We employ Nigerian pilots but not at the expense of safety – Air Peace CEO
Allen Onyema is the Chief Executive Officer of Air Peace, Nigeria’s largest domestic airline. In this interview with IFEOMA OKEKE, he speaks on the airline’s plans to do international operations next month and steps it has taken to actualise this plan.
How do you feel about the entry of the Boeing 777 into Nigeria and how do you intend to deploy this aircraft to get maximum result?
I feel good and I am thankful to God almighty that this is the third Boeing 777 we are bringing in out of the four we acquired. We are going to start international operations soon, starting with Dubai and Sharjah, then we will face Johannesburg and India, then China, followed by the United Kingdom and Houston. Air Peace is not packing aircraft for fun. We brought in these aircraft to use them and we are ready to use them. We want to make every Nigerian proud. The government and people of Nigeria have been complaining that there have never been any successful Nigerian airlines and this is one airline out of Africa that is trying to do something different. All we need is the support of government and the people of Nigeria.
How many employment opportunities will you create with your new B777 aircraft?
I set up Air Peace in order to create jobs in a country with so much population. This aircraft will create 1,500 jobs and I want people to look at the potentials and number of families that feeds from this airline. If I am going to employ 1,500 because of the entrance of this aircraft it means 1,500 multiplied by 12 people who are nuclear and extended families financially dependent on those who will directly and indirectly benefit from this new aircraft. People should look at the thousands of lives the airline is feeding in this country.
They should look at the thousands of lives I have taken away from the streets. They should not look at the man behind the airline but the legacies I am leaving behind. If Air Peace shuts down tomorrow, it doesn’t affect me. They should look at the thousands of people the airline is feeding. The airline is respected worldwide but I am not receiving the same kind of acknowledgement in my country and it is so hurtful. I want to dwell on the positives. In Air Peace, we have over 3,000 workers and we have created about 9,000 ancillary jobs outside Air Peace in less than four years of our operations. We deserve to be appreciated and supported.
What plans does Air Peace have to sustain these prospective routes?
I am a lawyer by profession and a businessman. I did not come here to make money but to give back to society and this is evident in how we are running the airline. Air Peace has integrity and all the banks want to work with us because of this. Banks outside Nigeria see Air Peace as an emerging force in Africa. The only support we lack is within. We have our business plan and blue print and we will follow it to the end. When we started, we told ourselves that in our fourth year, we will go international. We have been buying airplanes. Some airlines that have gone international used only one aircraft and when the aircraft develops fault, they disappoint the passengers.
We have four new planes for our international routes already. So, at any point in time, we have a back-up. Most Nigerian airlines do point to point operations. What Air Peace has done is to sign interline agreements with airlines outside the country, so that we can sell tickets for people going to about 23 cities in India and all Gulf regions. Some other airlines failed because they lack integrity. A lot of Nigerians borrow money without any intent to pay back, so how will they succeed? Whatever we make is used to develop Air Peace and that is why we see the tremendous growth from seven airplanes four years ago to about 25 planes in operation and 20 other planes on order, bringing it to almost 50 planes in the next two years.
How do you maintain these new aircraft you bring in?
Right from day one, I didn’t want to cut corners and that was why I didn’t want to employ individual engineers to run Air Peace. I decided to outsource our maintenance. Our Boeing 737s are being maintained by a British company. Our maintenance is top-notch and zero tolerance to unsafe practices. The Boeing 777s are being maintained by Israel Aerospace Industries of Israel, one of the biggest and best maintenance organisations in the world. They are always here maintaining our Boeing 777. We are in good hands. We always go for the best. We spend a lot of money to do this because it gives us confidence. We have the desire to make Nigerians feel safe when they are flying us.
What is your response to the recent controversies over the Boeing 737 Max aircraft and reactions of Nigerians to the aircraft orders you made last year?
I want Nigeria to give us a chance. It hurts when Ethiopia had the unfortunate incident that happened and it is Air Peace that is suffering the brunt here in Nigeria. Another airline had an incident outside Nigeria, Nigerians started attacking Air Peace as if it was Air Peace that was involved. This is because we ordered ten brand new Max 737 last year. As at the time we ordered these planes, there was no accident.
When we ordered the plane, it was the pride of the aviation world because every airline wanted to own a 737. When we made this order, no one praised us for making that bold step. At that time, Nigerians were saying Nigerian airlines are using old planes but we went ahead to order brand new planes. Unfortunately, Ethiopian Airline had an incident with that plane; they resurrected from their slumber and started attacking Air Peace. These planes are not even coming to Nigeria till 2023 but some people posted that Air Peace had about four flying which is a lie. When the Federal Government came out to say no Nigerian airline has the plane for now, they changed and started accusing Air Peace of daring the world by insisting on bringing in the new aircraft. There are people out there trying to bring us down but one message I have for them is that it is only a fruitful tree that people throw stones at. It energises me and tells me that we in Air Peace are doing something right.
In terms of local content, do you have plans on training Nigerian pilots to become type-rated on these new aircraft?
I believe in local content but don’t deceive yourself, when you talk about safety, we won’t compromise on this. We don’t have enough captains for the Boeing 737s. Having 1,000 pilots who just passed out of school is not enough to qualify us as having enough pilots in Nigeria. The question is can they go into a commercial aircraft and lift it up? We tried some of them and they couldn’t even move the plane. We should balance the act.
Air Peace is for local content but it is a gradual thing. We must have expatriates who will help us bring up our own. In aviation, anywhere you go, when it comes to cockpit crew, they are not bent on nationalism. As long as you can fly the aircraft well, any country can employ you. We have trained over 100 pilots, some of them passed and we took them. I have sent some local pilots to get trained on Boeing 777 and about six of them will be leaving next week. They have been flying for over 30years and will be type-rated on Boeing 777. It is not just about entering the planes and flying but when there is emergency, what will they do? That is the difference between a new pilot and an experienced pilot. I have employed a lot of pilots. For my ERJ aircraft, I have employed more than I needed. I could not sack them. I don’t want anyone to loss his or her job. I got more second officers than we needed. When they came, we wanted to reduce the numbers. I looked at their faces and some were crying. The parents of some of them sold their lands to send them to school. So, I had to take them, that is the spirit in Air Peace. I just pray to God to give me money to get more ERJ aircraft. So, we support local content but not at the expense of the lives of the flying public.