'What keeps BA going in Nigeria for 80 years'
British Airways (BA) is popular among rich Nigerians who love flying. BA, they believe, has the best possible connection to destinations across the globe. This year, the airline is celebrating 80 years of its operation in Nigeria. A fortnight ago, reporters toured the airline's facilities in its London head office. Its Head of Sales for Africa, Middle East and Asia Mr. Paolo De Renzis fielded questions during the tour. Assistant Editor MUYIWA LUCAS was there.
How would you rate your market in West Africa and Nigeria, Middle East and North Africa?
In Africa, we have a very strong position, particularly in Nigeria. Africa is one of the most important markets to British Airways. South Africa and Nigeria are some of the biggest markets.
Is there anything specific on the West African routes, especially Nigeria, in terms of new products?
At the moment, we operate a mix of B747 and B777 to Lagos and Abuja. We keep on reviewing our work as network changes. We operate B777 in Abuja.This is the plan.
What is your capacity in Nigeria in terms of market share?
Unfortunately, I cannot share commercial and sensitive information when it comes to market share. We have been operating in Nigeria for 80 years. That means that our operation is strong, but I cannot be specific when it comes to sensitive figures.
You talked about bringing in B777 to replace the B747 your passengers are used to. What informed this change? Could it be as a result of shrinking market?
The B777 operates to Nigeria with First Class both to Lagos and Abuja. The First Class is a very important market for us. We keep on reviewing our capacity and we have been quite flexible with our capacity. We keep on operating B747 now but we will be reviewing this in the weeks to come.
The Nigerian economy is having issues. People cannot get foreign exchange; how much impact does it have on you in terms of passenger volume?
We are aware of challenging times in Nigeria. Load factors are very strong, but I cannot give you more statistics. Our operation is very strong and Nigeria remains our very strong market. We are still very positive about Nigeria.
Recently, foreign airlines had problem repatriating their funds from Nigeria, has that been resolved? What is the collaboration between your airline and the Nigerian government in view of foreign exchange policy?
As you know, there are some challenges at the moment with the Nigerian government. At the moment, we are working on it. There are ways things are resolved. This is a partnership of 80 years, and if you don't have the understanding at 80 years of being together, you will never have it. We are constantly working with the arms of government, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Ministry of Finance, International Air Transport Association (IATA) to ensure that we get support; we are getting support from the government. The matter will be resolved in a matter of time.
You will celebrate 80 years of operating into Nigeria this year. What are you giving back to your loyal customers?
I am not going to reveal what we are going to give back to Nigerians for our 80 years. When it comes to fares, our fares are very competitive and we keep on reviewing our price.
Operating in an economy for 80 years means there is something unique in that economy. What is that uniqueness that has kept you going?
I will say the people. We have a very strong base of loyal customers, some spanning four, five generations of particular families. In Nigeria, whatever you sell, you are good to go. You have the population. By your sheer population, your country is a very strong market for any product. When you take our product, which is airline, we continue to be the bridge to bring people from Nigeria into the world, connecting investors from the world back into Nigeria. It is the number and loyalty we have enjoyed over these years. We have a strong position of point to point.
How would you describe the local market and how can the government help to grow the sector?
From my point of view, the Nigerian market is not different from many other markets globally. There is a lot of competition and challenges with the economy, but again, this is similar to many of the markets I am responsible for in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, but we are a very dynamic company; we adjust our products and aircraft to suit demands. Nigeria is a very strong market and still a strong market; it will continue to be stronger for another 80 years.
On the passenger side, people talk about issues around transit visa, is there anything your airline could do to ease this without people cutting corners?
We work closely with the British government to ensure that when it comes to transit visa, the process is very smooth as much as possible. It is nothing specific for Nigeria, but we do it for everywhere and for many markets in the Middle East like Kuwait, United Arab Emirates (UAE) citizens in terms of easier processing of visas.
What are your plans for the medium and long term?
We have quite a lot of premium capacity increase. We have the new Boeing 747 with additional Club World seats, that is, Business Class. We have quite a lot of them to Riyadh, Kuwait, Dubai. Dubai is already operating with bigger Club World. Same for Riyadh, Kuwait and also to Johannesburg, which will happen very soon. Only two weeks ago, we announced our planned operations into Tehran commencing from July. We will fly to Tehran with B777, six times a week from London.
Apart from Lagos to Abuja, are you planning to extend your operations to other destinations in Nigeria?
At the moment, no. There is a big issue in Nigeria about multiple designation and the local airlines are raising eye brow. We are guided by the agreement between Nigeria and the United Kingdom (UK), which is the Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA). No matter how you like, you can't just say you want to fly into Port-Harcourt if it is not in the agreement, you cannot go there. If it is not in the agreement you cannot do it. If we want it, the Nigerian and British governments will come together and agree for us to do that. So, we may really like Port Harcourt because we have a lot of customers there, but we are guided by the law that exists between the two countries.
You used to have a lot of CSR projects. In 80 years, can you list some of the projects you have done as a gift to the communities?
There are lots of things we are doing in that area. There is the Kuje school in Abuja, which we built and still supporting. If you know the history of that school, it was a school where people were learning under the tree. BA actually rebuilt the school and provided portable water. I was in Kuje late last year to look at the computer class that we started. Last year, we were involved in Leaders of Tomorrow project where we identified six promising Nigerian students in aviation and tried to get them ready for the future. That was phase one. It was a fantastic programme. We brought them to London where they spent one month in different areas of the airline including mentorship from our CEO, Mr. Keith Williams, to get experience on civil engineering side of the operations.
We like to continue that and roll out the second phase. Those students were from the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria and Aviation school in Ilorin, Kwara State. I suspect that the second phase will be better and bigger than the phase one. The Britishness stops us from making too much noise. Even the Leaders of Tomorrow, we just want to impact on lives without making too much of publicity stunt. We impact on lives and want them to be the ones talking. We are also in partnership with Comet relief to ensure that people's lives are impacted.
The gender market is opening up now so much that there is a lot of agitation for women oriented business. BA should have a softer part not really on serious aviation.
We have tips on how to travel with kids. We are currently working with Women in Aviation, Women in Business and you know that they are very powerful people.
BA has made huge investment in aircraft expansion and acquisition. Could you avail us of the orders you have made, and the general outlook of your investment?
We are in the middle of £5 billion investments in new aircraft, new lounges to make sure that our customers have fantastic and even better experience on British Airways. We acquired 10 A380, but ordered 12. We acquired B787-800 the ones with First Class. One of the first one was to Abu Dhabi and Muskat. We will be reviewing in the near future depending on our capacity.
We constantly review our aircraft deployment globally. If there will be opportunity, there will be no doubt that we will deploy the A380 aircraft to Nigerian route. At the moment, we have one A380 flying into Africa, Johannesburg. We daily deploy A380 to Johannesburg. We will keep on reviewing our A380 operations globally. We deploy them to Singapore, Washington, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco etc. There are constant changes.
What are your challenges operating into Nigeria and Africa?
Everywhere is challenging. In fact competition is challenging. The fact that you have competition is challenging. As far as you have to deal with some common issues, it is challenging. What we are trying to do is to, as a company, rise above the challenges by making our operations safe and successful. If we have been there for 80 years, it means we can handle the challenges.
BA has been accused of selecting a particular kind of aircraft that operates to Nigeria. How true is this?
The aircraft look the same. Aircraft have registration. If you want to check, you can do that with Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) for the registration. It does not make sense to keep aircraft on ground, they are made to be flying. We came into London yesterday at 4.30am and there would be 8am flight to New York or 10am to Atlanta. They will roster that aircraft that came in from Lagos to the first destination within that period that you operate with B747. They won't wait for that aircraft to be returned to Lagos. Another one coming from elsewhere will be deployed to do the Lagos route. If you go into the aircraft toilet, right in front of you, opposite the door, you will see the registration. We have a lot of B747, but the registration will be different. That is why if you look at the seats, the numbers are different. We will not take bad aircraft to one of our biggest markets. As a matter of fact, we do not have bad aircraft.
Recently, a British carrier asked Nigerian cabin crew to go. What is BA's approach to its Nigerian staff?
I do not know the number of Nigerians that are employed by us globally. We employ people from all nationalities globally. There are a lot of Nigerians working globally for British Airways.
Nigerian airlines are very weak and fragmented. Is there anything BA has to assist Nigerian carriers?
This is a strategic decision; it has to come from our parent company, AIG. I cannot answer this question. This is something I cannot comment on. AIG is the parent company and they take strategic decision on airline partnership.
Going forward, what will happen in the next 80 years of your operation in Nigeria?
BA has a long history when it comes to operations; it was formed over 90 years ago. In those days, we had small planes, but over the years we have grown a lot and I am very proud that we are in Brunei, the Middle East. Three years ago, we celebrated eight years to the area. We have a very long relationship with Africa, particularly with Nigeria. This year we are celebrating 80 years of flying into Nigeria, and we have been increasing capacity to over 40 per cent in other places. We have been pretty successful as an airline. I cannot tell you what will happen in next 80 years, but we are very strong in products and in terms of operations and definitely we will keep on growing and adjusting our capacity to profit the whole demand. The Nation