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Aviation: Lost opportunities and lessons of history

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I find it impelling to write this piece because of what is going on today in our dear aviation sector.

As I spend some free time reading through write-ups in over four aviation online platforms on my handset, I feel somewhat low and downcast.

Only an unserious stakeholder will not be bemused at the unending mental gyration and the consequential bland and recycled stories and ideas therein.

Reflecting on the past six years on how we, as stakeholders in aviation, have contributed to the non-implementation of what we all applauded as “Hadi Sirika’s Aviation Roadmap”, I came to the obvious conclusion that the lessons of history on lost opportunities are totally lost on us.

While our country recedes to take the back seat in African and West African aviation development, we collectively and personally contribute to this ignoble decline.

Not reflecting on ourselves, we are quick to blame the authorities – Minister or the Government, absolving ourselves in the usual Nigerian hobby-horse.

Reflecting further, I could not but go back to my thirteen years in Nigeria Airways during which I worked under Nine CEOs/MDs, from AVM Abdullahi Dominic Bello (rtd) 1989 to Jonathan Jiya, 2002.

Over those years, there were outstanding Managements that made efforts to lift up the fortunes of the erstwhile National Carrier.

I remember how we fought some of those Managements, particularly those appointed from outside like Gana, Jani, Jones and Joji. While we literally rejected people like Jani, we were dumb over Agom and Ibrahim Jonathan because they were home-boys, even when we saw they did not fare better.

Although today, while many of my erstwhile colleagues seem not to remember, quite some do but differ.

What some others today remember is the ungazetted infamous Nwazota’s Report, the non-gazetting, of which was deliberate as the Obasanjo administration knew the unpardonable flaws in it because most of the allegations were wild, unsubstantial and therefore not prosecutable.

No doubt, there were some mistakes and incompetence, but rather than recognise them as such, Nwazota criminalised them.

Yet, it served OBJ’s purpose of an alibi to ill-advisedly liquidate the airline. That was the main purpose of the Nwazota’s Panel, a hidden agenda that gave birth to Virgin Nigeria.

Today, from among the “non-son of the soil” Managements, I begin with Jani Ibrahim, who ran the airline between 1997 and 1999.

I choose to start with Jani Ibrahim because, unlike the other CEOs, he ran the airline without any appointed Board and so depended on his colleagues in the Management.

The ideas, the vision, direction and leadership, all virtually emanated from him in an industry where he was, as it were, a “rookie”.

He understood this and so in critical issues, he involved the Management and relevant staff before escalating to the Minister for approval.

For instance, when Jani came up with his JV strategy, it was tabled and discussed exhaustively at two Management meetings where Cameroon Airlines, Ethiopians Airlines and Virgin were stepped down in favour of British Airways.

The final details of the JV were negotiated in the BA office at Heathrow by Salihu Bello and my humble self; General Managers Marketing and Public Affairs respectively.

The final details were now considered by the Management team and presented to the Minister, Late Dr.Olusegun Agagu all of who were in London, for approval. This was Jani’s approach.

The Jani Ibrahim “Turnaround Magic” of 1997/1999:

One of the great opportunities thrown away was in 1997/1999 when Alhaji Jani Ibrahim, an Oil and Gas industry professional with experience in Property Management was appointed the MD/CEO of Nigeria Airways.

Jani Ibrahim entered the aviation industry as an unknown quantity and a neophyte as it were.

Nobody knew his full background. He was considered by Airways staff as one of those unplanned pegs that the Government usually brought to the airline under “job-for-the-boys” syndrome.

Nobody had the foggiest idea about Jani’s vast business experience, nor his superior intellect.

Jani took over from Group Captain Peter Gana, a serving Air Force Officer, another “rookie” who took over from late Engineer Agom.

With Agom’s foreclosure of Joji’s Air Nigeria project and his return of the airline fully to the Ministry, the airline’s fortunes began a new decline. By the time he handed over to Gana, the airline’s challenges had mounted.

The debt profile, both domestic and external, had risen. Over-flight charges to ASECNA and ENESA had mounted, insurance premium unpaid and operational aircraft grounded or seized. Delays in staff salaries set in and pensioners were in the cold.

Nigeria Airways was no longer operating to London due to government policies and the airline’s debts.

This was Gana’s operating environment. The Airline had also lost its priced Ikeja Golf Course to a group of highly placed Nigerians both civilians and retired military officers who illegally secured a Certificate of Occupancy from the then Lagos State Military Governor, conferring ownership on them.

By the last week of Gana’s exit, the challenges of his inherited operating environment had snowballed into the strangulating dimension as the airline’s Insurance Broker – Alexander Howden had withdrawn its insurance cover which crippled all operations including the two last return Christian Pilgrimage flights out of Israel.

As the crises raged on, Peter Gana was removed and replaced with Jani. With severely contracted operations and mounting debts, and no planes flying, even Drucker would have shuddered.

Many a manager would have sought funding from the Government. But Jani did not. Rather, armed with a first-class Engineering degree and, most probably, one of the soundest minds that ever ran Nigeria Airways, he proceeded first with a painstaking study of the airline’s challenges so as to know the Achilles’ heels in the vicious cycle of the dwindling fortunes of the airline.

His first action was to keep the skeletal operations ongoing. He also quickly revamped the virtually Cargo operations and moved revenue from the paltry monthly sum of less than a million to an astronomical level.

Then, he invested the airline pension funds which had been left sitting with no accruing benefits. He then cut down travels, sought to expand cargo operations through leases and began debt negotiations, sometimes involving his Minister, Dr Agagu to achieve debt restructuring and reduction.

As at this time, Nigeria Airways was not flying to London due to debt issues and Abacha’s reciprocal sanction on BA that banned its operations to Nigeria.

Nigeria Airways was also not operating to New York, primarily due to the US ban on Murtala Mohammed Airport, citing safety issues.

So, unlike his predecessors, Jani had only Jeddah, a religious pilgrimage route. He then moved quickly to open up the now highly profitable Dubai route which no airline in Africa saw the business potentials then.

Jani now turned to his Management with a gospel of partnership with airlines – African and foreign that Nigeria Airways could reach a code-share or joint-venture arrangement to enlarge its market share and widen its revenue base.

Under consideration were Ethiopian Airlines and Cameroon Airlines. But before this could emerge from the drawing board, the plan suffered a setback. Jani was picked up by the Directorate of Military Intelligence over allegations of involvement in Abacha’s phantom coup.

Many believed that was the end of Jani, convinced that even if he was freed, he would not, as is usual, be allowed to return to the airline.

However, in the period of his absence, while one hawkish director, in fact, the most junior, pushed to replace him, the Management, now under Late Capt. Wilson Atabo in Acting capacity stepped up his joint venture idea and entered into a despicable arrangement with Bellview Airline, a domestic airline, to fly Nigeria Airways London route via Amsterdam.
The Agreement exposed the lack of knowledge and exposure of the Management to business negotiations.

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The “smarter” MD of Bellview– Kayode Odukoya went away with the meat, leaving Nigeria Airways with feathers he easily could shed and shed, he did.

Just on the day of commencement of the Bellview operations, Jani surprisingly returned to his job with his integrity intact.

He ran through the Agreement and literally blew up at the ridiculous terms. All attempts made to redraw the Agreement were rebuffed by Bellview as it continued operations.

Jani distanced Nigeria Airways from that operation, refused to repudiate the agreement, predicting the collapse of the operation without Nigeria Airways involvement.

He was correct the Bellview venture to London via Amsterdam faced loss-making challenges and eventually collapsed with the repossession of its operating aircraft due to default in the lease payment.

In the very short course of time, Abacha shockingly died. Gen. Abubakar who succeeded him lifted the ban on British Airways and this was the great turnaround opportunity that nobody in Airways imagined.

Only Jani imagined and saw it. For us all in Nigeria Airways, British Airways was not only a colossal competitor but a predator. In pursuit of his strategy, Jani opened up contact with BA authorities led by Allan Burnet and secured the first-ever assistance when BA offered Nigeria Airways two of its B737 to lift players around the country during the FIFA U-21 World Cup hosted by Nigeria.

The BA gesture was at no significant cost to Nigeria Airways despite the revenue which accrued, though NFA did not pay a substantial part of the bill till the airline’s demise.

Jani further solidified this new relationship as it now opened up a JV partnership discussion with BA. The mutual respect that arose culminated in one of the best airline JV’s ever entered into by any airline globally.

As at this time, all Nigeria Airways wide-body aircraft – DC10 and A310s were either grounded or seized by creditors. Jani agreed with British Airways to deploy one of its B747 jumbos to fly Nigeria Airways seven weekly frequency on the Lagos/London route.

The aircraft would be painted in Nigeria Airways livery, using Nigeria Airways call-sign.

The aircraft would be operated by British Airways with some Nigeria Airways cabin crew, trained by BA in a joint operation with BA cabin crew.

Nigeria Airways was to have 120 seats virtually free and would not incur any cost whatsoever beyond paying $100 and $164 for each economy and business-class passenger respectively for the entire operations.

This JV was approved by late Dr Olusegun Agagu who was then the Minister of Aviation. With the accruing revenue, the airline was able to meet salary obligations to staff and pensioners as well as debt payment to creditors in the US, Europe and Africa.

Having achieved this, Jani turned to the Marketing Department, especially to the highly resourceful Manager in London, Jonathan Jiya, charging him to fill up the 120 seats.

Following Jani’s footsteps, Jiya, Manager, London, who later became MD of Nigeria Airways and now the traditional ruler of Esan community in Niger State, invented for the first time ever in the global aviation industry, the 2-piece concept which allowed passengers to check-in two baggage of 23kg each.

Jani approved this and its market success alarmed not only BA but all European airlines at inception.

Today, the 2-piece concept is now a global practice. Not many Nigerians, let alone the global aviation world, know that the innovative marketing strategy was a Jiya/Jani creation.

More importantly, the British Airways’ JV earned Nigeria Airways an average of N100 million monthly.

This improved liquidity, made timely salary payment easier and regular, same for pension and freed revenue from other sources for debt repayment, administration, retraining and maintenance.

Further, Jani saw that some key arms of the airline could be successful revenue earners as Subsidiaries – SACHOL and SKYPOWER CATERING. He restructured them, gave them a take-off grant of N10million each. This action saved them from being liquidated along with the Airline.

Today, SAHCOL now SAHCO is not only a “success Poster” in Privatisation but a cynosure in the industry. Thanks to Jani’s foresight.

In fact, on Obasanjo’s election to office in 1999, Jani had gone to brief him about his plans to extend the JV to the New York route and how he would turn around Nigeria Airways without any money from the Government.

OBJ had told him that he was seeing for the first time a young man saying he did not need money from Government to do such a job and said to him: “I need you in the Presidency”. Jani probably did not realize that OBJ had already put in motion the process of engaging IFC to work on Nigeria Airways privatization.

In addition, Jani sent the airlines’ DC10 which had been on the ground for a long time for maintenance to Garuda, Indonesia, through a retired Nigeria Airways pilot – Capt. Kuti, now late.

Although Kuti did not meet the scheduled return of the aircraft, when it came back, it was a market and revenue boost to the airline as it was deployed for operation on the highly profitable Dubai route, which Nigeria Airways opened in 1998 at a time no airline in the world knew the great high-yield of the Lagos-Dubai route.

Towards the close of 1999, in the usual Ministerial pass time of changing every Management, performing or non-performing, Agagu replaced Jani with Yomi Jones.

This signalled the end of a great pathway to recovery and pride. If Joji lived ahead of his time, Jani proved that ideas, not money, make the most remarkable changes in life. If Jani had been left, we would have been a member of the global airline alliance called “One World” which includes BA and American Airlines.

Today, we are impeding Sirika in his Airport Concession and National Carrier floatation efforts totally oblivious or unconcerned about lessons of history.

I think while we need to critique processes to ensure the best for our country, we should avoid the repeat of the unfavourable past.

We rejected all privatisation efforts of WT from Joji’s Air Nigeria to Jani’s “Turn-Around” and IFC Privatisation and in its place got OBJ-UBA-Branson’s Virgin Nigeria. Today, where are both of them?

If and only if we can pensively reflect on history, we would be in the forefront of literally pushing Sirika to actualise four critical items in his Roadmap – Airport Concession, Nigeria Air, MRO and Aircraft Leasing Company knowing what our dear industry and Nigeria have suffered over decades with the absence of these growth factors in Aviation.

Without trying to pontificate or sound prophetic, if we miss the opportunity of the present, where an industry Professional and Player with a deft understanding of the driving factors in aviation development, and one with live political connection and reach as well as commitment is the Minister, backed by a President with an unalloyed commitment to Aviation, we will fall deeper into the deep.

I say this because I saw Kema Chikwe and Stella Odua with near similar political reach but none had any clear understanding of the industry.

The first used her political reach to liquidate Nigeria Airways while the second in spite of the finest Roadmap ever developed before her tenure, had only the remodelled Airports to show as a legacy.

We should all remember that great Shakespeare’s lines – “There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune, omitted…………”.

As Stakeholders, let us join ATSSAN and ANAP who, in a new mood of rethinking have given up their earlier rejections to take the tide.

Chris Aligbe, Aviation Consultant

Ref: Vanguard

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