Muneer Bankole, chief executive of Nigeria's Med-View Airline, tells Martin Rivers he is on a mission to grow market share and boost the company's image abroad.
Less than a decade after starting life as a charter operator for the Hajj pilgrimage, Nigeria’s Med-View Airline is building up its scheduled network across West Africa while looking for expansion opportunities beyond the sub-region.
“We are moving gradually in the next 12 months to make additional inroads into four new destinations: Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), Conakry (Guinea), Dakar (Senegal) and probably Liberia,” said chief executive Muneer Bankole.
The addition of several regional points will be a major leap for the Lagos-based carrier, which presently deploys five Boeing 737 Classics on scheduled services to four domestic cities (Abuja, Port Harcourt, Yola and Enugu) plus Accra in Ghana.
But cross-border flying is nothing new for Bankole’s airline. Med-View made its name chartering wide-bodies to Saudi Arabia for religious traffic, and with the upcoming arrival of its own 767-300ER – on finance lease from AerCap – its scheduled network will expand to reach the Middle East and, potentially, even Europe and Asia.
“The plan is to increase the fleet in the first quarter of 2016 and to move beyond our present location in West Africa,” the chief executive explained. “We have been granted the rights for scheduled operations to Dubai and Jeddah. That is why we have the need for the 767.”
Med-View’s expanding list of bilateral designations reportedly also now includes London, Lisbon, Singapore and Israel, although there are no imminent plans to make use of those flying rights.
The flurry of activity comes just three years after scheduled domestic operations began and one year after the first international flight was timetabled. To date, the airline has transported more than one million scheduled passengers, Bankole said, on top of about 250,000 Hajj pilgrims since the launch of charter services in 2007.
“At the moment we operate 12 daily flights, [including] six to Abuja,” he confirmed. “Our flights are over 90% on-time and that’s why passengers actually go for Med-View. We keep to time.”
Although the airline’s focus has shifted to scheduled traffic, it continues to develop the charter and cargo side of the business. “We are the general agent for Saudia Cargo in Nigeria,” Bankole noted. “They are doing pretty well. Their operation is with a 747-400F, maximum 100tonnes per flight, so we handle cargo for them on the side.”
Overseas partnerships, he stressed, have always been at the heart of the business model, with Portugal’s EuroAtlantic Airways and Iceland’s Air Atlanta providing the wide-bodies for Hajj services. By contracting out EuroAtlantic’s 767s in each of the past eight years, Med-View has built a dependable seasonal service that is now operated on a mixed-crew basis.
As he looks to the future, it is this focus on strong partnerships that will guide Med-View through the next phase of its growth.
The chief executive has, in the past, criticised the Nigerian Government for liberalising access to secondary airports in the country, arguing that foreign carriers should be forced to connect with local operators in Lagos. His attendance at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) AGM in Miami, from where he was speaking, was marked by an open invitation to sign interline and codeshare agreements on Med-View’s domestic routes.
The overture was, perhaps, targeted mainly at Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic Airways – carriers whose Nigerian presence is restricted to Lagos.
It will be a tougher sell for the likes of British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines, EgyptAir, Middle East Airlines and Emirates Airline. They all serve capital city Abuja, or secondary points such as Port Harcourt and Kano, with their own metal. Unless Nigeria revokes their bilateral designations, these carriers will be likely to continue favouring nonstop connections where commercially viable.
Either way, Nigeria’s 177 million citizens are hungry for improved air connectivity. Gross domestic product (GDP) growth remains strong despite the double whammy of falling oil prices and sustained violence by Boko Haram militants. As national income rises, so does the demand for flights.
Air passenger numbers in the country spiked more than 20% to 21 million last year, ending the slump that followed the crash of Dana Air Flight 992 in June 2012. Some 163 lives were lost in that tragedy, turning the spotlight once again on Nigeria’s chequered but improving air safety record.
While he is bullish on the country’s long-term prospects, Bankole does not downplay the challenges currently facing West Africa’s largest market. He points to the disjointed airport infrastructure in Lagos as one of the biggest annoyances for local operators.
“We have the main international airport – Murtala Muhammed International Airport –and there is another private airport called MMA2 that is under a build, operate and transfer contract,” he explained. Though located adjacent to one another, the latter domestic facility is run independently and has no transfer facilities for onward international flights.
“The things that need to be in place for domestic passengers to connect to international flights are not there yet. They need to go through security and go all the way back [into the terminal]. There is a lot of traffic sometimes.”
For now, most of Med-View’s passengers originate or disembark in the Lagos catchment area, so the infrastructure problem is manageable. But that could change as the airline grows, and there is no shortage of other challenges in the local market.
The Ebola crisis was one recent shock to the system. “There was a big cut-down in passengers on the west coast [of Africa],” Bankole said. “For a couple of months it was a very serious problem. Thank God, things are going back to normal.”
Corruption is also an ever-present worry, benefiting the privileged few in government at the expense of wider commercial spoils. Transparency International placed Nigeria 136th out of 175 countries in its 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index. Incoming president Muhammadu Buhari was elected on an anti-corruption ticket, but delivering change will not be an easy task.
Fraudulent conduct has, indeed, been widely blamed for the historic under-performance of Nigeria’s aviation sector relative to its economic might.
Former flag-carrier, Nigeria Airways, ceased operations in 2003 amid claims that more than $400 million had gone missing at the state-owned company between 1983 and 1999. Would-be successor Virgin Nigeria Airways also ended badly, with Virgin Group president Sir Richard Branson selling his stake in the carrier and accusing the government of “Mafioso-style” behaviour.
Today, the closest thing Nigeria has to a national carrier is Arik Air, which deploys 26 aircraft on domestic, regional and intercontinental flights.
But, despite being the market leader, it too has encountered setbacks. National fuel shortages wrought havoc on Arik’s 120 daily flights earlier this year, prompting widespread delays and cancellations. The airline also suspended its Dubai service in May after less than one year of operations, blaming intense competition with the Gulf carriers. Med-View will not find it any easier to make money on the route.
With so many challenges in the local market, it is little wonder that Bankole keeps all options on the table for the future. He even opened the door to FastJet at the IATA AGM, promising to give it “the best window and opportunity” for setting up a Nigerian subsidiary.
FastJet had previously advanced on the country through a memorandum of understanding with Red 1 Airways. Now that those talks have stalled, FastJet chief executive Ed Winter says he is open to other Nigerian joint ventures – but only if “100% convinced that the entity is properly funded... and it has full political support”.
The low-cost boss has his own personal experience of disappointment in Lagos. Bankole’s challenge is to convince him, and others, that Med-View holds the key to unlocking Nigeria’s potential.