By Louis Ibah
As the Embraer 195-E2 taxied to its final halt on the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, apron, Thaddeus Eskor, who had watched its slow but steady approach, final descent, touchdown and colourful water-shower by FAAN firefighters, a traditional welcome ritual for any inaugural flight into an airport, raised his fist in celebration.
“This one no be tokunbo o,” he proudly informed his four friends in pidgin English.
They had seen the VIP movement and of others at the Abuja airport and, learning a new aircraft was about to land, also gathered from afar, at the departure lounge, to witness history. Indeed, on Thursday, January 29, the day Air Peace Airline, a Nigerian carrier launched some six years ago, became the first registered Nigerian airline to introduce into the country’s airspace the luxurious Embraer 195-E2 medium-range jet for commercial passenger use, was historic.
It showed in the faces of guests drawn from the industry, the National Assembly, state governors, federal ministers and the diplomatic corps. Elated, and even when he knew his friends understood what he initially meant, Eskor, with a smile, still retorted: “This one is tear-rubber!”Another Nigerian coinage, which, like the first, described the purchase of any brand new automobile.
“The ambiance, feeling and aura inside a brand new aircraft is an experience we’ve been denied for too long in Nigeria, but I am happy this is about to change with a new flying experience created for local passengers by Air Peace,” Eskor added.
The narrative is changing
Without doubt, Eskor, just like many other Nigerian stakeholders in the aviation sector, have every reason to celebrate the purchase of a new aircraft by an operator.
In the 2000s, a spate of air crashes, which rocked the country, had necessitated new regulatory policies to boost safety and passenger confidence, among them changes in aircraft types flown by operators and the call by whoever mattered for the purchase of new aircraft. While the former appeared a condition easy to meet, it was the latter that proved herculean, not being helped by the scarcity of forex, high premium by offshore underwriters and failure of local banks to grant single-digit interest loans to operators. The easy option was, therefore, the purchase of either used aircraft or wet or dry lease.
Air Peace taking delivery of a new Embraer 195-E2 aircraft type with 30 requests, which include 13 firm orders and 17 purchase right orders from manufacturers in Brazil, was seen as a big boost to the local industry in many respects. Aside from changing the flying experience of passengers and even of pilots of other crew, it would also cut down on cost of fuel and maintenance for the management of the airline. It costs more to maintain an older aircraft, which is one reason government had kept imploring local operators to go for newer aircraft, if they needed to overcome the challenge of low or zero profits.
For Air Peace, the journey started in 2019 when its managing director/CEO, Mr. Allen Onyema, in a show of rare courage and foresight, placed a firm order for the Embraer E2 set of aircraft as part of the company’s fleet and route expansion programme. But it was also in response to the challenge by the Federal Government for local airlines to start utilising new aircraft.
“The minister threw us the challenge to acquire new aircraft; that is what we have achieved today. The brand new aircraft made it a great day for Nigeria. Those aircraft will create at least 8,000 additional jobs. That is my joy. At the two-week interval, more aircraft will start arriving in Nigeria,” Onyema said in Abuja when taking delivery of the aircraft.
But great thanks should be given to President Muhammadu Buhari. It was his zero Customs duty payment on imported aircraft and spares that served more or less the much needed lifeline for Air Peace to bring new aircraft into Nigeria.
No city left behind
With one down and 12 more to arrive, the purchase of the Embraer 195-E2 jets comes at the right time.
Indeed, the last three years (prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic) has witnessed a 5.4 per cent increase in passenger patronage of flights, according to data by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). Sadly, this increase also came with noticeable shortfalls, a mismatch in demand and supply, mostly during Christmas and New Year periods, which often left most Nigerian passengers stranded at airports. The Air Peace re-fleeting programme, therefore, is expected to address this imbalance.
Onyema, in an interview with Daily Sun during the launch of the Lagos-Sharjah-Dubai flight, restated the need to leave no Nigerian city and its passengers behind in air transport connectivity, especially airports considered unserviceable.
This month, that vision is set for implementation with the launch of Enugu-Kano-Enugu, Enugu-Asaba-Enugu, PHC-Kano-PHC, PHC-Kaduna-PHC, Ilorin-Lagos-Ilorin, Ilorin-Abuja-Ilorin, and Ibadan-Abuja-Ibadan routes. Therefore, aside from its deployment for regional operations, the E195-E2 jets are arriving as the perfect aircraft type for this inter-city project.
The days of long delays at airports for flights during Christmas and New Year seasons owing to huge passenger traffic outnumbering available aircraft can be considered as over.
Said Onyema: “It is great that we will be the first Embraer 195-E2 operator on the African continent. We already have the ERJ145s in our fleet. So, we understand the high standards of Embraer products. The E195-E2 aircraft will strengthen Air Peace’s drive to deploy the right kinds of planes to under-served and unserved domestic and regional routes under its no-city-left-behind project.”
It is a view corroborated by Arjan Meija, the president/CEO, commercial business aviation, Embraer, who, in describing the aircraft type, said: “The E195-E2, tagged Profit Hunter aircraft, will help Air Peace achieve its ambition of connecting not just all of Nigeria but the whole of the African continent while feeding long-haul flights from their Lagos hub.”
Setting the pace, however, appears to be the hallmark of the airline. Shortly before the firm order for the Embraer jets, Air Peace had set a domestic record as the first Nigerian airline to acquire and register the Boeing 777 series of 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 already been delivered and inaugurated.
In just six years of operations, the airline now operates into over 16 domestic, five regional and two international destinations.
The airline also boasts of a fleet size of 27 aircraft and is steadily expanding its fleet with more Embraer 195-E2 expected in 2021.
Experts applaud feat
Lauding the Air Peace project, Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, described the Embraer 195-E2 as a fitting bird for Nigerian skies.
“We must never forget that the propensity to fly is determined by the price of the ticket, and in turn the choice of equipment. The equipment type determines the profitability and sustainability of operations. There is no way an airline that has invested in the wrong equipment can compete with one that has new aircraft. A new aircraft is fuel-efficient, requires minimal maintenance, low workload on pilots and higher profit, all of which wrong equipment does not have.
“I will urge other operators to rethink their type of equipment for sustenance, following the example of Air Peace. Air Peace has keyed into the sectoral road map of aviation and it is commendable,” Sirika said.
Aviation analyst and member of the Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative (ASRTI), John Ojikutu, also commended the airline’s management, saying Air Peace made a bold tactical decision going for the Embraer E2.
“Using aircraft with lower capacity on routes that are one hour or less will remove unnecessary delays and cancellations for reasons of load factor and reduce the turnaround time for more flight frequencies.
“These are the aircraft the Nigerian private airlines need for the domestic and regional routes they can dominate, thereby reducing the incursions of the foreign airlines into what should be exclusive theirs,” Ojikutu told aviation journalists recently.
For analyst, Olu Ohunayo, Air Peace, with the purchase, has acted like a pacesetter, opening the door and making it easier for other local airlines to acquire brand new aircraft.
“Having the new aircraft beautifies our sky and improves the quality of aircraft in our airspace. I give kudos to Air Peace for refusing to cancel the order at this trying time. I look forward to having it on the appropriate route so that things will work as planned. Most airlines will also have good bargains in acquiring aircraft now. I encourage other airlines to explore this opportunity and key into it,” Ohunayo said.
More government support
There is no denying the fact the the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been felt more by the global airline industry and that, for Nigerian airlines to survive the post-COVID-19 lockdown era, they would require a huge dose of government support.
One way government can throw in this support is by considering and treating existing airlines as if there were wholly-owned government national carriers, for indeed that is what they are. In fact, it is becoming so clear that implementing the national carrier plan at a time of lean resources, downtime of global aviation, and in an age where national carriers are no longer fashionable globally makes no economic sense to Nigeria.
First, government must support Nigerian airlines to overcome the numerous hurdles put in place by some nations against their efforts to deploy aircraft in their fleet effectively for regional and international operations to recoup their investments, which is imperative for their survival. Government should also come up with fiscal and regulatory policies that support local airlines, like abolition of multiple routes designated to foreign airlines and the multiple taxations paid to airports and service-providing agencies. There is also the need to deliberately fashion out a way to cut down on cost of fuel for the airline industry, which can be achieved through an honest stakeholders meeting.
“Everything we said we’d do in 2014, we have been able to achieve them and we believe we can do more, with articulate planning. So, the era of saying Nigerian airlines are pushovers is gone and gone forever. All we need is the enabling environment to perform, and I bet you we would perform more than your expectations,” Onyema said, restating the capacity and capability of local airlines, if government creates the right environment for business.