By Chinelo Obogo, [email protected]
It is an undisputable fact that air travel is the fastest means of movement and provides the only rapid worldwide transportation network, which makes it very essential for business. The aviation sector helps economic growth and Nigerian airlines have been at the forefront of creating jobs, facilitating trade and tourism and promoting the country’s brand. As Air Peace, Nigeria’s biggest airline, marks seven years of operation this month, we take a look at how it has contributed to the nation building and the economy.
Over many decades, the Nigerian aviation industry has seen the birth and demise of many airlines, a factor the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, attributes to poor business plans, high cost of maintenance, choice of operational equipment, high interest on loans and poor corporate governance. When airlines like Bellview (founded in 1992), Chachangi (1994), Air Nigeria (2004) and many others existed, they created thousands of direct and indirect jobs and helped in the growth of the aviation sector. By the time the government-owned Nigeria Airways ceased operations in 2003, Airk Air which was founded in 2002 was already showing the prospects of emerging as the country’s largest airline.
Just three years into its operation, Arik had opened international routes and was rapidly expanding such that there were speculations that it could be given the status as Nigeria’s flag carrier after Air Nigeria ceased operations. Unfortunately, by 2016, Arik had plunged into major financial crisis and most of its aircraft became non-operational and by the start of 2017, it was taken over by the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) because, as at the time, it was deemed by the Federal Government as ‘too big to fail.’ Like the airlines before it, Airk Air provided thousands of direct and indirect jobs at its prime and was very vital to the ecosystem of the aviation industry.
Air Peace, currently Nigeria’s largest airline, commenced operations on October 24, 2014 and, according to its Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Allen Onyema, the airline was founded with the sole purpose of creating jobs for Nigerians. Currently, it has employed over 3,000 workers and creates indirect jobs for thousands more. While receiving its third new Embraer 195-E2, from the Embraer Facility in Sao Jose Dos Campos last June, Onyema said Air Peace would create up to 17,000 jobs by 2023 when it completes delivery of its 30 new Embraer jets. He said the airline has fully paid for 13 new aircraft and made purchase rights of additional 17 more which would be activated by 2023.
“In addition to the firm’s orders of 13 aircraft, which we would have received before the end of 2022, we would make further commitment of 10 additional aircraft and by the time we have 30 aircraft, we would employ about 17,000 personnel.
“We have new routes that we have just opened and more routes will still come in the coming months. We will connect North East with North West and other routes. We have over 20 destinations, which is very commendable,” he said.
COVID-19 evacuations, distribution of medical supplies
At the peak of the pandemic last year, and while flying, restrictions were still in place, Air Peace helped transport medical supplies on behalf of the Federal Government and carried out inbound and outbound evacuation flights to bring back stranded Nigerians from around the world. It flew in medical supplies from Turkey and also flew to China on April 7, 2020 to bring in medical supplies and medical experts on behalf of the Federal Government.
On May 31, June 4, 13; July 4 and 8, 2020, many Nigerians were evacuated from India, Turkey (July 5), Uganda and Kenya (July 2), UK (June 28), Thailand and Malaysia (July 11). On May 30, it flew back to China to evacuate 268 Nigerians and on May 29, it evacuated 301 people as well. The airline evacuated a total of 4,300 Nigerians last year.
In April last year, the airline distributed food items to several indigent families in different areas in Lagos as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The airline’s officials visited Sabo, Makoko and Ajegunle areas of Lagos where they gave out bags of rice, cartons of noodles and loaves of bread to people whose sources of livelihood were adversely affected by the COVID-19. An elated Baale of Okira Olayeni located in Ajagunle, Chief Taiwo Olayeni thanked the company and said that this is the kind of support people expect from corporate organisations and expressed gratitude to the company.
Last year, while many airlines were laying off workers, slashing salaries and making staff redundant as a result of the negative Impact of the pandemic, Air Peace increased its staff salaries by up to 100 per cent in some instances. When asked why he took the decision, Onyema said, “My motivation comes from God. I have told Nigerians that I created Air Peace because of the love for my country and just to create jobs. I am looking forward to a Nigerian airline where the workers in generations to come will be able to say my great grandfather worked in Air Peace, my grandfather worked in Air Peace, my own father worked in Air Peace, and here I am working for Air Peace.
“So it is the legacy that matters to me. I looked at the hardship around and everything, and I decided that whatever little we have, let’s push it back to the staff and I decided that we should double their wages ranging from 10 per cent, to 100 per cent. Some people got 100 per cent increase, some others 80 per cent, depending on where the person’s grade is.”
Air Peace signed a four-year partnership deal worth N300million with the NFF to become the exclusive airline sponsor of the national team and the deal is renewable every year for the next four years.
During the signing of the agreement, Onyema said the decision to sign the contract despite the current economic crunch in the aviation sector is due to the airline’s desire to be part of the success stories of the Super Eagles. “I decided to be part of what NFF is doing not because of their hard work, resilience, breaking barriers to make sure that Nigerian football is in the forefront globally, but principally because I want to use the platform that God has given me to restore hope in this country,” Onyema said.
NFF President, Amaju Pinnick, applauded the agreement, saying with the Air Peace partnership, the federation had become 75 per cent self-funding. “Air Peace is not only 100 per cent about safety, but it is an organisation with a human heart. Air Peace epitomises unity, patriotism, humanity and selflessness. We at the NFF have followed not only the meteoric rise of the company but its patriotic fervour and sense of nationalism. It is an organisation that believes firmly in the Nigeria project, just as we do,” Pinnick said.
Philanthropy, peace advocacy
Allen, who was recently bestowed with the Exceptional Philanthropist honours by The Sun Publishing Limited, played a major role in restoring peace in the Niger Delta at the peak of the bombing of oil pipelines by militants. It was this effort that brought about the Amnesty Programme of the Federal Government.
In 2005, Onyema initiated the First Nigeria Forever Project, an initiative for the promotion of broad nationalism as opposed to ethnic nationalism. He subsequently won for Nigeria the hosting rights of Global Conference on Non-violence and Peace in 2007.
Onyema told Daily Sun that he takes pride in preaching for Nigeria’s unity and that was why he committed himself into ensuring that peace returned to the Niger Delta. He said: “I put my life on the line for this country to ensure that peace is restored in the Niger Delta with my own funds. I was asking myself how we should approach the Niger Delta issue and I remembered that nonviolent agitation was used to bring down the British rule in India by Mahatma Ghandi without having to encourage his people to take up arms. So, I had to study the Niger Delta to find out what the issue was and found out that the people were rightfully agitating for fair treatment when it gets to resources coming out of their area and no one paid heed to them and the next thing they did was to take up arms, thinking that it was the best way to solve the problems.
“I applied to the University of Rhodes Island Center for Non Violence and Peace Studies in the US and asked them to bring the entire faculty to Nigeria to come and teach us but they told me that it is very expensive. I told them not to worry about the cost and that was how I funded the entire faculty to come to Nigeria and train me and my staff. When we finished from there, I went into the creeks because I was now equipped with knowledge and could confront violent people. It was a dangerous assignment and I didn’t see my wife and kids for one year. I got the first 10 people and trained them and at a time, I started getting them in hundreds.”
In 2019, the world watched in horror as xenophobic attacks were unleashed on Nigerians living in South Africa by South Africans. Many Nigerians lost their lives and property in the attacks. Onyema deployed Air Peace aircraft to South Africa and evacuated hundreds of Nigerians who were willing to return. He spent over N280 millions of his personal funds in this philanthropic gesture.
Air Peace currently services 16 domestic routes, five regional and two international destinations, including Johannesburg and has a varied fleet of 28 aircraft and brand new 124-seat capacity E195-E2 jets.