If you were an entrepreneur contemplating a new business in this economy, would your first choice be founding a new airline? Probably not. Any travel professional who has been in the industry for awhile is familiar with the complicated business model, the volatile fuel prices and bankruptcies that have marked the airline industry in the past few decades.
None of these challenges discouraged Sir Joseph Arumemi-Ikhide as he founded Arik Air in 2006. The Nigerian businessman’s vision for Arik Air was that of a world class airline, with new state-of-the-art equipment, top personnel chosen from around the world, the best maintenance and security, plus unparalleled service. He wanted an airline that Nigerians would be proud of and that would serve as its own best marketing tool: after flying Arik Air, travelers would fly Arik Air again.
As we boarded Arik Air’s Airbus A340, flying from New York to Lagos, we were escorted to what I assumed were first class seats. Each of us had our own comfortable niche, with a seat that reclined into a 7-foot plus bed (replete with massage), our own TV, a USB jack and PC power outlet, dining table, plus a retractable divider for privacy. As we all used our touch-screen remotes to activate our exciting new environment, I was surprised to learn we were in Business Class!
All airlines seem to be experimenting with their Business Class seats of late; seat designers are twisting the seats around so much that some configurations look like a carnival ride. Arik Air seems to have chosen its Business Class accommodation with one goal: passenger comfort. Arik also added weight (and squandered space) in Business Class with a full-service bar and lounge, providing a change of scene and a place to chat or hold informal meetings.
Passenger comfort also rules back in Economy Class, with 50% more legroom gained by reducing the number of seats and with the same audio and video choices on each personal TV screen as Business Class enjoys.
“We all use the term ‘low cost airline,’ explained Robert Brunner, US Country Manager for Arik Air, “but what we are really talking about is ‘small service’ versus ‘full service’ airlines. A new airline can try to attract customers by offering some of the cheapest fares for a portion of their seats, or it can offer the best flying experience. Arik Air has chosen the latter.”
Bob Brunner embodies Arik Air’s worldwide quest for the best, most experienced managers. He took on the job as the head of Arik Air in the USA after thirty years at British Airways.
“As you tour our Operations Control Center in Lagos, you will meet employees from all over the world–Germany, South Africa, and so on–as well as Nigerians. Everyone you will meet is committed to both bringing best practices to this new airline, making it the best that an airline can be, and to teaching. We all want to mentor Nigerians so that they can take our places at some point. One thing many don’t understand about Nigerians is that many are extremely well-educated.”
One such Nigerian is Sir Joseph Arumemi-Ikhide, founder of Arik Air. We were lucky enough to getting some background from Sir Joesph after having experienced both Arik Air’s superior service in the air and touring its headquarters in Nigeria.
TWN: Though you recognized a need, what gave you confidence that your new commercial airline could succeed when so many airlines had failed, not only in West Africa, but worldwide?
Sir Joseph: There were a combination of factors that came together in 2006 to set Arik on the upward trajectory that it has been on ever since. Nigeria went through a very difficult period between 2004-2006 when it experienced a series of fatal air crashes. It was in 2006 that the government decided to reconfigure the industry and the aviation bodies that oversaw the sector. This helped to establish an industry with greater oversight and more safeguards. We decided that the time was ripe to launch a new airline. The difference between Arik and others was that we made the conscious decision to acquire and operate brand new aircraft. No new aircraft were deployed in Nigeria for over 20 years so when we started flying popular routes with these new aircraft, it automatically gave us a competitive edge.
Our main priority was to recover travelling public confidence, thereby driving demand with the sector again. We do not compromise on safety and security. The next step to ensure Arik’s success was to get a maintenance repair operations (MRO) facility in Lagos that was run by the very best maintenance providers in the industry, Lufthansa Technik.
Within 14 months we had nearly 30% market share (at end of 2007) and up to 45% by the end of 2008.
In order to succeed globally we knew we needed the very best talent; we secured the employment of colleagues from a range of legacy carriers as well as low cost carriers who brought expertise and knowledge. When we launched our three long haul routes in 2009, we were met with the global financial crisis which was the biggest challenge the industry faced since 9/11. We managed to mitigate this, however, as we found that demand into and out of Nigeria remained steady–even increased–since West Africa, and Nigeria [particularly with its petrochem economy, was not as hard hit as the Western economies.
TWN: What are your hopes for the future of Arik Air and for Nigeria?
Sir Joseph: For Arik Air to be considered the leading African airline flying internationally and to be one of the leading carriers in the industry. We have many challenges to face and roads to travel before that but the pace at which we are growing I believe it is achievable. For the country of Nigeria; to be one of the leading 20 economies by 2020. It is nearly there and I feel that it is capable of becoming the powerhouse of Africa and a new age emerging economy.
|So, will you be booking your FIT or group leisure travelers to most African destinations with Arik Air in the near future? Probably not. The airport in Lagos does not offer any arriving international airline easy transfer possibilities to many African tourist destinations. Arik Air flies to South Africa but, again, the transfer from New York is not an easy one. Arik Air’s managers are confident that the airport will improve, however, and those improvements will present greater opportunities for Arik and for partnerships with airlines that service typical tourist destinations in Africa. In the meantime, no other airline could compete with Arik Air for your clients who have business in Nigeria or for returning diaspora Nigerians (who are plentiful in the USA).|