The Chairman/CEO of Air Peace, Allen Onyema, in this interview says indigenous pilots spend longer time serving airlines than expatriates. Onyema also explained why he increased the salary of the airline’s workforce recently. Excerpts:
By way of comparison, do you think the indigenous personnel in aviation in Nigeria are doing well and do you prefer an expatriate especially in technical areas to Nigerian personnel?
Aviation is the same worldwide. There is no Nigerian aviation or another aviation in England. It is the same rules and regulations that govern aviation worldwide. And aviation is not something you do out of sentiments. The truth is that if the Nigerian personnel want to do something, he gets it done. We are very, very resilient. I will rather work with Nigerians because it will cost me less. I don’t have to pay a hotel accommodation for him. I don’t have to give him tickets every two months to go home. I don’t have to worry about what happens with incessant rotations. He gives me 11 months in the year and takes his one month leave. Some of the expatriates in some places do six months, one month on, one month off. So in a year, they work for six months and earn the salary of 12 months.
In some places, they do two months on, eight weeks off; that is like two months on, it is the same thing. So, most times they give you less than what you bargained for because they have to go home. So sometimes the best you could get out of them is maybe eight months in 12 months. While the Nigerian worker will stay here 11 months for you and go take his one month leave. So for every business person and for the sake of economics, I prefer the Nigerian worker. However, we should not kid ourselves. There are some technical areas, we still need foreigners who have been there, who must have been well tested to help us. There is nothing wrong there. The world of aviation does not really say this is from here, or this is from there, it is about the technical know-how, especially in engineering. We still need to put our acts together. Nigerian engineers are very good and when they want to be good, they are good. However, the world has become a global village. For the Nigerian personnel my advice is that you perfect yourself in your field instead of putting money first.
So, we need to balance it. But in balancing, I challenge the Nigerian workforce to be up to speed. They have to bend down and get the knowledge, acquaint themselves with new skills. We have fantastic Nigerian engineers but their number is not enough. When we brought BCT Aviation of UK to be maintaining our Boeing 737s when we started in 2014, one year down the line, they brought a very young chap; he should be about 22 years then and we were not happy that they brought that kind of person here. He cut his engineering teeth in Nigeria. But do you know that within one year, this guy became something else. He became so good that he was everywhere. He worked round the clock, learning the job and before you knew it, he became a certified engineer. Before you knew it, he became marketable worldwide that even BCT lost him. They lost him to the Presidency of one of the countries abroad.
He was about 22 years, meanwhile he met some Nigerians who were already answering engineer and he overtook them. So these are issues that we have. And we have to be careful about expatriate quota and the local content when it gets to aviation. For example, Nigerian pilot community is one of the best in the world. Nigerian pilots have gotten it so right; they could fly for anybody in the world. They are good. However, they are not enough. So when they say there are a lot of pilots in Nigeria that are not employed, they may be referring to pilots who have just graduated from training school and who have 200 hours from flying school. You can hardly have a captain that is unemployed. We are talking about Captains here, not those young ones that just passed out of school. They are not enough. We should not joke about people’s lives by being forced to take just anybody. You cannot just make anybody a captain overnight.
In these hard times when corporate organisations in the aviation industry are thinking about how to survive and right size you recently increased the salary of your workers, what motivated you?
My motivation comes from God Almighty. I have told Nigerians and the world at large that I created Air Peace because of the love of my country, just to create jobs. I went into airline business because it creates a lot of jobs. So I am actualising my dream of empowering my fellow citizens. So, my own interest is to touch lives, not to line my pocket. It is not as if we are making profit in our operations, but I said it in 2014, during launch that I am looking forward to a Nigerian airline through Air Peace that will one day declare profit and share it among staff.
I am looking forward to a Nigerian airline where the workers in generations to come will be able to say my great, great grandfather worked in Air Peace, my grandfather worked in Air Peace, my own father worked in Air Peace, here I am working for Air Peace. So it is the legacy that matters to me. So, I want to make people just work not for the sake of working, but to earn their livelihood in a respectable way from where they are doing the work. So, I looked at the hardship around and everything, and I decided whatever little we have, let’s push it back to the staff.
Operation is very difficult now, we have about almost 20 planes stranded abroad, depleting our capacity to do what we know how best. Before COVID-19, we were doing about 120 flights daily; now we are doing about 40 to 45; yet I decided to recall every staff. Not only recalling every staff four months ago, I restated them to pre-COVID salaries. And now I decided that we should increase their wages, ranging from 10 per cent, to 100 percent. Some people got 100 per cent increase, some others 80 per cent, like that, depending on where the person level is. So that is what we did. We are not doing it for show; we are doing it because we believe that is best way to put smiles on the faces of the workers. This is because every Nigerian working takes care of about five to 10 other persons, no matter his salary. And we are talking about insecurity today, which is exacerbated by lack of jobs; so creating jobs should not be left for government alone.
So it is my belief that every citizen must contribute to the well-being of the country. This is my own idea in the face of the current challenges we are facing as a country. I decided to do this so that I put hope back in the people and in our staff. You could see their joy when they learnt about the increase; they ran amok with joy. Those who can should give our fellow citizens the hope to believe in our country. So, I call on everybody both in government and the private sector, whatever you can do, do. At this point in time Air Peace is still recruiting people. If I am doing this business because I want to make money, there is no money in aviation. I won’t do some of the things I am doing. I do it for love of my country; I am doing it for the love of humanity. That is my motivation.
What comes to people’s mind now is where you are getting this money from if you are not making money from the airlines?
Yes, a lot of people will talk and I have become an object of blackmail in the country. A lot of people try to blackmail me, especially since that American case. Some will come to you and say we will do this, publish this against you if you don’t bring money, we will do this. I have really suffered. And a lot of people are cashing in on that to dent my image and my reputation. But the question is, when they ask questions about what I am doing with Air Peace or where I am getting the money, why didn’t they ask questions about where I got the money I was using in 2004 to be going to the Niger Delta creeks and be training and transforming militants? Taking them to South Africa, with my own funds, before Shell and other oil companies started to patronise me. Where did I get that money then? I am motivated by the love I have for the country and to put smile on the face of people. It is not only when you amass billions that you can help others. The little you have you can put it out there for the service of humanity. No one goes to the grave with his wallet.
I am not going to go to my grave with the size of my bank account. That has been my philosophy my whole life. And because people cannot comprehend that philosophy, they now try to ascribe all manner of things to it. But let them think back that right from my youthful days, I have been like this. Right from secondary school, I was sharing my provisions given to me by my parents with the less privileged ones around me. So, it has continued like that and that is what gives me joy. It gives me joy to touch other people’s lives irrespective of their status.
I love humanity irrespective of your race, creed, tribe, religion, gender, name it. I don’t discriminate. So they should save their breath. It is not that Air Peace has a lot of money, but what we are making; I don’t divert it to anything else. I put it back to the airline and I keep on believing God. It is just God that is doing most things for us and we keep on putting it back to the staff.
The banks have been very, very helpful to us, believing in us. Let people don’t bother themselves about me. Let them bother themselves about their nation and how they could contribute in building it. I have played my part and I am very proud of what I am doing for my country.
The salary increase will certainly motivate your workers, but before this increase, were you satisfied with the workers’ output?
I cannot sit down here and say that I am 100 per cent happy with the work ethic of everybody. There are some people in the system that are doing their best; but there are some others that will need to be pushed before they do anything. But that cannot stop me from doing my own beat. I must live up to my own obligations. My own obligation to them is to make sure their welfare is improved. I will do mine then; if anybody fails to do what he is expected to do, then we will show the person the way out. But first of all, you must tell yourself, you have done that which you are supposed to do. We have even over done ours, and that is why you see them excitedly running amok. And they couldn’t believe what they are seeing. What I did was reinforcing their hope. I believe in the hope that the future will be better. So, let’s prepare for the future now.
Yes, we have forgiven some of our pilots who left. They also helped in building Air Peace in the past. But when the time came for loyalty some of them were not loyal. They did not believe in what we showed to them after the lockdown was lifted. But they have seen now that we didn’t disappoint them. So we left our doors open for them. And we have forgiven them, they are coming back, a lot of them will come back into the fold. Air Peace is where they actually belong even though they are in other places now; their heart and soul are still with Air Peace. They are coming back not because of the money per se, but because some of them have realized that there was no reason for what happened to have happened. The airline has been very truthful to them.