Europe’s mega carrier, British Airways’ 80 years of operations in Nigeria is a milestone. The airline’s area commercial manager, Paolo De Renzis, in this interview with our correspondent in the airline’s London office at Waterside, Harmondsworth spoke on the company’s £5billion investment airline’s humongous investment in new products, and general operations of the company. Excerpts:
Is there anything new, say medium, long term plans?
We have quite a lot of premium capacity increase. We have new the B747 with additional Club World seats, Business class. We have quite a lot of them to Riyadh, Kuwait, Dubai. Dubai is already operating with bigger Club World. Same for Riyadh, Kuwait and soon also to Johannesburg, this will happen very soon. Only two weeks ago, we announced fantastic news. We will start to operate to Tehran in July. We will back to Tehran with B777 and operate six times a week to Tehran from London.
How has been since over 80 years since you started operations to Nigeria, how has it been for the airline to maintain such a rich history?
As I mentioned before, BA has a long history when it comes to operations and formed over 90 years ago. In those days, we had small planes, but over the years we have been growing a lot and I am very proud of what we have achieved. Like I was saying yesterday, we have a very a long relationship with Africa, particularly with Nigeria. This year we celebrate 80 years. I am responsible for operations in the Middle East which is full of hope and opportunity and we have been increasing capacity to over 40 per cent. So, we started new destinations. We have been pretty successful airline. I cannot tell you what will happen in next 80 years, but we are very strong in products and in terms of operations and definitely we will keep on growing and adjusting our capacity to profit the whole demand.
What is your operation in terms of capacity and market share?
Unfortunately, I cannot share commercial sensitive information when it comes to market share. We have been operating to Nigeria for 80 years. That means that our operation is strong but I cannot be specific when it comes to commercial sensitive figures.
Is there anything specific on the West African, Nigerian route in terms of new products?
At the moment we operate a mix of B747 and B777 to Lagos and Abuja. We keep on reviewing our work as network changes. We operate B777 in Abuja and B747 and B777 to Lagos and this is the current plan.
How would the rate your market in West Africa, Nigeria, Middle East, North Africa?
In Africa, we have a very strong position in particular in Nigeria. As I said, Africa is one of the most important markets; particularly South Africa and Nigeria are some of the biggest markets.
In the course of your explanation, you talked about bring in B777 to replace the B747 that passengers are used to, would you still have the First class configuration on that airplane? What informed this decision? Could it be as a result of shrinking market?
Absolutely, the B777 operate to Nigeria with First Class both to Lagos and Abuja. The First Class is a very important market for us. We keep on reviewing our capacity and we have been quite flexible with our capacity. We keep on operating B747 now but we will be reviewing this in the week.
The Nigeria economy is currently having issues. People cannot get foreign exchange, how much impact does it have on you in terms of passenger volume?
We are aware of challenging times in Nigeria. Load factors are very strong but do not have the statistics, our operation is very strong and Nigeria remains our very strong market. We are still very positive about Nigeria.
Nigerian airlines are very weak and fragmented. Is there is anything BA has to assist Nigerian carriers?
This is a question for AIG, our parent company. I cannot answer this question. This is something I cannot comment on. Strategic decision is taken up with our company because they take strategic decision on airline partnership.
You will be 80 years very soon. What are you going to give to Nigerians in terms of fare?
I am not going to reveal what we are going to do in Nigeria for our 80 years. When it comes to fares, our fares are very competitive and we keep on reviewing our price.
Just last months, foreign airlines had problem repatriating their huge fund, has that been resolved. What is the collaboration between your airline and the Nigerian government in view of foreign exchange policy?
As you know, there are some challenges at the moment with the Nigerian government. At the moment we are working on it. There are ways things are resolved. A partnership of 80 years, if you don’t have the understanding at 80 years of being together, you will never have. We are constantly working with the arms of government, the Central Bank of Nigeria, Ministry of Finance, IATA to ensure that we can get support. We are getting support from government. The matter will be resolved in a matter of time.
Operating in an economy for 80 years, it means something is unique. What is that uniqueness that has kept you going?
I will say the people. We have a very strong base of loyal customers, some spanning four, five generations of particular families. In Nigeria, whatever you sell, you are good to good. We have the population. By our sheer population, we are very strong market for any product. When you take our product which is airline, we continue to be the bridge to bring people from Nigeria into the world, connecting investors from the world back into Nigeria. It is the number and loyalty we have enjoyed over these years. We have a strong position of point to point.
How do you describe the Nigerian market to British Airways and how can the government help to grow the sector?
From this point of view, the Nigerian market is not different from many other markets globally. There is a lot of competition, challenges with the economy, but again, this is similar to many of the markets I am responsible for in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, but we are very dynamic company, we adjust our products and aircraft among demands. Nigeria is a very strong market and still a strong market and will be strong for another 80 years.
Apart from Lagos to Abuja, are you planning to extend your operations to other destinations in Nigeria?
At the moment, it is no. But we should ask you that question. There is a big issue in Nigeria about multiple designation and the local airlines are raising eye brow. We are guided by the agreement between Nigeria and the UK which is the Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA). No matter how you like, you can’t just say you want Port-Harcourt, if it is not in the agreement, you cannot go there. If it is not in the agreement you cannot do it no matter if we want it until Nigerian and British government come together and we are designated to do that. So, we may really like PH because we have a lot of customers there, but we are guided by the law that exists between the two countries.
You used to have a lot of CSR projects. In 80 years, can you list some of the projects you have done as a gift to the communities?
There are lots of things we are doing in that area. I remember you remember the Kuje school in Abuja. The support is on-going. I was in Kuje late last year to look at the computer class that we started. If you know the history-that was a school people were under the tree. BA actually rebuilt the school, provided portable water. Last year, we were involved in Leaders of Tomorrow project. Some of you were involved where we identified six promising Nigeria students in aviation and tried to get them ready for the future. That was phase one. It was a fantastic programme. We brought them to London. They spent a week in a place in Lagos before we brought them to London where they spent one month themselves in different areas of the airline including mentorship from our CEO, Keith Williams to get experience on civil engineering side of the operations. We like to continue that and roll out the second phase. Those students were from the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria and Aviation school in Ilorin, Kwara State. I suspect that the second phase will be better and bigger than the phase one. The Britishness stops us from making too much noise. Even the Leaders of Tomorrow, you just want to impact on lives without making too much of publicity stunt. We impact on lives and want them to be the ones talking. We are also in partnership with Comet relief to ensure that people’s lives are impacted.
On the passenger side, I still hear people talk about issues around transit visa, is there anything BA could do to ease this or smoothen this without cutting corners to ensure that people connecting their flights?
Not for Nigeria. BA work closely with the British government to ensure that when it comes to transit visa to make sure that the process is very smooth as possible. Nothing specific for Nigeria but we do it for everywhere and for many markets in the Middle East like Kuwait, UAE citizens in terms of easier process in terms of visas.
The gender market is opening up now so much that there is a lot of agitation for women oriented business. BA should have a softer part not really on serious aviation, what about education of frequent flier miles and others?
We have tips on how to travel with kids. We are currently working with Women in Aviation, Women in Business and you know that they are very powerful people.
I am aware that BA has made humongous investment in aircraft expansion, acquisition, could you avail us of the aircraft orders you have made, and the general outlook of your investment?
As you rightly, we are in the middle of £5b investments in new aircraft, smarter cabins, elegant lounges and new technologies to make life more comfortable in the air and on the ground. We are already seeing this investment have a meaningful impact on our services and offering. Airlines today have to anticipate and adapt to consumer needs in order to compete with other strong players in the market. At British Airways customer satisfaction has always been important to us and is reflected across all elements of our service and product offerings. We acquired 10 A380 but ordered 12. We acquired B787-800 the ones with First Class coming into my region. One of the first one was to Abu Dhabi and Muskat. We will be reviewing in the near future depending on our capacity.
I am looking at the volume of you traffic into Nigeria. You have acquired the A380. I am looking at the lack of infrastructure to handle this aircraft type. Do you plan to deploy this aircraft whenever we upgrade our infrastructure?
We constantly review our aircraft deployment globally. If there will be opportunity, there will be no doubt that we will do it. At the moment, we have one A380 flying into Africa, Johannesburg. We daily deploy A380 to Johannesburg. We will keep on reviewing our A380 operations globally. We deploy them to Singapore, Washington, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco etc. There are constant changes.
Your challenges operating into Nigeria and Africa
Everywhere is challenging. Infact competition is challenging. The fact that you have competition is challenging. As far as you to deal with some common issues, it is challenging. What we are trying to do is to as a company, what we are trying to do is to rise above the challenges by making our operations safe and successful. If we have been there for 80 years, it means we can master challenges.
BA has been accused of selecting a particular part of aircraft that operate to Nigeria, how true is this?
Do you believe it? The aircraft you flew, do you like it? I know that you like it. The aircraft look the same. Aircraft have registration. If you want to check, you can do that with Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) for the registration. It does not make sense to keep aircraft on ground, they are made to be flying; you don’t even to ask us. We came in London yesterday at 4.30am and there would be 8am flight to New York or 10am to Atlanta. They will roaster that aircraft that came from Lagos to first destination within that period that you operate with B747. They won’t wait for that aircraft to be returned to Lagos. Another one is coming from elsewhere to do Lagos route. Let me give you a tip. If you go to the toilet, right in front of you right opposite the door, you will see the registration. We have a lot of B747 but the registration will be different. That is why if you look at the seats, the numbers are different. We will not take bad aircraft to one of our biggest markets. As a matter of fact, we do not have bad aircraft.