Riding the storm

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It’s been a tough couple of months for the African aviation industry, with the effect the Ebola virus has had on African travel. Running an airline operation out of Nigeria also presents its share of challenges, according to Rodger Whittle, Arik Air Senior Vice-President, Standards & Specials. But he remains positive about the road ahead, as detailed to editor Dylan Rogers over a coffee in Johannesburg.

Arik Air is a wholly-owned Nigerian airline, and has for the past eight years been building a reputation as arguably the country’s most reliable carrier, operating from its hubs at Murtala Muhammed International in Lagos and Nnamdi Azikiwe International in Abuja.

It’s been a period of growth for this private airline, initially launched as a domestic carrier, before branching out with regional and international routes that now include Johannesburg, New York, London and Dubai.

But, as a Nigerian airline, Arik still battles perception, despite its success – a legacy of many troubled years for Nigerian aviation, with concerns over safety at the heart of it.

“It’s one of the things I’m very much aware of,” says Whittle. “In everything we do, we try to offer some degree of reassurance. But there is a perception of Nigeria, which carries through to the aviation industry and the airline. We have completed our third IATA operational safety audit and gone through IOSA three times, so we’re back on the registry. It’s a huge achievement and safety is very much our primary concern.”

Perception is not the only battle Whittle and his staff have had to fight recently, with the effect of the Ebola virus hitting the airline hard. August saw Arik suspend operations into Freetown and Monrovia, and embark on extensive training for its staff.

“We put procedures in place and proactively managed it,” says Whittle. “Although Ebola remains a very severe concern, certainly in West Africa, Nigeria has been free of Ebola for some time now.”

More importantly, more people are flying.

“We’re seeing a return of numbers within the local context,” says Whittle. “When we look at the international market, we’re seeing a downturn in travel to the continent. In the US there is a great amount of anxiety about Ebola, but I don’t think it is very well understood. Business travel has been significantly reduced to only essential travel. So our high-yielding fares which fill the front cabin have been diluted.”

Ebola is not the only challenge Arik is facing, with additional issues closer to home and on a more regular basis.

“It’s challenging in terms of infrastructure and the difficulties we face on a daily basis,” says Whittle. “We’re talking generally Nigeria and West Africa, which are not easy to operate in. We seem to suffer from a continuous lack of fuel supply, which has posed huge problems to us on a daily basis, whilst a lot of the air fields we operate to and from have lesser degrees of infrastructure.”

Also looming on the horizon is the prospect of the Nigerian government driving the process of once again looking for a national carrier to fly the flag for the country.

“This is something that has been topical for a long time,” says Whittle. “There’s some speculation within the industry of the prime contender and who should bid, but we don’t know whether it will be an airline that is taken over, or a new operator certificate holder.”

Despite the challenges Arik faces, Whittle is bullish about the future and recognises the opportunity available to the airline he represents, with Arik having already ‘made the hard yards’. That sentiment extends to the aviation industry as a whole.

“The industry is facing huge costs and very often difficulty generating high revenues in a very difficult period,” says Whittle. “However, there is massive opportunity and the African market is only going to continue to grow at a fairly rapid rate. I think the outlook is very good.”

Does that mean we’ll see new Arik routes in the near future?

“We’re constantly looking at new routes, and there’s always feasibility studies being done,” says Whittle. “Is there a market for the Far East? There may be, but that becomes an aeroplane logistical issue. We’re looking at things closer to home and revising the network that we have.”