Mr. Allen Onyema recently floated an airline, Air Peace. He spoke with some journalists in Lagos on the project and other issues in the aviation industry. UDEME EKWERE was there
How did you develop interest in aviation business?
I remember that in 1998, some people approached me that we should go into aviation business. They wanted us to start a cargo airline. I contributed my own money. I sold some of my properties in Lagos Island but the other six partners could not make up their own. It took me another one year to get my money back and that was when I vowed never to go into partnership with anybody in Nigeria again. So, the ambition died then.
In 2007, I started nursing the same ambition of floating an airline to create jobs. Someone once said one commercial airplane could give jobs to about 100 people directly and 200 others indirectly. I said in that case, I would go into it. I started planning and I even enrolled in a flight school in London, to know how to fly myself. I started flying but not alone. So, I decided to go into aviation to create jobs. If I had put my money into fixed deposit, I would get a double-digit interest, which I would have used to look after my family comfortably. I had promised God in 2003 that if He could help me in my chosen endeavours, I would plough back to the society; that I would give one per cent of my gross earnings to evangelism and I have been doing that because I have been building churches and supporting evangelical work all over the place. The next thing that I promised God was that I would touch lives by way of tackling unemployment. And that is what I am fulfilling. That’s one of the three major reasons I went into aviation.
The second one is because of the incessant air crashes in this country. I felt if I could have the resources to go into aviation as a very serious person, I would bring the same integrity, with which I run my other businesses into aviation by arresting the incidence of air crashes in Nigeria.
I decided to go into aviation to change the face of aviation in this country by doing that which is right.
So, floating Air Peace is a promise I made to God to create massive employment for the nation.
Why did you name it Air Peace?
All my companies have everything to do with peace because I am into peace building. Everything about me is peace; that is why I named it Air Peace because I want to use this airline to open up my country. Again, the peace of the flying public is our goal. Their peace of mind in the sky is our goal. Our mission statement is to be one of the best and to provide unparalleled commercial scheduled flights and even charter flights for Nigerians and the flying world.
What arrangement has been made for the takeoff of the airline?
You know that aviation is highly regulated. You have to follow the rules; you have to prove to the authorities that you are ready. You have to prove to the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority that you are ready. They have to audit you and they have to make sure that you are fit to fly. We are getting there, we are getting very close. We are at the last stage. We have five phases and we are on the fourth phase now. We have Boeing and Dornier jets. We have Boeing 737-500 jets and Dornier 328 jets. The fifth phase is the certification itself and we are on the fourth phase now, which is flight demonstration. We have already started flight demonstration. You have to demonstrate to the NCAA for 50 hours; you are not carrying passengers but only their personnel, showing them what you are capable of doing it when you start operations. We have come a long way; it is over a year now.
How do you want to be different from other operators?
One area where we want to be different from other operators is safety. We want to have zero tolerance for unsafe practices at Air Peace and that is why we make sure that our aircraft are well maintained. We bought our Donier jets from Europe; we bought our Boeing jets from America. Our aircraft flew for 18 hours from the United States to Nigeria, no snag, no defect and that is unusual. Besides that, Nigeria should start to ask questions from the airlines about who maintains their fleet. It is all about maintenance. In America, they use 60-year old planes, no issues; it is all about maintenance. For us, we brought in the BCT Aviation Maintenance Company from the United Kingdom. They are a major maintenance organisation in the UK and they provide these services to major airlines of the world.
Just as one of our competitors is using Germans, we are using the British and they are here 24/7, maintaining these planes. If they do not sign any aircraft for operation every morning, that aircraft does not go into the sky. So, they must certify every aircraft before it goes into the sky every morning.
Again, we want motivated personnel. One thing we have noticed in Nigeria is that most of the airlines’ workers are always grumbling; it is either they are being owed eight months’ salary or 10 months’ salary; some are even being owed one year. We want to motivate our workers.
I will run this airline the way I run my other businesses. My workers in all my businesses take my business as their own. Air Peace shall be sharing profit with its staff members. I am going to run the South West Airline of America model. Air Peace will be declaring periodic bonuses as long as we are making it to trickle down. Every worker will see the airline as his and protect it. This will ensure safety more than anything. No matter the maintenance process you put in place, no matter the amount of money you put down to run your business, if the staff members are not motivated, you will have a problem and that may breach the safety.
How will you assess the Jonathan’s administration in the aviation industry?
This administration has performed well in the aviation industry. Before the coming of the Goodluck Jonathan administration, our airports looked like poultry farms; the airports were nothing to write home about. This government has renovated all the airports. Those airports may not be like the airport in Atlanta but they are better for now. This government has done well in renovating the airports and that has helped the aviation business.
Secondly, no other government has come to the rescue of the aviation industry or the airlines in this country the way this government has done. This is the first time we are having a zero duty on the importation of aircraft and aircraft’s parts. No other government has done this. This is the first time and Nigerians should know that the government took this step to encourage the airlines to plough back whatever they must have saved on the import duty to the maintenance of their aircraft in order to ensure safety.
What are the challenges you are facing in the new business?
One of the things affecting the running of aviation properly in this country is financing. It is a capital intensive industry. You need the banks for loans. For instance, two banks are supporting me at a high stake, although they allow me some moratorium, they expected us to start operation six months ago. However, the certification process is taking longer than we expected. What that means is that whenever we start, we’ll start paying back immediately.
As I said, I have two banks supporting me but at the same time the interest is too high compared to what is obtainable in America and other developed countries, where they have a single digit interest rate. So, not getting the right financing for the business is a major problem.
The second one is the issue of maintenance hangar. We don’t have maintenance facilities in Nigeria. When you want to do your C check or D check or major check, you need to take the aircraft out of this country.
A huge sum is expended in taking these planes out of the country for maintenance. At all times, you need dollars; everything is computed in dollars in the aviation industry. Maintenance issues are eating so much into the earnings of the operators.
For those of us that would like to have our hangars to develop manpower in this country, the government should give us the opportunity to do so. If an airline applies for a space for hangar, that airline should be given the land space. I am bringing in seven aircraft; I had applied since last year for the land to build a hangar but I have not got it.
If I had been given, the banks would have come in to help me to set up the hangar and I would start maintaining my planes here; I would bring the expatriates to teach our own people; this is building capacity for our people and replicating the Ethiopian model here.
Source: Punch news