Alhaji Muneer Bankole, the Managing Director of Med-View Airline in this interview with journalists during its inaugural flight to in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), spoke on the carrier’s operations, challenges in the industry and expectations from the government amongst others. CHUKWUEMEKE IWELUNMO was there. Excerpts:
Med-View Airline has just increased its capacity by adding Dubai to its route networks, what informed your decision to venture into the route?
We thank God almighty for giving us this opportunity and for making this inaugural flight a success story. When you do domestic alone, you are limited in connectivity.
When you do regional operations, you are limited to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) communities and African Union (AU).
When you venture into any of the countries where we are now and the one that we intend to go, you have gone global and you have no hidden corridor any more.
Here in Dubai and London, we are open to the whole world and we are contesting with the great masters of the industry such as British Airway, Lufthansa and KLM amongst others.
We need to play the game the way it is played globally. We started this venture in Saudi Arabia, when we went into this country for pilgrimage; we were maintaining this position and contesting along with the global masters that come to play the same Hajj operations.
For over 11 years now, we have been the only Nigerian carrier that has been consistent and we have carried over 330 thousand pilgrims that have fulfilled their Islamic obligations.
When we came in, there were 14 carriers, but today, only two are still in the market and I hope more will come. From the Saudi Arabian position, we built the capacity by having a very strong base. For our Hajj operations, we do not only carry Nigerians, we carried from various countries.
We ventured into the United Kingdom, (UK), and people thought we will not last up to six months, but today, we have operated for two years on the London route.
We have gone through various huddles, but in UK now, we have been accepted side by side with British Airways and that is the beauty of it all. This is what informed us and give us the strength to come here. This is a global market where everyone wants to play effectively.
We have been in talks with the Dubai Government for three years and we have done the ground work by establishing a cargo company here, we have our workers here and we have an agency of travel and tour packages.
We went into negotiation and got our first two sets of slots. We were working strongly to build the capacity. We sent our staff here to work and some went to the university here.
Today, we can raise up our heads, we have everything on ground in Dubai. On our arrival flight, we came in with about 12 tonnes of cargo and on the first departure flight to Nigeria, we have 15tonnes of cargo. We had about 80 per cent load factor on arrival flight.
On December 24, we will launch in Kaduna Kano Jeddah routes and we will be doing two flights weekly. We will start with Thursdays and Sundays and that is why we chose December 24.
This is the journey so far. We will soon start Texas operations and intend to have four flights weekly and Washington, but we have narrowed them down to two flights, so that we are working.
We have a consultant working with us. We give ourselves six months, we will be looking at 2018 and that will be the close of the international network.
We went to Anglophone and Francophone countries and we are in the Middle East and UK now. The next stage is to be in United States and China will be the next by the grace of God.
We are going step by step. We do it slowly and close it. We are spending and building capacity. We are not making noise. God has been the driving force and we thank God for it.
Service appears one key factor to drive the Dubai route, how are you looking at making your service a top notch?
Ethiopian Airline is owned by Ethiopian Government, Emirates and Saudi Airlines are championed by their government. They subsidise everything for them.
I am buying fuel at $51 and I buy it in Nigeria at N220 for no reason. You can understand the challenge we are facing.
We do not have government that is championing our course, but these big airlines have their governments supporting them. So, we know God has been the one driving this course.
The issue of having that standard is gradual. We have started. We created an ambassador on-board, introducing a Nigerian attire and culture. These ambassadors are added value.
What they are going to do is to supervise what others are doing. It is not something you find anywhere.
The only place you find it is on Ethiopia Airline. The lady you find on-board putting on Nigerian wear is like a supervisor, as they run the show too.
We will not compromise in our delivery of service. I went on the flight, I made comments and I took comments and I will go back to them and we will discuss. We will get there.
In the area of on-time departure and good food, what are you doing to ensure this is of international standard?
We need to change many things. Structures and discipline is always a problem in Nigeria. We saw the whole delay. Passengers were held up with immigration.
There is no basis for the delays. We should have gone pass this level. Once passengers check in, they have minimum time and there is no need delaying them.
We still have to get there. That is why Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, the Vice President brought up the idea of ease of doing business to show Nigeria the way to do business. We will get there. We will improve our service delivery on-board.
How strong is your tour package?
For you to come to Dubai on Thursdays we can package your things, deliver your cargo and you will be able to board Med-View flight. You have an advantage.
This is one idea we are trying to sell so that Nigeria will have this culture of getting out and getting something better for themselves and their family members. We are too money conscious, but we need to move out no matter how little we have.
Aside from service, are you leveraging on price to drive this destination?
We have subsidised the price on this route so that people can afford it. We reduced the rate by 50 per cent. What we are selling is mileage.
Going from London to Dubai is six hours by flight and while coming from London to Lagos is three times the price. What makes it different? It is the same cost. We have done the cost analysis and we have subsidised our rates.
As a Nigerian airline wearing the country’s flag, what form of support have you received from the Federal Government so far?
This is like a one man flight, but we have a minister who is listening. He is a friend and a brother of mine. He is a young guy, he is dynamic, but he has limitations.
He came here and how many of Nigerian airlines have been given letter of designation, yet has nowhere to go? We have two seasons in aviation, the winter and the summer. So, let us wait for another time if one time is not favourable.
We should be discipline. We need to first access ourselves at home. Today, we are only five airlines flying in Nigeria, the remaining 23 is gone.
So, something must be put in place to ensure people do not close shop. We came here and they asked us to go to somewhere far away. This took me about eight months to fight. For almost one year I have been fighting it.
Whoever is behind this scene has to open up. I told the authority that I won’t accept it. What makes Emirates do three flights in Nigeria, two in Lagos and one in Abuja? Why don’t they go to Yola?
So I wrote to everyone and the government wrote me back to be patient and Sen. Hadi Sirika, the Minister of State for Aviation told the people that they have to support me. If not Sirika, this our dream would have died.
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are doing 21 frequencies and I am doing only four and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) told me I could only do two and I refused their allocations.
So, I decided to write a protest letter against it and that is why we are doing four frequencies weekly today. God is the one supporting us.
With all these restrictions, how do you intend to sustain these routes?
For you to survive, you must build a foundation for yourself. If you do not have a solid foundation, you will not succeed. I don’t just come to the air.
I build capacity in Dubai for three years for me to be here. The rest we have left in the hands of God, since government come and go.
Poaching is a popular practice in the Nigerian aviation industry, what plans do you have for training and re-training of technical personnel in the sector?
Thank God for our life, most of the guys you see in the industry flying for other airlines some of them are Med-View products.
We are happy to have blazed the trail and some of them that have been poached from us, we have no regret about that, but we at Med-View, we are one family and when you are one family, you have the best.
I have young pilots that were trained by us and they are around 17 and 18 years old.
The company spent lots of money on them to train them because I see myself not been here forever.
We have a succession plan in place. I have a Deputy Manager, I have Executive Director. As I am talking to you right now, I no longer do the bulk of the job.
I have given out the job to people to run them. We have trained a lot of people in the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria.
You see, one thing about spending money on people is that they will never betray you because you are building the foundation for them. That is what I have achieved.
I have trained a lot of boys; they are disciplined and when they came here, they have a completely different orientation.
The first two months when you come here, we do what we call orientation or indoctrination. You will know this company well. That’s your first entry point.
That means you will go everywhere; you will go to cargo, you will go to engineering and you must read and understand.
Then, you are expected to send me a report, which will judge if you are fit to be in this company or not because those areas that you went, there must be comments from there.
Those bosses you went under their supervision they will come and say to me, ‘that guy looks very brilliant, sir if you don’t mind, you can give him to me. He’s sound in Information Technology,’ and so on and so forth.
And if I want to employ professional people, I give it out to consultants to handle for me. I don’t get involve. The only one thing that everybody knows is that your final entry point is me; you must meet me one on one and that committee will be seating.
What makes their judgement to say negative or positive? I will see every soul; I have 370 employees and I know them all by their names and I know each person’s level and capacity.
Every Monday, we have meetings in this office, we do it like the Federal Executive Council, FEC. We exchange blows there.
Most of the people don’t like to come, but they have no any other choice than to be here and if you don’t come, you are instantly marked absent, which would lead to loss of things.
What policies of the Federal Government would you want changed for the nation’s aviation industry to move forward?
When they were coming, they talked about change. President Muhammadu Buhari has promised to give us change. Let’s just pray for him to get it changed and once the change is there, the whole country will change.
Change is the only thing that is inevitable. Let’s see whatever they have promised is first.
We don’t need to tell them what to do, they have promised change. We all suffered to put them there; we queued up inside the sun to ensure that they were voted into power.
Fortunately for me, I will be kind to tell you that I’ve moved a little bit closely with Mr. President. We flew him to Mecca.
We are blessed to do that. I was inside the same kahaba with him; I entered and he was in my front. He too had to pray for this country as everybody is in the house of Allah. That’s why I said we also need to pray for him to move the country forward.
It’s just like employments; you can’t expect 99.9 per cent from your employees if you don’t give them what they required to grow. You can’t get what you don’t give. The government has promised us a change and they must give it to us.
What areas of civil aviation do you think the FG needs to improve upon?
For me, I don’t want to look at government. We should ask ourselves what we have done from our own side. As the CEO, I just went to different units to see things myself. So, this is a private business, so we are investors; we bring business to Nigeria.
The only thing is that we have been shouting to the government over the years to help in the construction of a Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility for the operators.
They have to call for this one – training and simulator. Airline is not manufactured here; we should partner with manufacturers to bring the price down so that we won’t be going through a third party.
Also, the government needs to increase the capacity in aircraft and we are telling Nigerian youths to get into this aviation business to reduce unemployment. Fuel is God’s gift. Warri or Kaduna refinery produces our fuel at a reduced price.
This is an asset that we have and we need to develop so that we can sell the product to our neighbouring countries.
Foreign airlines do not care about Nigeria’s oil anymore; they bring sufficient fuel from outside the country before coming here. So, we need to improve on our fuel.
And other government agencies charge us excessively on taxation. For instance, we pay the Federal Inland Revenue Services (FIRS), Lagos Inland Revenue Services (LIRS),
the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), the Nigerian Aviation Management Agency (NAMA), the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and several other organisations.