Richard Quest is CNN’s foremost international business correspondent and the established airline and aviation correspondent at CNN. In this exclusive interview with IFEOMA OKEKE, Quest speaks on the future of ‘Inside Africa’ Programme and shares his thoughts on Nigeria’s aviation sector.
What is your opinion on the US travel ban extended to Nigerians by President Trump?
This is not like the other travel bans. It doesn’t relate to people going on holidays, it doesn’t relate to people going on business visas. It is purely about student and immigrant visas amongst others. It is very limited in its effect and I am guessing that the US tried to get Nigerians’ attention and they succeeded. The US is obviously being concerned with the way these visas are being abused and they want to put a stop to it and that is what they have done. I don’t know the exact issue but from my own understanding, there were some issues about overstay but the Nigerians are now talking to the Americans about it and I guess that is what this is all about.
Do you see the travel ban being lifted anytime soon?
No. The US is very hard-nosed at the moment. When they have decided to do something, they are not changing their minds.
The usage of Boeing 737 Max has been suspended for the past six months. Do you see the aircraft coming back anytime soon?
Yes, it will come back soon because they are making all necessary adjustments. They have repaired the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) software. They have dealt with the other issues. You need to remember that the piece of software involved called MCAS was very specific for certain limited number of occasions. Unfortunately, they didn’t build it very well. There is nothing wrong with what it does and there is nothing wrong with the concept. The problem is the way they built it. Boeing broke their own rules. They didn’t put redundancy in it, they didn’t give pilots the final word, they didn’t tell pilots about it and they didn’t put the pilots in charge. They made a system that was too powerful and they didn’t tell anyone about it. So they broke all their own creed of integrity.
If the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) declares the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft okay to fly, would you fly it?
Of course, I will fly the aircraft. The product will still excel because people have got short memories. The DC-10 had problems; the 787s had batteries that set on fire. People had forgotten these quite quickly. The Boeing 737 MAX aircraft is a very good aircraft. Rebranding is not a good idea because what happens is that if the first airline flies the 737 Joy for instance and someone points out that it is a MAX aircraft and that they have hidden it; it is not worth it. It is better-off saying this is a MAX, it is safe and we are flying it. If you don’t want to fly it, fly another aircraft.
Apart from Ethiopian Airlines, why do you think African airlines haven’t really succeeded over the years, like the American and European carriers?
The government of Nigeria should not be in the airline business. What you do is that you deregulate your air space, allowing in those who can run the routes for you. You might want to put in some restrictions for regionally important routes or if you’ve got Instrument Landing Systems, (ILS) that needs to be serviced, you can do that. There are some other things you can do to protect certain areas that need protecting. Africa is a land of huge potentials in aviation. There are multiple airlines flying across different countries like the EasyJets. I think of EasyJet as a British Airline but it operates in various countries.
The sooner the continents airlines are free to fly where they want to, when they want to and where they can economically make money, the better. The three big players are Ethiopian Airlines, Kenyan Airways and South African Airways. Ethiopian Airlines is a government-owned airline but very well run, Kenyan Airways would probably be taken back into public ownership and South Africa. When Fastjet wanted to start off, it faced difficulties just flying between the different countries. So you need to deregulate so that Kenyan Airways and other airlines can fly wherever they want and stop protecting national carriers that are just draining governments’ money. Open skies is the future. Intra-African aviation and domestic aviation is not as easy as in Europe. You don’t have as many airports and they are not all well-equipped. This means the flying time is limited. So here in Nigeria, there are lots of airports where you can’t land in bad weather or nights. This immediately cuts down aircraft utilisation. For EasyJet, the movement from one airport to another is easy. The planes are working from morning to night. In Nigeria, this may not happen. There are issues which of course can be addressed. Infrastructure spending is needed. The government needs to be spending money on airports, runways and capacity. This isn’t rocket science. But we should stop protecting national cows or sacred cows. Nigeria has proven that it can do very well without an airline. Nigeria isn’t suffering because it doesn’t have an airline. It has Emirates, Qatar, Etihad, South African Airways, Virgin and many more.
Are you saying Nigeria does not need a national carrier?
Nigeria does not need a nationally owned carrier. You don’t need the government starting an airline. It will be very nice if investors in Nigeria decided to put their own money into an airline. South African Airways is a good example of an airline that is in deep financial trouble that you have to question its right to exist. It has so much government’s money poured into it and it has failed to turn profitable. Eventually, you have to say this thing will never be profitable, close it down.
How do you think Nigeria can leverage its geographical and population advantage to become an aviation hub for West Africa?
You need infrastructure; you need reliability and choose an airline that will be the hub carrier. That will be starting your own airline which is fine if its private enterprise but disastrous if it is government owned. Or you say to another airline like Emirates if it will like to build another hub in Nigeria. Nigeria can give it fifth freedom rights from Nigeria but open skies requires people to be able to fly from here to anywhere else but Nigeria will have to give licences to those other airlines to be able to run routes from out of here. So, Nigeria may not worry about being a hub. There are plenty of places Egypt is trying to do a hub and is better positioned. You’ve already got Kenya running a hub on the Eastern coast, which is not really working. South Africa has not been able to run a hub. The next one is Ethiopian Airlines which is running a good hub. It is possible to run a hub in Nigeria but you have to build infrastructure, start an airline or you have to invite a foreign airline and give them the right to operate out of here. For instance, Emirates could start Emirates Nigeria based in Nigeria. But the last person to try this was Richard Branson with Virgin Nigeria and that did not go well. I suggest before worrying about hubs, Nigerian aviation authorities can concentrate on getting the main airports up and running and less chaotic. The chaos is just phenomenal when you come to the airport and I am thinking why it has to be this way. It is simple. Those with visas, those without visas and those with visa on arrival should be told where to stand, so they can be checked one by one. It took my colleague three hours just to do the visa on arrival at the Nigerian airport. So concentrate on getting those things right because they will unleash business potentials. Concentrate on getting the regional airports up-to-speed so that people can land in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning.
What is the future of Inside Africa?
Inside Africa is excellent. It is very good. Inside Africa is going to be the programme of contemporary Africa. We are making some changes but it is going to be the sort of programme that reflects people’s lives; where they go, how they dance, how they eat and what they do during spare time. This is what Inside Africa is going to be in the future.
If the spread of coronavirus is not curtailed, what threat does it pose to the travel industry world-wide?
It will be a disaster. Coronavirus is serious but nearly 300,000 people yearly die from flu. It is looking like it is going to turn into a pandemic. It will be in more countries, it will be out there until it is summer and until it blows itself out. But it doesn’t kill young healthy people. It is hitting the older people more.