By Lawani Mikairu
On December 20th, 2016, more than 700 passengers of Arik Air who had earlier booked to depart Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos were stranded at the airport as the airline was unable to operate its flights due to the picketing of its counters at the airport by aviation workers unions under the aegis of National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers, NAAPE, National Union of Air Transport Employees, NUATE, and Air Traffic Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, ATSSAN.
The action, which started as early as 5 am, led to traffic chaos in the area, especially at the General Aviation Terminal ,GAT, from where the airline operates its local flights. Arik Air management reacted by shutting down flight operations the next day , December 21st. There was panic and confusion in the aviation sector by this singular action of the airline. Hundreds of thousands of passengers were stranded across the airports in the country.
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The Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, was most affected as passengers were seen sleeping on the floor of the departure lounge. This forced the then Minister of Aviation and the federal government to quickly go into a closed door negotiation with Arik Air management and immediately ordered the aviation union workers to vacate the airline facilities at the airport.
All these intervention and pleadings by the federal government happened because Arik Air was controlling more than 50 % share of the aviation market then and had more planes than all the other airlines put together then.
The same situation of untold hardship witnessed then by passengers could be repeated and experienced again if all stakeholders and the federal government do not rally round Air Peace airline as the airline currently controls more than 60 % share of the aviation market and has more aircraft than all the other few airlines, currently operating, put together.
This explains why stakeholders are of the view that the federal government should support the airline in its trying times so that the gains already recorded by the airlines will not be eroded. Currently, the airline provide thousands of jobs for Nigerians, especially Nigeria pilots who have been most affected by the current unemployment in the country.
Speaking with Vanguard on the need to rally round Air Peace, Mr Abioye Olayinka, former General Secretary, National Union of Air Transport Employees, NUATE, said : “The Air Peace saga is rather unfortunate. Looking at it from two angles, I want to join other Nigerians particularly those in the aviation industry to appreciate the fact that the airline has added great value to our sector and whatever happens to the nose also affects the brain. To that extent, I personally enthuse with the man at the centre of this matter and opine that all things being equal, he deserves the sympathy of all of us”.
“On the other hand, since this is purely a legal matter, Mr. Onyema has what it takes to face the law squarely in the USA and get the best legal brains to negotiate (if there is any element of guilt), and do plea bargaining. If however, his hands are clean as he is claiming, he also should use the very best of legal minds to face the American court, to save his integrity, businesses and our nation the embarrassment it may cause or is causing. Having read so many stories connected with the matter, and considering the fact that America is a “useless racist country” where outstanding black people are usually brought down by any means possible, Onyema has to tackle the matter with everything..”, he added
Also speaking with Vanguard on the need to support Air Peace airline because of their current strategic importance in the Nigeria civil aviation market, aviation commentator and former Commandant, Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, Group Captain John Ojikutu ( rtd) said : “Naturally,the airline should be supported because of the number of aircraft in its fleet and the volume of its daily air and passengers traffic. However, there would be those, most likely to include some domestic or Nigerian airline operators who are in commercial competition with Air Peace on the domestic and regional routes in particular, not to support Air Peace. These would see the airline’s ordeal as a golden opportunity for increased earnings. Stakeholders that can show open sympathy are the service providers and possibly the dedicated or frequent travellers on the airline”.
When asked if the federal government should openly declare support for the airline, Ojikutu said : “Don’t ever believe anyone who tells you that the EFCC was not part of the FBI investigation on Air Peace. Government was visually careful to support the Air Peace in the rush to evacuate the Nigerians in South Africa during the xenophobia crisis. So also now in the crisis with the US FBI. Don’t forget that the EFCC gets financial grants from the US government to support its operations”.
Within a short span of five years of its operation , Air Peace, as said earlier, currently has more than Sixty percent share of Nigeria domestic aviation market and the fleet size larger than almost all the fleet of the other domestic airlines, currently operating, put together. That explains why Group Captain John Ojikutu ( rtd) in a recent online interview with Saturday Vanguard said “It should target 10million passengers from at least 15 of the domestic airports”.
On the fleet size of Air Peace, the airline Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Barrister Allen Onyema , in a recent interview with Vanguard said, “We have 26 planes. They will be 46 when all our new orders arrive. 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”.
Recall the airline pulled a surprise on aviation stakeholders and passenger in Nigeria and West Africa when it placed a firm order for 10 brand new Embraer 195-E2 aircraft. The order comprises purchase rights for a further 20 E195-E2 jets. The deal makes Air Peace the first to order the brand of jets in the whole of Africa, thereby becoming the official launch customer of the brand of aircraft in Africa.
The carrier also set a regional record in September 2018 when it ordered 10 brand new MAX 737 aircraft from Boeing. Shortly before the firm order for 10 brand new aircraft from Boeing, Air Peace set a domestic record as the first Nigerian airline to acquire and register the Boeing 777 aircraft in the country. Three of the four wide-body aircraft it acquired for its long-haul operations to Dubai, Sharjah, Johannesburg, London, Houston, Guangzhou and Mumbai have so far been delivered.
In its drive to connect most cities in Nigeria, the airline recently set up a subsidiary called Air Peace Hopper and took delivery of six 50-seater new generation Embraer 145 jets to serve the subsidiary and service the inter cities routes the airline is opening. The development marks the first time a Nigerian airline would establish a subsidiary to manage an arm of its flight operations, following the tradition of some of the big carriers in the world.
Speaking about the subsidiary, Air Peace chairman , Barrister Allen Onyema said : “We will organise our plan to link many cities in the North and South of Nigeria under the subsidiary, Air Peace Hopper. We hope to connect routes such as Enugu-Kano-Enugu, Benin-Port-Harcourt-Benin, Port-Harcourt-Kano-Port-Harcourt, Lagos-Warri-Port-Harcourt-Warri-Lagos, Lagos-Warri-Abuja-Warri, Lagos-Kaduna-Lagos, Lagos-Sokoto-Lagos, Abuja-Sokoto-Abuja, Abuja-Bauchi-Abuja, Lagos- Markurdi-Lagos, Lagos-Jos-Lagos, among others”.
“ This will not only open up and energise the economies of the different cities and states, but also create massive job opportunities for the people. We remain focused in our determination to transform air travel in Nigeria, Africa and beyond. In three years, we have increased our fleet to a size of 24 aircraft. We are currently pursuing a massive route expansion project,” Onyema added.
The airline also recently commenced its Sharjar, Dubai route operation by introducing affordable fares on the route which set jitters down the spine of the big middle east carriers who have dominated and monopolized the route for a long time. It has recorded steady progress on the route and it is set to start other international routes. This was revealed by the airline.
Air Peace airline recently took the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility, CRS, to unprecedented height when it evacuated 503 Nigerians from South Africa during the xenophobic attacks free without any cost to the federal government. When asked what was the motivation behind the gesture, Onyema said : “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”.
An airline with so much potential and that has done so much for the country in terms of providing jobs, laundering the image of the country at no cost to the government, should be supported by all stakeholders because thousands of Nigerians will be thrown into the unemployment should the airline close shop.