On Wednesday, 29 March 2017, Joy Ogbebor, an aviation industry veteran who is very passionate about capacity building for the sector, invited me to the inaugural Nigerian Cabin Crew Career Fair as a Special Guest Speaker.
In my speech, I mentioned that what we were witnessing was effective human capital development and investment in the next generation of skilled workforce for the aviation sector. As I sat down and listened to other speakers, a lot of questions raced through my mind. What makes the Nigerian environment unfriendly to aviation investors?
Why have successive administrations failed to give the re-positioning of the sector much-needed attention? Why do most Nigerian-based airlines fail? I will use Virgin Nigeria as a case study in this article because twelve years ago, I was part of the executive management team that championed the development and implementation of initiatives aimed at building capacity for Virgin Nigeria and the industry at large.
In 2005, our vision for Nigeria was clear: we were not simply interested in building the biggest and best airline operating from Nigeria. We wanted to build Nigeria into the aviation capital of Africa. It was very similar to what His Excellency Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, tweeted to his followers in October 2015 when he said that “Our vision for Dubai is clear: we are not building the largest airports in the world. We are building the aviation capital of the world,”
He made the statement as Emirates, the airline which was founded with a US$10m donation from him in 1985, marked 30 years of flying. Starting within one leased Airbus A300 and a Boeing 737 from Pakistan International Airways, Emirates now flies to 147 destinations on five continents, with 240 planes and 267 more on order.
On the contrary, Nigeria Airways which had 17 planes and a captive Nigerian market in 1985 is dead!
I joined Virgin Nigeria Airways (Nigeria’s designated flag carrier) in May 2005 as Human Resources Director and served in this capacity until November 2007. In 2006, I was redesignated as Chief Human Resources & Services Officer when I assumed additional responsibility for Aviation Security, Supply Chain and Facilities Management. From the first week of June 2005, I witnessed how various agencies threw unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles in our way.
The biggest challenge to the take-off of the airline came from government interference right at inception. Nigerian government officials insisted that London must be the new airline’s first route to make a symbolic statement. The airline’s business plan did not state that the London route would be the first to be inaugurated. The plan was to start with local flights, add the regional flights to re-establish Lagos as a west African aviation hub, before launching full scale international flights. To commence local operations, three Boeing 737-400 New Generation aircraft had arrived in Lagos (one more 737 aircraft joined in July 2005), and crew had been trained to support the flight operations plan.
On 28 June, 2005, the inaugural flight to London operated with an Airbus 340-400 aircraft from Virgin Atlantic, took off with a high-powered government delegation led by then Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on board. Due to insufficient time to create awareness amongst the flying public, loyalty to legacy airlines and intense competition on the London route, the airline sustained losses. Unlike the London route, our domestic and regional routes posted positive cash positions.
The airline succeeded despite facing acute shortage of required skilled aviation personnel in Nigeria at inception. We positioned ourselves as key developer of aviation skills. In spite of the challenges, we were the first airline in West Africa to attain IOSA/IATA operational safety audit accreditation. We became Africa’s fastest growing airline with over 967 employees in six countries (Nigeria, Cameroun, Ghana, Senegal, South Africa, UK,) in less than two years. From May 2005 to November 2007 (30 months), Virgin Nigeria invested over £2.8m in employee development.
As at November 2007, Virgin Nigeria had seven aircraft in its fleet and announced the order of 24 brand new aircraft from Brazilian manufacturer, Embraer. At the time, it was the single biggest order by any Nigerian airline ever in history.
To develop the right people, the Virgin Nigeria Cadet Pilot Development Programme commenced in 2008 to ensure a steady pipeline of much-needed cockpit crew. The On-board Flight Services Manager Development Programme was rolled out in 2007 to produce local Flight Services Managers to replace crew seconded from Virgin Atlantic on our long-haul fleet. We implemented an Engineering apprenticeship programme in partnership with the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria. We established an internship programme for NCAT students to enable them gain on-the-job experience.
Virgin Nigeria operated at a time when aviation ministry officials will not start a scheduled meeting with airline CEOs because local representatives of some foreign airlines were not present. We operated in an era when a Minister of Aviation would fly to Lagos and personally allocate check-in counters to airlines at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, a function statutorily under the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN).
We existed at a time when Nigerian aviation officials granted additional prime time landing slots to foreign airlines at Lagos airport but only gave half-hearted support to our requests and demands for reciprocal slots at major airports across the world where we were granted unfavourable landing slots at odd hours.
We had to contend with government officials who inundated us with requests for free flights for themselves, family members and concubines. Refusal to grant such unreasonable requests for seats further made them more unwilling to support Virgin Nigeria.
The airline operated at a time when an aviation minister would grant approval for implementation of clauses covered by the Memorandum of Mutual Understanding (MMU) while the next minister would revoke the approval, all done while the MMU between the Nigerian government and the Virgin Group was still in force. No one captured it better than Richard Branson, in a 2012 interview when he said that “we fought daily battle against government agents who wanted to daily make fortune from us, politicians who saw the government 49% as a meal to seek for all kinds of favour…watchdogs (regulatory body) that didn’t know what to do and persistently asking for bribes at any point…The joint venture should have been the biggest African carrier by now if the partnership was allowed to grow”
To grow and compete with other countries, the Nigerian aviation sector needs entrepreneurial business leaders at the helm of key agencies. These are the type of people who can deliver the kind of vision expressed by Sheikh Al Maktoum. As a highly experienced aviator, I am sure that the Nigerian Minister of State for Aviation, is aware that Singapore, with a population of less than six million people, has an airline with more than 112 aircraft in its fleet.
He must also be aware that Dubai with a population of 2.7 million people operates a state-owned airline with over 240 aircraft.
The government-owned Ethiopian Airlines with 85 aircraft in its fleet (plus 48 on order), is one of Africa’s largest and most profitable airlines and has been in operation for seventy one years since its establishment in 1946. It serves 41 domestic and 65 international destinations from its Bole International airport base in Addis Ababa.
This world class airport infrastructure offers passengers a memorable shop and fly experience. It is licensed by major aircraft manufacturers (Boeing and Airbus) to carry out multi-level repairs and maintenance. Unlike other state-owned airlines in Africa that have suffered from government interference, Ethiopian Airlines has remarkably had no government interference, even during times of significant turmoil and domestic hardship.
It has remained professionally run and managed. This made the Christian Science Monitor to term it in 1988 a “capitalist success in Marxist Ethiopia”. So important is Ethiopian Airlines to the country that even the infamous Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam was smart enough to know that he should not tamper with the airline.
With a captive market of over 170 million people and a strategic position in Africa, Nigeria cannot boast of any home-grown airline that can compete on a global scale. What are we doing to promote locally-owned aviation service providers to support the growth of the aviation industry?
In today’s world. Aviation and hospitality go hand in hand. There should be in place a working group consisting of aviation, tourism, transportation, culture, human resources and other key stakeholders to map out a strategic master plan for harnessing talent and positioning Nigeria as an aviation hub that offers seamless transfers and hospitality.
On a final note, I heard about the Vulindlela Aviation Awareness Programme implemented by South African Airways’ (SAA) in 2002 shortly before I joined Virgin Nigeria in 2005. Through the programme, SAA flight deck crew, flight attendants and technical staff did demonstrations and gave advice about careers in the aviation industry to school pupils using a converted truck remodeled to resemble the inside of an aeroplane.
The truck was fitted with a cockpit, cabin seats, storage cabins and an aeroplane engine for demonstrations. The programme was designed to (1) educate, (2) train and (3) develop pupils to help them fulfill their dreams, and (4) help the airline to overcome the shortage of skills in the specialized aviation industry. I had intended to implement a similar initiative in Virgin Nigeria.
The Nigerian aviation sector has under-performed since 1990. This has led to major foreign exchange loss to the country as foreign airlines filled the void created by the absence of a strong national carrier and repatriated their huge profits putting the Nigerian currency under pressure. A strong, privately-managed national carrier, using the Ethiopian model and discipline, with its own Maintenance Repair Organization (MRO), and free from government control and interference, will be a game changer for Nigeria.
We need a collective structured effort to restore the competitiveness and sustainability of the Nigerian aviation industry.
Victor Banjo is an HR Thought Leader. Board Effectiveness Coach. Corporate Governance & Sustainability Advocate. Change and Talent Leader.
Pan Atlantic University/Lagos Business School. National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, Nigeria