The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Ibom Air, Captain Mfon Udom, may not have suspected why I asked him on the phone last week “Is Ibom Air still flying?” It wasn’t a question borne out of mischief but out of the desire to be reassured that the naysayers have no cause to smile.
In recent times two airlines, Dana and Aero, have had their operations suspended. There have been issues of poor governance, compliance with regulatory instructions and wait for it, high cost and or non-availability of aviation fuel in this oil producing country. I wanted to be sure that the Akwa Ibom State government-owned airline, Ibom Air, which is three years old, has not been grounded as the political partisans, oppositionists, naysayers and doubting Thomases had predicted even before the first aircraft lifted itself into the sky on June 7, 2019.
People may have assigned to them the role of prophets of doom but there was a hint of realism in their reservations because Nigeria has witnessed the take-off and landing of several aircrafts, government owned and privately owned, that are no longer in the sky today; they are now in the grave. Some of them are Nigeria Airways, Air Nigeria, Bellview, Okada Air, ADC Airline etc.
So it was out of anxiety about the fate of Ibom Air that I made that call to its CEO. For most Akwa Ibomites, travelling by air had always been pure torture when they used to travel 100 kilometres to Calabar on the most studiously neglected road in the world to get a flight. ADC founded in 1984 by four pilots was clever enough to put buses on that rickety, abortion-inducing road to convey passengers from Uyo to Calabar every morning, afternoon and evening. But then after a series of accidents and poor governance culture ADC died unsung in 2007. That apparently gave Governor Victor Attah the vision to build an airport in Uyo. He knew that if there was an airport there will be passengers and if there are passengers there will be aircraft to ply the route.
That airport project was completed and commissioned by the Godswill Akpabio government on September 23, 2009 to the delight of the people. When the first scheduled passenger service commenced on December 2, 2009, the people were simply ecstatic, and the atmosphere of euphoria simply indescribable. So credit goes to Attah for the vision and Akpabio for bringing that vision to fruition. Now, the growth in the state’s aviation sector continues with the infrastructural developments embarked upon by Governor Udom Emmanuel. Over and above that Emmanuel must be given a standing ovation for the courage in establishing a wholly owned and managed airline. He walked on the path that no one had dared before him by elongating the vision of his two predecessors with the improvement of facilities at the airport and the establishment of Ibom Air.
When I interviewed Governor Emmanuel in May 2019 a few weeks before the first Ibom Air aircraft lifted itself into the cloudy sky, I was convinced that he, a certified accountant, had done the appropriate number crunching before taking the plunge into this uncharted territory. But number crunching can only help if the governance culture is right and wrong governance culture has killed many government businesses in Nigeria.
When I asked Governor Emmanuel what made him certain that the project would succeed, his response was that a lot of people in Nigeria do not know how to start a business. “We are not starting with Boeing 737 or Airbus but with one of the most reliable aircraft ever manufactured in the world, the Bombardier. Yes, government owns the business but it will be run by experts, with proper aircraft control processes. I have been in corporate business finance so I understand those pitfalls that can easily make people fail in business.”
The governor did the needful in other areas by appointing people with expertise in the airline business. Air Cmdr. Idongesit Nkanga, a former Commander of the Presidential Air Fleet, a man who knew the nuts and bolts of the business was appointed Chairman of the Board. When the man died on December 24, 2020, Mr Imo-Abasi Jacob, a chartered accountant who got a first class degree in Accountancy from the University of Calabar was chosen as a replacement. Mr Jacob has close affinity with naira and kobo in business management. To run the airline as its CEO, the governor went for a man who was one of the four pilots that pioneered the establishment of ADC. Mr Mfon Udom, the CEO, is a pilot and a manager of note.
Now at age three, Ibom Air has as at July 31 this year operated 23, 630 flights, carried 1, 708,439 passengers, with its seven aircraft, which does 11 routes. It has given direct employment to 540 persons and indirect employment to thousands of other people such as caterers, transporters, sellers of all kinds of goods and providers of all kinds of services. Last year, it was named the best airline in Nigeria because at age two, the airline’s schedule reliability was put at 94% and the average on-time performance was 95%. It now has an in-flight magazine called Fulcrum and a frequent flyer programme with three membership tiers namely, green, orange and top flyer. The airline has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the acquisition of 10 additional airbuses for its operations.
Before Ibom Air started its operations there were four airlines operating the Uyo route: Air Peace, Arik, Dana and Aero. Now they are all gone with the wind because Ibom Air has raised the bar in its service delivery, which has compelled a number of travellers to queue behind it for take-off. Only Ibom Air flights go into and out of the Victor Attah International Airport now.
With the success of the airline so far, Governor Emmanuel deserves commendation for his vision. Even though the people of the state expressed their sunny optimism about the project that optimism was based purely on the prospect of their travel difficulties likely to be eased. But still the project was accompanied by withering criticism based on the experience of other Nigerian airline companies. Even though the government and the airline are being given a thumbs-up the challenges remain. Now a one hour flight from Uyo costs ninety something thousand naira because according to reports there is scarcity of aviation fuel. The liquid used in pushing the planes from the ground into the sky used to cost N300 per litre. Now it is said to cost N1, 000 per litre. This has pushed the passenger fare to a high altitude. And no one knows when this aviation fuel crisis will abate.
Now our economy is also facing strong headwinds. We are lamenting that we have been unable to meet the quota prescribed for Nigeria by OPEC because of oil theft. Can you imagine that? We have now got to a point where we live on the banks of a river but wash our hands with spittle. There are long fuel queues in Lagos, Abuja and other cities because all our four refineries are dead and are awaiting resurrection like Lazarus or a huge funeral oration by President Muhammadu Buhari. Now it is the greedy and corrupt marketers, not the government we voted for, who run our lives. We have no idea how long we will be at the mercy of these Shylocks who ask for and are getting our pound of flesh daily. They call it subsidy. That is the kind of atmosphere in which all companies including Ibom Air are operating. This makes its success, so far, quite commendable.
Ibom Air depends on the state government, since it is state-owned, for its sustenance. The state government depends largely on its takings from FAAC and so far it is able to meet its bills because it is the highest oil producing state, bringing in about 35% of the dollars from crude oil and gas to the Federal Government. But what happens if the thieves continue to steal our oil and the oil companies are unable to meet our OPEC quota, and the oil money coming to Akwa Ibom government dwindles drastically? If that happens what will happen to Ibom Air? Can it stand on its two legs without massive financial transfusion from the government? I ask these questions not as a cynic but as someone who is genuinely concerned about the future of Ibom Air and the prospects of leaving people’s expectations unfulfilled.
Secondly, the airline needs longevity to continue to enjoy the patronage of the people. Every airline is tested per flight per day. One fatal accident can kill an airline as it killed Bellview and Okada Air etc. But accidents do not depend on the airlines only. They also depend on air traffic controllers, the weather, the landing facilities available at airports, the honesty of the regulating officials and the entire aviation governance culture. Nigeria as a country has never received a prize for efficiency in the management of its affairs.
Thirdly, the future of Ibom Air also depends on who will succeed Emmanuel as governor in 2023, if he will be a decision maker who thinks right, who believes in the sustainability of the airline, come rain or sunshine, who is straight like an arrow, who will find creative ways of making and saving money, who will not engage in fruitless meddlesomeness in the management of the airline. A lot will actually depend on the people and the choice they make in the crucial election of 2023.
However, whatever happens in 2023 and thereafter nobody can deny Emmanuel the credit for being the first governor in Nigeria to establish an airline company that has already raised the bar in the aviation industry. Emmanuel, please take a bow.