…Why growth in aviation sector is stunted
…You pay more for a six-hour flight to UK than somebody flying nine hours to UK from SA
…Says President Buhari, Sirika ‘ll turn things around in three years
By Clifford Ndujihe, Politics Editor
CHAIRMAN of Air Peace Airlines, Dr Allen Onyema, in this chat x-rays the state of the aviation sector 59 years after independence, pin-points the challenges and marshals the solutions. He also spoke on why international airfares are expensive in Nigeria, how and why the government must protect local airlines.
59 years after independence, what is your take on the aviation sector, from National Carrier to no carrier?
Well, the aviation sector in Nigeria is still growing. There is a lot of potential out there. We are not yet where we should be. Nigeria should have been at a better place than it is now in terms of aviation. However, the current government is trying to change the trend.
The Minister of Aviation has been holding meetings with stake holders almost on a weekly basis, genuinely trying to find solutions that will move the industry forward. Hadi Sirika, who is now the substantive minister is doing a lot, seeking solutions to the myriad of problems that have stunted the growth of the industry in Nigeria. Aviation needs time to plan, we believe that within the next three years with the way he is going the country will be better for it.
What are the problems in the aviation sector?
There are poor airport infrastructure and navigational aids. The government is doing everything possible to address them. They are trying to equip the airports and once they do that everything will be okay. They are bringing modern navigational aids.
Another is taxes, multiple taxes. The president has removed Value Added Tax, VAT, from our tickets. It will help airlines to shore up their earnings. Airline operators are very grateful to the president for this. The minister too has been very hard working. He is guiding us and sometimes will meet with government agencies to implement government waivers.
Another problem is the multiple frequencies being given to foreign airlines. I believe the government has started listening to us on that and has realised that it will not do the country any good. I believe that the government will never give more frequencies like that to any foreign airline. Rather, we may start reviewing the ones already given.
For those not in aviation what is multiple frequency?
It is, for example, allowing a foreign airline to land in Abuja, go to Port Harcourt, and fly back to Abuja before going to its country. No country does that but it has been happening in Nigeria.
Another problem is multiple destinations. This means allowing a foreign airline to fly direct into several cities in your country. For example, one foreign airline is flying to Kano, Kaduna, Enugu, Lagos and Abuja. It is not done anywhere in the world.
Currently, one foreign airline is doing two flights to Lagos everyday and one to Abuja and is applying to do more. If one foreign airline does these, what is left for local airlines?
The fact that every state wants an international airport does not mean allowing foreign airlines unfettered access to those airports direct from their countries. If you did, you will provide no jobs and kill the economy of the country.
What these foreign airlines should do is to liaise with local airlines in Nigeria to fly to other airports.
In most countries that are the size of Nigeria, what they do is to give only two entries to any foreign airline, the rest, they liaise with local airlines. That is the only way you grow aviation in your country or your local airlines will die. The government is trying to address this to save local airlines.
Some aviation experts advise the government wrongly because of their selfish interest. And these people have garnered some kind of clout over the years that when they speak the public will think they are saying the truth.
At an event organised recently by League of Aviation Correspondents in Lagos, some wrongs would have been allowed to stay but thank God that I was there. An acclaimed aviation expert came up to the podium and was celebrating a foreign airline in the presence of local airlines, and telling the government that there was nothing wrong in that foreign airline running airlines for us, establishing local airlines and running a national carrier for us. Can you imagine, in a country with so many experienced and wealthy people?
He was eulogising a particular African airline that is pretending to love Nigerians more than we love ourselves. That is a lie because I have evidence that some African countries don’t want this African airline to fly into their counties because of allegations of it trying to invent another way of colonising Africa.
Some other countries approached Air Peace to help their national carrier. Asked why they did not approach that particular African airline, they said the airline does not believe in a win-win.
So, we should not fall for the antics of these foreign airlines. Anybody who is not ready to do a win-win with us should not come here and pretend that he loves us more than we love ourselves.
I learned that one foreign airline wants to be flying to Asaba and Enugu. Why are they showing so much desperation? It is because Nigerian airlines are trying to get it right all of a sudden. They know that once Nigerian airlines start getting it right and doing international routes, they will be in trouble. So, they are clinging to everything they can cling to.
They wanted to float a local airline in Nigeria. We went behind to float a local airline in their country. They wrote to us and said, no, that it is for their local people and government. But the same country wants to come here and float a local airline.
People should bring certain facts to the attention of the government like Air Peace is doing. The government has been listening. We know that we have a passionately patriotic president and he will not want anybody to demean this country. He has put on hold so many things that these foreign airlines would have done to us.
So, the government is working on it. The Minister understands it better and is protecting local airlines. The President and the minister are pro-Nigerian airlines.
How has your operation in Dubai and other international routes been?
We thank Nigerians and the flying public. We started flying to Sharjah and Dubai on July 5, this year. It has been very good and the turnout has been very encouraging. We are having a fair share of the market already. We are ready to represent this country very well in the international scene.
We are looking forward to starting Korea, South Africa, China, United Kingdom and United States of America. We are processing the applications. President Muhammadu Buhari has given us the permit to these destinations. We are processing the permits at the other ends because the other countries will also give you permit before you start.
On number of frequencies given to Air Peace in United Arab Emirates, UAE
We are allowed to fly seven times a week and we are doing three times a week now. We are flying to Sharjah. It is 15 minutes by road from Dubai. We are doing three to Sharjah. We want to do another three to Dubai but they are telling us there is no slot. We are telling them that there is nothing like that we want to fly seven times to UAE. We must go to their major airport-DXB (Dubai). They should not tell us to go to DWC (Al Maktoum), which is 70 kilometre away from Dubai. If they did not allow us, we will also apply to our government to send them to Minna.
We have a patriotic president, who is ready to protect us. The problem is people don’t bring these facts to the minister. The minister fought for Air Peace when they did not want to give us permit. He used his money and travelled to Dubai.
Under this minister, if you send your request for import permit to import an aircraft you will get it within 48 hours. Before, you needed to know somebody who knew the minister to get an import permit.
You ordered for new aircraft, when are they arriving?
Our brand new planes, 20 of them, will start coming in seven months. It is the Embraer 195 E-2 Series, the latest of invention of Embraer. It is as big as Boeing 727 and carries 146 passengers. It is for domestic and regional operations and can take you to South of Europe and South Africa non-stop.
How many planes does Air Peace have now?
We have 26 planes. They will be 46 when all our new orders arrive.
On why airfares are expensive in Nigeria
International airfares are very expensive. Nigerians are being ripped off. You pay more to do a six-hour flight to UK or Europe than somebody in Johannesburg doing a nine-hour flight.
The only way we can curb it is for Nigerian airlines to start going to these countries directly. Air Peace has applied to go to Heathrow, London. The Federal Government has given us permit. We have applied to Europe, they are using TCO (Third Country Operators) clearance, all sorts of things to delay us but we believe that we will get there.
What about USA?
The Federal Government has given us permit for Houston and Atlanta. We are going to to do all these routes. We have the planes. We brought in three special planes, another three will come in before December. We are prepared to do all the routes given to us by the government. We are going to create jobs. As we do in Air Peace, we don’t know tribe. What we know is Nigeria citizen and mankind. The place is a mini-Nigeria. We are gender friendly. Out of 30-member management team, 22 are women.
You are marginalising men
We are not marginalising men, we employ as they come.
Apart from international fares, local fares are also expensive
Local fares in Nigeria are the cheapest in the world such that people are beginning to ask how we maintain our planes.
Take Delta Airlines, if you are flying from Atlanta to Miami, today’s flight, you will pay between $350 and $400 for one hour flight. That is about N144,000 for economy. If you carry luggage, sit on the aisle, sit on a seat with more leg room, etc, you pay more. And in America, everything works. You don’t need to buy generators or buses, etc. Even aviation fuel is more expensive in Nigeria. Everything we do is through import. One of my Embraers’ fadec (a small part) had a problem. We had to pay $102,000 for it. Sometimes you don’t get the parts, you have to call the manufacturers to make it and while that is on, your plane is on ground. It is also difficult for Nigerian airlines to access leased aircraft.
They tell you Nigeria is unsafe, risky, etc. They stigmatise Nigeria in order to charge higher premiums. And at home, you borrow money at over 26 per cent interest. So, airline business in Nigeria is not too profitable.
At Air Peace, our economy tickets starts with N23,000 and our highest economy fare is N51,000.
Still on the evacuation of 503 Nigerians from South Africa during the xenophobic attacks, what was the motivation?
The truth is that you have known me for over 20 years now. You will agree with me that I have done bigger things than this. Because I am not the press and media type people started knowing about Allen Onyema with Air Peace because airline brings you out to the fore. But you in particular know the things that I did in the past, how I engineered the first Nigeria Forever project that was supposed to encourage broad nationalism in Nigeria as opposed to ethnic nationalism that took me to the 36 states of the country preaching peace.
All the first class Emirs in the North, the Sultan, Emir of Kano, Kotangora, Lafia, Shehu of Borno, etc, hosted me after I did my peace rounds with thousands of my followers. It was solely funded by me in 2004.
You were there when I brought the University of Rhodes Island Centre for Non-violence and Peace Studies to train me and my staff so that we could go into the Niger Delta to start fighting the incidence of militancy. You were there when I single-handedly funded the training and transformation of thousands of people before the oil companies noticed what I was doing and started bankrolling me.
I have paid my dues for this country selflessly. What I did in the Niger Delta area is two million times bigger than the evacuation. What I did in the Niger Delta restored the economy of this country that was nose-diving as a result of violent militancy. In Niger Delta, as at the time I went in, in 2005, oil production had gone down to 500,000 barrels per day for a population of over 190 million people waiting for disaster.
Investments were taking flights out of Niger Delta. Kidnapping was the order of the day. Bombing of oil installations were rife. Oil prospecting on shore ceased. They went offshore to be prospecting oil and the boys went to Bonga oil fields, 100 nautical miles into the sea, and hit Bonga and that alarmed the International Community.
That was when I brought my brand of solution to the crisis, which was a non-violent action. I funded the faculty of University of Rhodes Island Centre for Non-violent and Peace Studies led by Dr. Menat Lafayette, Jnr. They came to Nigeria under my funding to help my country change the narratives in Niger Delta. Everywhere in Niger Delta became non-violent and that culminated in the amnesty that late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua gave them.
I laid the foundation for the amnesty programme because at that time I had trained and transformed no fewer than 3,000 militants, and the International Community was celebrating me for what I was doing before the oil companies noticed and started bankrolling me.
Within 24 hours, I was able to restore Shell to the multi-billion Naira Afam Power project that had been abandoned for years because I had whittled the capacity of militants in that area by taking them to South Africa for training at a great risk to my life. So, because I don’t talk just a few people in the state knew, maybe DSS.
Not until Yar’Adua took over that he sent Tim Alaibe to bring me, that security report said I was performing wonders. Timi said yes, that even some of the people I trained, he employed them in the NDDC.
They told me to train the leaders of the militants. They did not want to come because they thought that it was a trap. So, they sent 600 of their commanders, who were trained and transformed. The transformation of the 600, I was told, made Yar’Adua to give amnesty. So, this country should understand that I have been doing selfless things all my life. I am not looking for publicity or anything.
The motivation for me is to achieve unity in this country, save lives, do things that will help the growth and progress of everyone n Nigeria because I see in this country a very great nation. 378 ethnic nationalities that make up Nigeria is a source of strength for this country. S
So, my motivation is to save mankind, help the indigent. A lot of people were stranded in South Africa for more than five years; they did not have anybody to help them come back. Remember, I used to take ex-militants to South Africa to train and transform them. During that period (2005-2010), I noticed that so many Nigerians in South Africa were begging for food, some were stranded, they did not know how to come back. So many of them also had good businesses, some were self-employed and doing things that were helping the South African economy.
On the gains of the evacuation
I didn’t envisage the outpouring of love and commendation people have shown us. I did not know it would be like this. What gladdened my heart and made me to shed tears inside the aircraft when I went to receive them was because of what they were saying inside there. I saw Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Ijaw, etc clinging together, holding hands and shouting ‘Nigeria, Nigeria, Nigeria.’ They were proud, and I felt grateful to God for using me to bond my nation. This is what I have worked for all my life, a peaceful Nigeria.
So I started crying when they started singing the national anthem. Some of them never liked the national anthem before then, some of them would not have sang the national anthem. They felt that sense of belonging; they felt proud because so many other countries that were also affected had nobody to come rescue them.
Nigerians were walking tall. Even the South Africans were marvelled when Nigerians were leaving, and they were looking at us as the giants of Africa, you touch them their people will come for them.
So, we have been able to tell the world that we are one in this country that we may have our differences within but no country should ever toil with the resolve of Nigerians to be together.