Ibom Air: Boosting Akwa Ibom’s economic fortunes in challenging skies
That only became public knowledge when Governor Udom Gabriel Emmanuel announced at the last Christmas Carol.
“Our state owned and run Obong Victor Attah International Airport has a Category 2 Runaway and work is ongoing on the second taxiway. To ensure that our state remains the destination of choice for foreign investors, we are launching Ibom Air, our wholly owned airline that will lessen the problems currently being encountered by our numerous air travellers,” Emmanuel told a rapturous gathering.
Last Wednesday, the last of the three Canadian-made Bombadier CRJ900 series arrived in the country.
Two of these aircraft with registration C-FWNL and C-FWNK arrived penultimate week in preparation for flight operations, with the newest fleet in the country.
Akwa Ibom State is currently the highest oil and gas producing state and the eighth-largest Nigerian state by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which stands at $11, 179m.
Although the Akwa State government exclusively owns Ibom Air, its management and operations, the government promised, would completely align professionally with’s best practices.
Speaking at the unveiling of the aircraft, Emmanuel, who described the aircraft as being among the newest and modern fleet of the manufacturer, added that the establishment of the airline was an achievement for his administration.
The governor added that the aircraft, which have a sitting capacity of about 90, would operate routes that would give preference to Akwa Ibom people, even as efforts were on to launch one of the best terminal buildings in the country.
Emmanuel said, “The state government has strived to focus development of the state economy on land, air and water. So far, the state government has constructed over 1, 000 kilometres of roads across the state, while the plan to construct the most digital seaport, the Ibom Deep Seaport is on.”
Other plans, which Emmanuel said were captured in his government’s completion agenda include the establishment of search and rescue centre, establishment of flight training school, and the construction of a power station to supply electricity to the airport.
Specifically on his blueprint for aviation, he said his administration would complete the aircraft Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO), expansion of Ibom Air operations and the building of the main terminal of the Victor Attah International Airport.
But what informed the state’s decision to take such step in a country where airline mortality is very high? Consultant to the government on Ibom Air, Captain Mfon Udom said: “The airline is a key element of Governor Udom Emmanuel’s economic development plan for the state. To leverage off the comparatively good infrastructure already in place, the governor launched an “Industrialisation Programme,” and a “Visitors’ Programme” to drive tourism.
The idea behind the Visitors’ Programme is to intensely market the state as the ideal destination for all sporting, social and corporate events, while also offering superior leisure activities. Ibom Air is here to provide the much needed capacity, as well as ease of access to facilitate both the visitors and industrialisation programmes of the state.
Ibom Air is also the critical third leg of the tripod of major investments by the state government in a world-class airport, and a world class Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility.
With the airline now in place, the airport becomes hugely more viable, the MRO facility gets activated and Akwa Ibom State is well positioned to become the “centre of excellence” in the air transport industry in Nigeria.”
Apart from aviation being a capital-intensive industry, many are of the view that its management could be compromised thereby frittering away the billions of naira so far sunk into the project within a couple of years. But the governor said because of the capital-intensive nature of the airline business; the process of setting up Ibom Air has been meticulous and professional.
The governor, being a high level corporate player himself, relied on the expertise of top-notch professional consultants (local and international) to prepare a comprehensive business plan and financial model for the airline.
Everything from the choice of equipment (aircraft type) all the way to the airline’s business model stem from this business plan.
Udom insists that even though the state government exclusively owns Ibom Air, its management and operations would completely align professionally with world best practices.
“The business model of Ibom Air stems from a carefully put together business plan that took into consideration the history of the local airline industry, the pitfalls and what to learn therefrom.
Though the Akwa Ibom State government is the airline’s only shareholder, the business model of the airline is purely private enterprise, employing top-notch and tested professionals working within a world-class airline culture, unencumbered by management ‘interference’ from the state government,” the chief executive said.
Since passenger traffic level is the biggest factor that sustains airline business, Ibom Air business plan has been tailored to sustain its share of passengers.
The consultant said: “The bane of the Nigerian air passenger is the extremely poor service he/she gets from our domestic airlines.
Flight schedules are unreliable almost all the time, on-time departure performance is very poor; customer service is almost non-existent, and the industry seems to be encumbered by rampant unprofessionalism and all round shoddiness.
This traumatic situation leaves a gaping hole for a true game changer to emerge in the industry and Ibom Air is designed by its business model, to be that game changer.
The airline will bring schedule reliability, very high on-time departure performance and superior customer service to the market.
Based on this combination of services, the flying public will reward Ibom Air with consistent patronage to sustain the business and make it successful. Ibom Air’s choice of aircraft type is also a significant factor in the airline’s competitiveness strategy.
“The three aircraft that we are starting with would be joined by a fourth six months after start up. The fleet is planned to increase in line with the business plan modeling to a fleet of 10 aircraft in three years. The airline is a scheduled carrier and its primary focus is on operating scheduled flights for the flying public.
However, as with every airline, there will always be charter opportunities, which Ibom Air will take advantage of whenever the need arises, without affecting our normal flight schedules.
“Are there specific routes that have already been penciled down as the airline resumes operation? Udom responded in the affirmative “Yes.
Initially, Ibom Air will ply the Uyo to Lagos and Uyo to Abuja routes, thrice times daily each way. This is to immediately provide the much-needed capacity, flexibility and convenience to passengers to and from Uyo between both cities.
This initial period will also serve to introduce the product to Nigerians, while it gets perfected.
About a month later, the Lagos-Abuja route will commence, with three frequencies daily each way. The business plan then expands the route network ‘organically’ as key milestones are reached.
Commenting on coming on stream of Ibom Air, Chief Consultant and Chief Executive Officer of Belujane Consult, Chris Aligbe, said the state may have resorted to setting up the airline simply because it is not properly serviced by airlines in a way that would enable it integrate economic potential with the aviation sub-sector.
Aligbe added that what the state just did is similar to the relationship between Emirates Airlines and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
“If you look at Emirates, it thrives on what has been created in UAE and Emirates in turn is used to drive UAE destinations. They are integrated and the economic approach is global. They are looking at it from the global setting. In its totality, it is developing tourism and commerce, among others. So, Emirates is part of the totality of development,” he said.
But unlike UAE, Akwa Ibom is a destination to nowhere.
“You land in Akwa Ibom’s Uyo, then to where? When they were constructing that airport, we told them that the airport would not be viable because it is a destination to nowhere. The answer they gave was then was that they were discussing with Cross River State government.
“Donald Duke was the governor then and they (Akwa Ibom) were looking at Tinapa’s potential because the Margaret Ekpo International Airport, Calabar has no room for expansion; it cannot take bigger aircraft.
Akwa Ibom was then going to bridge the gap leveraging on the road being constructed between Uyo and Calabar into Tinapa. They were going to inter-modalise it, using road and airline.
“But once Donald Duke left, Tinapa collapsed. And the whole idea of what Tinapa was going to be vanished into thin air. So, the Victor Attah International Airport is there and not been utilised. It is not helping them to drive development.
“What they are trying to do now is to use the airlines’ sub-sector to drive development in that place. And this is happening because there are no airlines going there. That is one of the reasons some of us made a case for a national carrier, because if Nigeria has a national carrier, states will not be setting up their own airlines.”
Aligbe added that Akwa Ibom has the requisite human capacity, given that experienced hands have been brought in to manage Ibom Air.
“If they do it right, it will be okay. But the main danger I foresee is foreign airlines making inroads into domestic operations. This is not peculiar to Ibom Air, but to all local airlines. It will soon get to a time when they would start partnering with other carriers like Africa World Airways (AWA) in Ghana, under the open-sky initiative, and those ones will mop up domestic passengers through the backdoor.
“That is why we are telling them that the earlier we have a virile national carrier that covers the entire country, the better for us to avert backdoor cabotage. But all those people operating now don’t want to hear that. They all believe that they already know enough.”
Aviation Security expert, Group Capt. John Ojikutu, fears that the new airline may not survive long enough to face the external threat.
Ojikutu submitted that it amounts to a wrong foot forward for any state, including Lagos, Rivers and Delta to think of solely venturing into commercial aviation, especially airline business where there are other major and critical social areas like education, health, roads, and housing to focus on.
He said if more buoyant entities like the Federal Government are not creating an enabling environment for foreign technical investors and Nigerian private investors to set up commercial airlines, and then state governments should just not fathom the idea of a carrier.
“What passenger traffic are they really looking out for? As at today, Nigerian regular air travelling passengers are less than 10 million. Aside from Lagos and Abuja, not up to two of the remaining airports have passenger traffic of one million.
“What would be the passenger traffic in Awka, for instance, where the traffic at Enugu and Asaba airports are together less than one million? What would be states airlines’ passengers, if each one of them decides to set up airlines? What is the air travel traffic at Ibadan and Akure airports to warrant Oyo and Ondo states wanting to establish state airlines?
“The market is there for airlines that would fly low fare flights, but how many current domestic airlines are genuinely making profits in spite of government’s concessions on statutory charges? It’s an ego venture for any state to go alone into commercial aviation with financial investment of more than 10 per cent.
“Like I did suggest in the case of national carrier, government and the 36 states must not take more than 10 per cent of the share holdings of a new airline. The remaining should be shared between foreign technical investors, Nigerian private investors and the Nigerian public through public offer in the Nigeria Stock exchange market,” Ojikutu proffered.
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