Not often do you see an airline in Nigeria that has done incredibly well in just four years of operation like Ibom Air. The pessimism stemmed from the fact that state governments and the Federal Government as a whole do not have the capacity to run enterprises because of policy summersaults and the fear that successive administrations would most unlikely continue with any project set up by a past administration.
Undaunted by fear of what would happen after his administration, a former Governor of Akwa Ibom, Udom Emmanuel, put together bright minds and people with a vision to set up an airline known as Ibom Air; one that gave the people of the state a sense of pride and to Nigerians who believe the airline has what it takes to run efficiently with the caliber of experts recruited to run the carrier.
The carrier like many others in the sector is not immune from challenges faced by other carriers such as forex availability, the fluctuating value of the Naira, high lease rental, infrastructure hiccups, high cost of aviation fuel, high interest rates on loans, and among others that have conspired to put airlines in Nigeria in a very precarious situation.
The strategy of Ibom Air from the very beginning was hinged on being an airline that is sourced like any other competition airline.
The carrier had to compete in a very brutal environment with airlines that have hub terminals and MROs. That is the kind of story the carrier is telling in Uyo.
In terms of schedule reliability in the airline business in Nigeria, Ibom Air and ValueJet Airlines rank top with statistics from the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to back up this claim.
Flight delays are a combination of factors that at times are beyond the carriers, but many other airlines’ flight delays are self-inflicted and one that will be discussed in the future.
Listening to the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Ibom Air, Mr. George Uriesi on the sidelines of the just concluded Aviation Africa Summit held in Abuja, the airline has really metamorphosed into a bigger brand after surmounting so many teething problems at its inception to become the pride of aircraft maker Airbus which has given it maximum support to reach for the skies.
The incredible story of Ibom Air as narrated by Uriesi is inspiring and a lesson in perseverance, focus, and discipline. It equally shows that while rising to the occasion to overcome the initial problems of airline operations in Nigeria, the carrier is further challenged to provide quality services to its customers.
The airline according to Uriesi from inception mapped out a strategy that it believes would work for it by jettisoning intercontinental operations and would not fritter its revenue to compete with the likes of British Airways, Air France-KLM, Delta, United Airlines, and Emirates of this world.
The airline chief disclosed that Ibom Air has no ambition of operating outside Africa, saying, “we have no ambition to go outside Africa. We want to see Ibom Air be a world-class African regional airline.”
The airline may have learnt a lesson or two from Nigerian airlines that ventured into routes such as New York, London, Johannesburg, and Dubai and got their fingers burnt. They ceased operations because it was like throwing away financial gains made on domestic and regional routes into the drain with them venturing into routes considered lucrative for other foreign carriers but a drain pipe on their resources.
Some of them that are still on those routes are just using it as bragging right that Nigerian airlines too are offering services to those routes when in actual fact, they are bleeding but would not quit because of pride. Pride does not pay the bills.
It is not a shame to apply the brake and pull out when an airline begins to make losses on destinations. Many big international airlines have done that and have continued to do so.
Uriesi further disclosed that Ibom Air which airlifted 2.5 million passengers on July 12, 2023, narrowly made it to pay aircraft lease rental for some of its airplanes because of the depreciating value of Naira, but devised a means to pay Naira equivalent occasion by scarcity of Forex which was accepted by the lessor.
He said: “If not, it would have been difficult to pay. We have built credibility and they are ready to lease aircraft to us. In 2021, the burgeoning strength of the Ibom Air brand based on wide acceptance in the market created a serious capacity crunch in Half-year 2021. It became apparent that an increase to meet demand had become necessary.
“We approach Airbus. The response from Airbus was fantastic. We eventually settled for A220. We tested the aircraft and we were delighted that the A220 was very well received. The A220 changed the face of our operation.”
He narrated the ordeal of the carrier in seeking financing for the A220 purchase and had to surmount the negative reputation of the country’s airlines that put a lot of obstacles in the way of lessors to repossess their airplanes in the case of a payment default.
“We contended with the negative reputation some previous aircraft lease transactions had earned for Nigerian airlines with violation of the Cape Town Convention agreement to which Nigeria through the NCAA is a signatory. We contended with the Forex scarcity situation. Airbus gets our financial report half a year or monthly,” he added.
Uriesi stated that the vision of the airline would be to grow its fleet from about 8 currently to 40 in the next 20 years.
When it comes to aviation, Akwa Ibom ranks top. The Maintenance Repair Overhaul (MRO) which came first before the airline is an incredible vision of successive governments in the state. The MRO would heavily complement the carrier’s operations and help to reduce costs by fixing its airplanes in-house. It is a game changer.
This has equally come with the new International Smart Terminal Building. The new terminal is a huge game changer to the industry and Nigeria as well. This is the first multipurpose-built terminal specifically designed to move passengers from flight to flight.
Nigeria loses over N1.25 trillion to foreign countries for these checks annually. Uriesi disclosed how Ibom Air is planning to build a world-class African regional airline, MRO facility to compete with major airlines globally.
Akwa Ibom targets to become part of the Big Four in Africa among which are the MRO of South Africa Airways, the MRO of Ethiopian Airlines in Addis Ababa, and the facility of Egypt Air in Cairo.
The MRO is massive and can take two Boeing 747-800 standing side by side with the doors closed. In the same vein, it can take eight of its aircraft type, Airbus A220 at once and 10 of its other aircraft type, CRJ900.
“We are partnering with Airbus consulting, we have contracted them to partner with us to come and assess the facility which by the way, they are impressed with. They will help us develop a business plan for optimal use of this facility. We want to be able to maintain our fleet which are the A220 and CRJ900 and also to advise us on which fleet best we can get the most business out of.”
“When we have that business plan, it allows us to know what to invest in, in terms of the capabilities of maintenance of which aircraft and target the right airlines to go after to offer our services to them,” said Uriesi.
Not too long ago, Ibom Air achieved the global industry safety standard and received its Operational Safety Audit Certificate. This assures the airline’s safety commitment and brings it one step closer to full IATA membership. This achievement is essential for continual growth and its industry aspirations.
Four years is not enough to judge what an airline will become in the next five years or ten years, the carrier has weathered these challenges and still grappling with many on its way. But one thing is certain, Ibom Air looks like an airline that knows what it is doing by starting small and expanding its customer base with quality services, deployment of neat aircraft, recruitment of courteous staff, and above all, schedule reliability. The carrier sometimes is accused of flight delays which the carrier is working on with visible improvement.