‘We can see some strength in the economy based on what government is doing’
Mr. Kola Olayinka is the British Airways Regional Commercial Manager, West Africa. In this interview with Nike Sotade, he talks about how the airline has survived the tough business climate occasioned by the rising exchange rate and why it is bringing back the B747 aircraft back to the Nigerian route this summer.
What issues has BA faced in the last two years, including trapped funds?
The challenges first started with the election, how long it took. We went through the issue of FOREX and remitting money became quite difficult. We seem to be turning the corners. We are not fully there yet. I am sure you know all the figures. I don’t want to brandish the figures again. It was scary because you’ll start talking of $600 million. Things are getting better and we realise we need to bring back the B747 on Lagos route. We have always flown B747. The one we flew was an older B747. The seat configuration was 14 in First Class, 70 in Business Class and 48 in World Traveller Plus and about 185 in Economy. The B747 that we are starting now is because we are beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel. Things are getting better, Nigerians are still travelling, businesses are beginning to pick up. Of course, people will tell you that the challenges are still there. They are managing it; they are applying strategies. We can see some strength in the economy based on what the government is doing and we thought that it would only be fair for our customers who have endured hard times with us that we start bringing back good fares, fantastic products. This B747 is going to be more refined with IFE improved on it. I think we have 120 channels of different movies that you can watch, meals are better, seats are better and that is where the £400 million expenditure on Club World as quoted in the press is going. That £400 million is not just for the Nigerian route, but on all our aircraft that we have in Club World. That is why we are bringing this on and we are very confident that the customers can only be the better for this. Today, for example, we are breaking a new fare. We are having fares in the economy for about $440 to London and we are having Business class for $2800 to London. Not only is the product getting better, effective September 7th, it is also progressively getting cheaper. It is cheaper and better. It is a very difficult combination. Our customers have stayed with us through this difficult times trying to describe to you from 2015. I can imagine how expensive the fares have been, not because we increased the fare, but if the dollar is at N520 or N500 and the fare was N160, 000 it is now about N500, 000. We are bringing a new product; so we are launching a promotion and I don’t think there is any business that can offer such. We are in the middle of summer and we just hope that most of our customers will take advantage from September. Schools are not resuming until mid-September. People still have opportunity of traffic just like a couple or as a business or individually. You know that our message is always simple, straightforward and about the customer.
BA was 80 years last year and 81 this year, how can you appraise your operations in terms of challenges, the highs and the lows?
Looking back, I think it is always a privilege if you look back on the route. I started many years back and you can imagine how many bosses I have gone through all the years. People have really passed through this place. They built the business, this company. One of our CEOs came into Nigeria recently. He has retired. He is Keith Williams. The top things he said is that service is in our DNA. Service is part of us. It is what we do. That is what keeps BA going. If you lose service, you lose everything. I am not saying that we are perfect all the time, but I can tell you that when something goes wrong that is when you see BA rising up to the challenge. It has been a really good journey all these years. The aviation industry in Nigeria has changed. There is a lot more competition than 20 years ago. Many airlines were not here 20 years ago. The Americans were not here 20 years ago, the Middle Eastern carriers were not here 20 years ago and they are here now in full force. Even the European carriers; some were not here 20 years ago.
Almost all airlines from every continent are here in Nigeria. That means the pressure is on making sure you deliver as a company. We are happy. Competition is good. When there is competition, the customers benefit like bringing out this promotion. Let the best man win at the end of the day; that is what business is all about. I must also add that Nigerian travellers are extremely intelligent. You can’t fool them. May be you can fool a person but you can’t fool everybody. If you sell something to them that they don’t like, they won’t come back. The era of taking the customers for granted is over. We are at an era where customers know more about aircraft than some of us. Technology has also helped. All you need to do is google and everything comes out. If you want to see the inside of a plane, it is there on the website even on our website. We adore our customers. We realised that without our customers, there is absolutely no business. It might take some time but your business will be eroded if you are not doing enough for your customers and that is one of the strength I think BA has. We know our customers love us, they love the service but we are never going to take them for granted which is why we are bringing back the B747. One unique thing about the B747 is that the upper deck; there are some people in Nigeria, what they want is go on the upper deck. It is quiet, beautiful, nice, serene and you will feel like you are in a world of your own.
Why is BA bringing back the B747 and it is coming at a period airlines are using more efficient, fuel-efficient two engine airplane?
Generally across the globe, aircraft are getting newer. We have the A380. We have 12 of those. They are in service. You can see a progression in aircraft acquisition all over the world. We may not be as aggressive as some other airlines but we equally have these newer version and you can see new things happening. B747 was not manufactured yesterday but the services would all be brand new including the interior. The seats will all be brand new, the IFE will all be redone and it is brand new. Yes, there is some cost to it but we also believe that if you look at our fares out of here, our customers pay quite a bit and we want to make sure they get value for their money to compensate them for what they pay. We don’t want a one-customer business, we want customers that keep coming back because we get it right for them, give the right fares, the right product.
Is this aircraft just for this summer or going to be a regular plane for the London-Lagos route?
It is going to be here, not just for the summer.
Does it also mean that traffic is improving with more people taking to air travel compared to last year and 2015?
Let’s be very honest, as Nigerians, looking at this economy, almost everybody is rationalising. Let’s take it from the family unit. Sometimes I say to the kids you are not going; this is what I can afford. Everybody is doing that, but the small businesses need to travel. Business is still transacted not on the phone, but by shaking hands and no matter how much you use technology, you cannot and it is not easy for technology to shake hands. You have to be there to sign the deal.
Children who are in school must come home. The school will close. They can’t sleep on the street. It is an indication that things are getting better. How many airlines do we have operating into Nigeria? Look at the size of our BSP. They are in billions. We have over 32 airlines in BSP today. A few left. One of mine left but majority are still here. Let me tell you, if we are not doing very well, we won’t be here. Nigeria is a resilient market. We have the number, we are resourceful. We are not like some African countries when you get on the airplane, the people you get to see are other nationals but on Nigerian routes, the people you see are Nigerians and a few other nationals. We are smart; we are travellers. Anywhere you go in the world, you will always find a Nigerian.
From the information we gathered, the aircraft you are introducing has been operating in Nigeria before. Is that true?
It has operated once or twice because when aircraft goes for maintenance they re-introduce it. I have been in the aircraft myself. The B747-400 itself is not new but the refitting inside is new. We don’t want to misrepresent facts.
BA announced its fleet renewal programme last year, how far has the airline gone with it?
The £5 billion fleet renewal has been completed. We have the full A380 and I had the pleasure of flying it. That one is like a house in the sky. We are introducing the B747 on the route to compensate our customers and to get most of our customers to remain with us. If things had been rough in the last 15 to 20 months with people paying a lot based on what I described earlier, this is the time to give them good products. To be honest with you, we had to fight for this aeroplane. We had to pull it from other routes. There is no airline that is profitable that will tell you that they reserve one plane for a particular route. Airplanes are made to be flying. We had to prove that we could do better with this plane on the route. We got it back and it is going to be great because we have new products on it.