be understanding and adapting to the needs of our customers. If we were not doing that well, we wouldn’t still be operating. Every market in which we operate has its challenges.
“Successful carriers find ways to adapt or manage these. Those that don’t won’t continue operating or at least not profitable.”
British Airways is one of the few carriers serving destinations across all six inhabited continents. Route performance is competitively confidential just as all of its routes in Africa and elsewhere are important. Comparing BA’s operations in Nigeria with the other countries where it operates, Cruz finds that Nigeria is obviously a place “we believe has a lot potential.”
The potential the airline company sees in Nigeria is largely responsible for it’s long-term operational plans. “We’ve currently got a good schedule to Nigeria, serving both Lagos and Abuja from London. We have some of our most up-to-date cabin product on board and we’re constantly looking at ways to improve the offering, such as catering by increasing use of local suppliers.
“We’re constantly evaluating our routes and looking to take opportunities when they arise. For example, we are increasing capacity to Nairobi from July and Cape Town from October. Beyond that, we’re aware that in African economies, it is often small and medium-sized businesses that drive growth. Through initiatives such as On Business, which offers these sorts of companies’ discounts and special offers, we are still looking to serve their needs more effectively,” he disclosed.
Very few businesses are as brutally competitive as airlines. But because the competition is tough is not good enough a reason for airlines to be tough on customers. Because of the fact that travellers care mainly about price, many airlines seem to have made cutting costs the top priority at the expense of their service quality. But Cruz doesn’t think it has to be that way.
“It’s about every aspect of what we offer to customers: thoughtful service, onboard product, schedule and network. Customer service is more than just getting a good meal and something nice to drink when you’re on board. It extends to offerings such as ba.com and the BA app, which give customers more control over every aspect of their journey from check in to changing flights. We’re continuously evaluating every aspect of our offering from before you travel to when you arrive. We’ve recently introduced some of our most modern onboard products on the Nigerian routes and we are constantly looking for ways to improve the experience. We’ve worked long and hard to get the schedule we want to Nigeria and the daily services from Lagos and Abuja to Terminal 5 provide good connections to Europe as well as to services across the Atlantic,” he explained.
With his talk of thoughtful service, filling customers’ value-driven needs is part of the deal. As a full service airline, Cruz lists out some of the airline’s value driven offerings. His words: “Our Nigerian customers can choose from four cabins: First; our Club World business class; our premium economy cabin, World Traveller Plus; and World Traveller economy. I previously mentioned On Business, which provides small and medium-sized companies with benefits when they travel regularly with us. Of course there’s also the Executive Club, which rewards loyal individual travellers. Both of these add value in terms of recognition and benefits during and after travel.”
Airlines compete in complex ways and yet offer a largely undifferentiated service. For example, most of the major airlines compete with one another in separate markets.
While the overlap in markets is not perfect, oftentimes several major airlines compete on routes between major cities (markets). When that happens, reductions in fares by one airline in specific markets or, more generally, across the board are often met with swift responses by other airlines. As a result, airlines generally find it difficult to reduce prices. Alternatively, it is uncommon to match price increases, primarily because of multimarket competition between the major airlines. The situation suggests major rivalry. “We’ve always been in favour of fair competition. It’s good for the industry and for customers. Regrettably, we still see some uneconomic carriers that are propped up through subsidies and bailouts, which skews the competitive landscape.
“Nevertheless, we’re interested in everything the competition, does. And we are always looking to innovate so we can keep up with customers’ changing needs and preferences, and making sure we beat the competition,’’ he said.
Air travel is essential to the prosperity of Africa as it opens up opportunities that did not exist before. Fostering the African aviation industry may be one of the driving forces of regional integration on the continent. Better connected African countries and regions through a viable air transport industry could be the catalyst that can boost intra-African business, trade, tourism as well as cultural exchange, he posited: “The African aviation industry is certainly getting more competitive.
Connectivity and infrastructure
“That’s good for Africa and good for consumers. As connectivity and infrastructure within Africa improves, air travel will become easier and more affordable. This should encourage international demand from business travellers seeking opportunities in Africa and tourists wanting to explore its natural beauty, wildlife and many cultures. It will also increase the opportunities for African enterprises to expand to international markets and make it more convenient for outbound tourists or people wanting to visit friends and relatives overseas”.
Alex Cruz who is 50 years old is clearly an iconoclast in the airline industry. In 1995, he started his career at the American Airlines, where he spent a decade at group’s travel arm, Sabre in London. In 2000, he anchored as a partner at Arthur D Little, an international management consulting firm before leaving in 2002 to establish his own aviation consulting firm. In 2005, he joined Accenture as it head of aviation. In 2006, he founded clickair-a Barcelona based Airline Company which later merged with Vuelling, a Spanish low cost airline which was later acquired by International Airline Group in 2013.
In April 2006, he was appointed Chairman/CEO of British Airways. Sounding off on what he sees as the next step in global aviation, Alex Crux explains that the global economy has not recovered at the pace many hoped. “Across the industry as a whole – margins are still under pressure. Despite this, many governments still regard the industry as a source of income, ignoring the fact that punitive aviation taxation constrains one of the most important sectors for facilitating economic growth,”he said
Similarly, growth is also limited by unnecessary red tape and regulation relating to ownership and where and when airlines may operate. A rethink on some of this often antiquated regulation would be a good step for the industry and for customers”.