By Nkem Osuagwu
We are seeing strength in Nigeria’s economy with improvement in air travel, says Kola Olayinka, British Airways Regional Commercial Manager, West Africa. In this interview, he spoke about the challenges of his carrier in the country’s aviation industry, the re-introduction of its iconic B747 aircraft on the London-Lagos route and other issues affecting aviation in Nigeria.
What were the issues British Airways faced in the last two years including trapped funds?
The challenges first started with election, how long it took. We went through the issue of FOREX and remitting money became difficult. We seem to be turning the corners. We are not fully there yet. I am sure you know all the figures. I don’t want to brandish the figures again. It was scary because you start talking of $600 million. Things are getting better and we realise we need to bring back the B747 on Lagos route. We have always flown B747. The one we flew was an older B747. The seat configuration was 14 in First Class, 70 in Business Class and 48 in Club World and about 185 in Economy.
The B747 that we are using now; we are beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel s. Things are getting better, Nigerians are still travelling, businesses are picking up. Ofcourse, people will tell you that the challenges are still there. They are managing it; they are applying strategies. We can see some strength in the economy based on what the government is doing and we thought that it would only be fair for our customers who have endured hard times with us will start bringing back good fares, fantastic products. This B747 is going to be more refined with IFE improved on it. I think we have 120 channels of different movies that you can watch, meals are better, seats are better and that is where the £400 million expenditure on Club World as quoted in the press is going. That £400 million is not just for Nigerian route but on all our aircraft that we have in Club World That is why we are bringing this on and we are very confident that the customers can only be the better for it. Today, for example, we are breaking a new fare. We are having fares in the economy for about $440 to London and we are having Business class for $2800 to London. Not only is the product getting better effective September 7th, it is also progressively getting cheaper. It is cheaper and better. It is a very difficult combination. Our customers have stayed with us through this difficult times trying to describe to you from 2015. I can imagine how expensive the fares have been not because we increased the fare but if the dollar is at N520 or N500 and the fare was N160, 000 it is now about N500, 000. So, things are getting better. We are bringing a new product; so we are launching a promotion and I don’t think there is any business that can offer. We are in the middle of summer and we just hope that our customers will take advantage from September. Schools are not resuming until mid-September. People still have opportunity of traffic just like a couple or as a business or individual and that is we thought we should speak to our very close friends and just let you know what we are doing. You know that our message is always simple, straight forward and about the customers.
Taking a look at your operations in Nigeria; British Airways has been existing for 81 years, how can you appraise your operations in terms of challenges, the highs and the lows?
Looking back is always a privilege because if you look back on the route. I started many years back and you can imagine how many bosses I have gone through all the years. People have really passed through this place. They built the business, this company. One of our CEO’s came into Nigeria recently. He has retired. He is Keith Williams. The top things he said is that service is in our DNA. Service is part of us. It is what we do. That is what keeps BA going. If you lose service, you lose everything. I am not saying that we are perfect all the time, but I can tell you that when something goes wrong that is when you see BA rising up to the challenge. It has been a really good journey all these years. If you take a look at our operations, it has always been about the customers.
The aviation industry in Nigeria has changed. There is a lot more competition than 20 years ago. Many airlines were not here 20 years ago. The Americans were not here 20 years ago, the Middle Eastern carriers were not here 20 years ago and they are here now in full force. Even the European carriers; some were not here 20 years ago.
Is the market always dependent on new carriers?
Almost all airlines from every continent are here in Nigeria. That means the pressure is on making sure you deliver as a company. We are happy. Competition is good. When there is competition, the customers benefit because we keep bringing out one promotion package or another. Some of my colleagues will be jumping up because of it because the customer is the better for it. Let the best man win on the day; that is what business is all about. It is not about protecting any one, it is about letting the best airline that offers the best fares, best product, and best people win at the end of the day. I must also add that Nigerian travellers are extremely intelligent. You can’t fool them. May be you can fool a person but you can’t fool everybody. If you sell something to them that they don’t like, they won’t come back. The era of taking the customers for granted is over. We are at an era where customers know more about aircraft than some of us. Technology has also helped. All you need to do is go online and everything comes out. If you want to see the inside of a plane, it is there on the website even on our website. We adore our customers. We realized that without our customers, there is absolutely no business. It might take some time but your business will be eroded if you are not doing enough for your customers and that is one of the strength I think BA has. We know our customers love us, they love the service but we are never going to take them for granted which is why we are bringing back the B747. One unique thing about the B747 is that the upper deck; there are some people in Nigeria, what they want is go on the upper deck. It is quiet, beautiful, nice and serene and you feel like you are in a world of your own and people love it and it is coming back.
I am surprised that British Airways is bringing back the B747 and it is coming at a period airlines are using more efficient, fuel efficient two engine airplane. The B747 is a fuel guzzler and it is also a period Jet A1 is an issue, why is BA coming back to this aircraft?
Generally across the globe, aircraft are getting newer. We have the A380. We have 12 of those. They are in service. You can see a progression in aircraft acquisition all over the world. We may not be as aggressive as some other airlines but we equally have these newer versions and you can see new things happening. B747 was not manufactured yesterday but the services would all be brand new including the interior. The seats will all be brand new, the IFE will all be redone and it is brand new. Yes, there is some cost to it but we also believe that if you look at our fares out of here, our customers pay quite a bit and we want to make sure they get value for their money to compensate them for what they pay because all these years like I said they deserve some benefits from the money they are spending whether it is a man that employs ten people that are supposed to have a meeting in London or is a family that just wants to go for summer with their children without breaking the bank especially with what is happening in the country now. If for a period of time you offer them some flexible fares, I think it makes sense and then you can keep them. We don’t want a one customer business, we want customers that keep coming back because when we get it right for them, give the right fares, the right product.
Is this aircraft just for this summer or going to be a regular plane for the London-Lagos route?
It is going to be here, not just for the summer.
Does it also mean that traffic is improving with more people taking to air travel compared to last year and 2015?
Let’s be very honest as Nigerians looking at this economy, almost everybody is rationalizing. Let’s take it from the family unit. Sometimes I say to the kids you are not going; this is what I can afford. Everybody is doing that. The small businesses need to travel. Business is still transacted not on the phone but by shaking hands and no matter how much you use technology you have to be there to sign the deal. Children who are in school must come home. The school would still go on vacations. This is an indication that things are getting better. How many airlines do we have operating into Nigeria? Look at the size of our BSP. They are in billions. We have over 32 airlines in BSP today. A few left. One of mine left but majority are still here. Let me tell you, if we are not doing very well, we won’t be here. Nigeria is a resilient market. We have the number, we are resourceful. We are not like some African countries when you get on the airplane, the people you get to see are other nationals but on Nigerian routes, the people you see are Nigerians and a few other nationals. We are smart, we are travellers. Anywhere you go in the world, you will always find a Nigerian. I once travelled to Seychelles and as we landed, I was telling my wife that there cannot be a Nigerian here. Lo and behold, the taxi driver that came to pick us was a Nigerian. He was a black man so we thought he could be from another country but not a Nigerian. We were coming from Kenya, It was Kenya Airways, so he thought we were Kenyans and we said we are Nigerians. He screamed and said we are brothers. He was working in the Ministry of Lands there. He said he is a Professor. He was the one selling all their lands. This is an island where they do not wear shoes. We went from the state capital to a place called Ladik. People were walking with bare feet. We are adventurous, smart and resilient. Nigerians really travel.
Will economy passengers benefit from this aircraft you are bringing?
Yes. There is what we call seat pitch. For example, very tall people, it means your knee cap will not be touching your seat in front. When I travel like that for six hours I get cramps or the way to avoid cramp is to be walking around. The seats have more space. The food is much better. There is a seat back video for every seat whether you are in economy or not. Now, you can plug your laptop. It is generally an improvement in the service whether you are flying in the economy or business class, you enjoy our service. Let’s face it; economy passengers are very important with 145 seats. If it is empty, it’s going to be at a loss. Every class is important. I discover that it is easier to show people than to be describing. When you go yourself, you can take pictures, you can look on line. Because of the competition we are talking about, more airlines are investing in products, investing in people. Even our own Nigerian airlines are upping competition. Medview is using B747 to London. They are doing a good job. Why competition is good is that the customer benefits. If you come out with a nice fare, somebody else will copy it.
From the information I gathered, the aircraft you are introducing has been operating in Nigeria
It has operated once or twice because when aircraft goes for maintenance they introduced it. I have been in the aircraft myself, but the B747-400 itself is not new but the refitting inside is new. We don’t want to misrepresent facts.
On your fleet renewal programme; last year the British Airways announced its fleet renewal programme; how far has the airline gone with it?
The £5 billion fleet renewal has been completed. We have the full A380 and I had the pleasure of flying it. That one is like a house in the sky. We are introducing the B747 on the route to compensate our customers and to get most of our customers to remain with us. If things had been rough in the last 15-20 months with people paying a lot based on what I described earlier, this is the time to give them good products. To be honest with you, we had to fight for this aeroplane. We had to pull it from other routes. There is no airline that is profitable that will tell you that they reserve one plane for a particular route. Airplanes are made to be flying. We had to prove that we can do better with this plane on the route. We got it back and it is going to be great because we have new products on it. Introducing it at this time to our customers is the best thing to do. We are introducing it at this time because it is summer. This will come in before summer. Summer will wind up end of September, but it is still coming in summer and people can take advantage of it. The B747 has come to stay. Let us hope that our economy remains this way and continue to improve. Things are going fairly ok. People are cautiously optimistic. I am not an expert, but we listen to a lot of experts and we see what the government is doing. We still need help but things are much better.
Have all the airlines including British Airways received all their trapped funds? At the peak of the crisis, did your company ever contemplate leaving Nigeria?
Let us start with the trapped funds. I think things are a lot better now. I keep repeating that. We are daily selling. You can’t say they have given us all our money. They can never give us all our money because we are selling daily. As we are talking now, people are booking and paying. We cannot say they have finished paying us.
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