By Ikechukwu Amaechi
A DAY after Ibom Air took delivery of two brand new Airbus A220-300 aircraft at Victor Attah International Airport, Uyo, on June 14, an elated Governor Udom Emmanuel put a call through to Captain Mfon Udom.‘
“You guys did it again,” he told Udom, Ibom Air Chief Executive Officer. Magnanimity and humility, virtues of the heart, are the essence of leadership – and Emmanuel possesses them in abundance.
“When you sold your vision on Ibom Air to me a few years ago, I had no doubt that despite all odds, it was a good idea,” Udom answered.
Ibom Air, owned by the Akwa Ibom State government, is Emmanuel’s baby and a soaring success story. But in his humility, he gives credit to others for the giant strides the airline has taken in just two years.
When he mooted floating an airline in 2019, he was opposed vigorously, but he held on to his vision informed solely by a desire for the government to maximise common good.
“When we started Ibom Air, I made known my target, that when I came into office, I met one private jet and that before I leave office, I will not leave without at least 10 airplanes that will be beneficial to all Akwa Ibomites. We are pursuing that goal,” he reminded Udom.
“Fellow Akwa Ibomites,” the governor called out, turning to the entire indigenes in ululation. “We have some exciting news. As you may already know, we have recently taken delivery of two brand new Airbus A220-300 series, the latest in aircraft manufacturing.
“I want to say here that this is huge, it is exciting news, it is good news and we are working tirelessly to become the preferred airline in the entire region. This makes us one of the fastest and finest in the aviation history and this wouldn’t have been possible without one man, the CEO of Ibom Air.”
Nigerians love bandying clichés, particularly if the goal rationalises the failures of governments and incapacities of those who straddle the corridors of power. Too often, you are inundated with platitudes such as “it is not government’s business to own businesses.”
Who says? At issue is not the inability of governments to run businesses successfully. Globally, governments do the heavy lifting that clears the way for private sector participation, and businesses have been run successfully by governments.
What is bandied as evidence of the inability of successive governments in Nigeria to run businesses that impact positively on citizens is failure of leadership. When leadership is devoid of vision and strategic thinking, governments fail in business. The bourgeoning success of Ibom Air also amplifies the leadership mantra that when vision meets passion, success is assured. The airline is pivotal in Emmanuel’s vision of making the oil-rich state a sub-Saharan industrial hub.
“Our blueprint to becoming an industrial hub hinges around opening major gateways of air, sea and land,” he explains.
He sees the delivery of the two aircraft as a milestone. “On Ibom Air, it is a major breakthrough in the entire region. In the entire Gulf of Guinea, I think this is the first airline to fly this latest in aircraft manufacturing.
“The success of this airline holds immense benefit to the people of Akwa Ibom. It shows our positive attitude, it shows the people our creative mind, it shows our people our capacity; how we can weather the storm.
“And it shows the people that we are the eagle that can fly no matter the weather condition.”
Besides, it shows that leadership matters. Emmanuel has every right to crow. He is accomplishing what no other government, state or federal, is able to do. Since the deregulation of the aviation industry in 1985, no state government has come close.
And the Federal Government has floundered in its attempt to float another national carrier since the liquidation of Nigeria Airways Limited, NAL, by the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2004.
As Emmanuel noted: “Never in the history of this nation or indeed anywhere else in Africa that I can recall, has a state government gone into airline operations.”
Being the first state to achieve that feat, the governor deserves a pat on the back. But again, characteristically, he gives it back to the people. “We should all collectively give ourselves a pat on the back.”
Established in June 2019 with a single Bombardier CRJ900 aircraft, the airline grew its fleet to five by October 2020.
Remarkably, all the five Bombardier CRJ900 aircraft were less than five years old when acquired, and equipped with the latest aviation technology, including the sought after HEPA filters that clear the air of contaminants like the COVID-19 virus.
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With the acquisition of the two Airbuses, which took the fleet to seven, Ibom Air is now one of Africa’s most vibrant startup airlines. A very young airline on the continent is poised to dramatically change Nigeria’s aviation landscape for good.
But it was not happenstance. The choice of aircraft was strategic.
“The reason is that with the right aircraft type, we don’t have to carry a hundred passengers in order to make good the business,” explained George Uriesi, Ibom Air Chief Operating Officer.
“Our break-even point is lower than [that of] many of our competitors, and as long as we have a certain number of passengers per flight, we are comfortable; and certainly, the market provides the number of passengers per flight. As long as we have those passengers or more, we [will] continue to be profitable.”
Aviation experts concur that Bombardier CRJ900 with capacity for 76 to 90 passengers and a range of 1,553 nautical miles (2,876 km) are very useful.
The range has enabled Ibom Air to open up several routes from its Victor Attah International Airport hub in Uyo to Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja; Margaret Ekpo International Airport, Calabar; Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu; and Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos.
But the airline nursed, ab-initio, an ambitious route expansion strategy beyond the national airspace. The Airbuses are meant to make Uyo a continental aviation hub, and that seems to have been kick started.
Gambian High Commissioner to Nigeria, Mohamadou Musa Njie, recently went to Uyo to discuss with Emmanuel the prospects of Ibom Air flying to Banjul, The Gambia. That was even before the Airbuses were acquired.
Beyond acquiring more aircraft, the state government is also modernising the aviation infrastructure. To actualise its ambition for international flights, it is constructing an international terminal at Victor Atta Airport and concluding arrangements for an in-house maintenance, repair, and overhaul, MRO, facility at the airport.
“We are going to have the smartest airport terminal building in the whole of Africa and that is under construction. We are going to commission the terminal building by December 2021 and once we commission it, we are going to start full international flights of Ibom Air by the first quarter of 2022,” Emmanuel said in October 2020.
Those who believe that governments cannot run businesses successfully should borrow Emmanuel’s template, which is, when a government runs a business as business to promote efficiency and eliminate cronyism, it succeeds.
Ibom Air is a classic example. Though funded by the state, there is absolute absence of government interference in its day-to-day operations. It was set up as a going business concern and professionals knowledgeable about aviation business were brought on board and given a free hand to run the airline.
Captain Udom is fully in-charge. If the governor wants to travel with the airline, he buys his ticket. There is no complimentary ticket. He must be at the check-in counter 45 minutes before departure. Flights are not delayed for him. And every other person has fallen in line.
Within two years, Ibom Air has won the hearts of air travellers for efficiency, quality services, safety, keeping to schedule and high level professionalism by the staff by keeping to its three core values of schedule reliability, on-time departures and excellent service – the three key yearnings of the average Nigerian Air travel passenger.
“Investors will continue to flock into our state, given the ease of traveling; the launch of this airline will engender the peace we enjoy and the hospitality of our people. We are all winners in this,” Emmanuel promised Akwa Ibomites at the launch in 2019.
How prescient! But in delivering so handsomely on his promise, even as others continue to lament over economic crunch, Udom Emmanuel, the governor of Akwa Ibom State, has become the quintessential Eagle that flies regardless of weather condition.