Passengers’ demands will determine fate of SAA – Munetsi

South African Airways(SAA) is one of the leading airlines in Africa. The Regional General Manager, Africa and Middle East, Mr. Aaron Munetsi, in this interview with newsmen spoke about  plans by the airline to employ some unemployed Nigerian pilots, the  challenges the airline is facing, its alliance with Star Alliance, the benefits and other issues. Correspondent, Abel Orukpe was there. Excerpts:

Some technical personnel in aviation industry are unable to secure employment after graduating from aviation colleges. What is the airline doing to at least give jobs to some of the 500 Nigerian pilots, who are unemployed at the moment?

This is a very interesting question, but I want to speak as an African who has been given the African mandate. We cannot sleep peacefully in our house when the next door neigbhour has nothing to eat. We will do everything possible to make sure Nigerian pilots as long as they meet the requirements of recruitment they will be considered for jobs in our establishment.

I just came out of a conference in Johannesburg, South Africa and we were addressed by the Regional Vice President of Boeing Aircraft Manufacturing Company and in his address to us, he mentioned that there is an estimated requirement for 1,330 aircraft that are going to be required for Africa countries and by the nature of those aircraft being acquired by African carriers, we are going to need 18,000 pilots and 12,000 technicians.

There is no border to where these pilots and technicians are going to come from. The only requirement is that they must be trained to the standards that are required by the aircraft manufacturers. And remember, this is only from a Boeing point of view. Airbus Aircraft manufacturing company has got its own calculations; very soon, it is going to announce its own understanding of how many aircraft that would be required in the continent. The same thing will happen with Embraer, Bombardier and others aircraft manufacturers.

There is a huge demand for qualified technical skills like pilots, technicians and others. If you think about it, all of us as African airlines have suffered from what we call brain drain, but I was so happy when I heard about this because from the brain drain, we have capped it to a brain gain. Those people that have gone out, have the experience and became expatriates wherever they have been, they are now coming back home. They are coming back with their experiences and expertise.

So, we need to take those things into consideration when we do our developmental purposes. I believe that even for South Africa whether we like it or not, we don’t have enough technical people to fulfill the requirements of our jobs. Nigeria itself will also not have enough. We would have to think across the board in the continent to address these requirements for these technical staff.

Does SAA   have plans to establish  Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facilities in Nigeria considering your popularity in the country?

You will be delighted to hear that we have a technical team from our South African Airways technical department that is focusing specifically on Nigeria. What we established in the West African hub takes much more time to evolve, but establishing an MRO, facility is faster. So, they have been here and they are already doing work on the ground to see how best they can evaluate and quickly come up with a decision to say ‘how do we start an MRO in Nigeria?’

What measures have SAA put in place to ensure that it does not fly carriers of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) into Nigeria? 

In Nigeria, we have a situation where Ebola has been recorded, but the outbreak is being very well contained by the Nigerian government and it has not spread too much and we have made a business decision to continue to fly into Nigeria and service it. Our staff have been trained to identify and evaluate a situation where we have maybe a sick passenger that is boarding our flights so as not to transmit the virus when he gets to any country that we fly into and not only South Africa. But the entire network is at risk if we do not look carefully as to whether the passenger is ill when he or she is about to board any of our flights.

Our passengers’ manuals have been updated to tell staff what to do in case of any contagious disease in any city. Basically, what you will see if you fly in any of our flights out of Nigeria right now is that most of our staff that have direct contacts with passengers now have to wear gloves when they relate with passengers and the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), has also put in measures to be able to contain the virus.

So, our staff are well-trained to be able to report to us, identify when there are sick people that are about to board the flights. Basically, the way the Nigerian government has gone to contain the virus has been very remarkable and the Lagos State government particularly has done extremely well doing this. Practically, everyone knows what the symptoms of Ebola are; fever, coughing, diarrhea and others. You can easily identify if any of the passengers onboard is suffering from any of these illnesses and possible put them aside. Through this, you will be able to ask a lot of questions and test them at random. Through that way, we have been able to secure and ensure that we fly very safely.

Why do you think it is difficult for foreign airlines operating into Nigeria to partner any of the local airlines despite the obvious fact that SAA and others partner with local airlines outside the country?

This is a very involved question, but let us starts with the fundamentals. What is the philosophy of the local partner and what is the philosophy of the South African Airways? Do these two philosophies have any form of convergence, where we can say we are beginning to talk about the same thing even if we are talking about different things at different levels?

A local partner or a local airline might be saying its philosophy is to do domestic first. There are only three things that any airline would give you; schedule, network and the capacity. If the local partner says it want to focus its operations on the local services,’ it will not worry when the customer arrives in Lagos and his connectivity out of Nigeria to elsewhere. All its focus is only from Point A to Point B. So that is the first thing on their minds.

We at South African Airways, our philosophy as  a network carrier is that we are least worried about a customer who is just travelling from one point to another. We are more concerned about a customer who uses our entire network. When we are here, I want my team to go to the nooks and crannies of Nigeria to convince them that they would take them from Lagos and put them in areas as far as Sao Paolo, Brazil in just one flight because that is what the network is all about. That is our philosophy. We need to find somebody here who also understands the philosophy that says they are not just serving Lagos to Abuja or vice versa, they are serving Abuja from Lagos to destinations beyond.

South African Airways joined alliances like the Star Alliance because we on our own at SAA, we were doing an average of 180 flights daily and the moment we joined the Star Alliance, we are doing an average of 4000 flights daily simply because somebody who is sitting in a far country and does not see the SAA flight, suddenly sees the bird that says this is flying from Sao Paolo, Miami, Johannesburg, Senegal and others on South African Airways. This is possible simply because of our Star Alliance. Now, we have been able to marry that alliance with our philosophy to another one.

Even, when you talk about MRO, it has to be the same philosophy to say you can’t be focusing on servicing your Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier aircraft only. You must be able to say, we are providing a world class facility. In that service, components for example like the landing gears, and others, whatever that comes into your facility must be serviced through the specification of the aircraft manufacturer irrespective of where the aircraft is going to. Then, for me, the most important thing is the philosophy, which also drives us through our business plans and processes.

Have you ever wondered why Air France is probably the only airline from Europe that flies into probably all the countries in West Africa and especially in the francophone countries? And the indigenous airlines from those countries, whenever they start a new airline, before they even do the domestic sector, they want to go to Paris and that is how they failed. They have to understand the philosophy that says ‘what are you going to do?’

Generally, what is your assessment of the aviation industry in Nigeria?

SAA has been operating into Nigeria since 1998 and we are 16 years already. Up until 2009, we had four flights and in 2009 we moved our flights daily. This simply shows you that we have so much faith in the travelling industry in Nigeria because we have seen growth and we are also proven right for us to frequently want to increase our frequencies and for us to provide more capacity into the market in order to meet the demands. Yes, there is a constant growth in the market when it comes to travel and we are very optimistic about the Nigerian market.

Are there plans by SAA to increase its frequencies from the current eight to about 14 frequencies weekly?

Everything is possible. We are currently working with the Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) that we have with the Nigerian government, which at the moment allows 10 frequencies for each country. At present, we are about using eight of those 10 frequencies and anything can still happen in the future.

The increase from seven to eight frequencies weekly is based on demands of the Nigerian market; people connecting into various destinations and with SAA being global airline, we want to make sure that our passengers can have good connections to everywhere within our network. There are couples of destinations that we are missing out when we are travelling with the current schedule, but with this extra flight, it will allow people to connect to other places around the world.

Also, are there plans to have multiple entries into Nigeria in the future by SAA?

This will be determined by demands and we as an airline, we are ready to evolve along with our customers. It is not out of the cards, everything is possible in the business.

Aviation fuel is a challenge to all the airlines in the industry. At SAA, how have you been able to cope with the skyrocketing price of the product?

For every airline, that is one of the products that have continually been on the increase in the sector. But despite this, SAA doesn’t compromise on things that are important like security, safety and others. Definitely, fuel price takes a chunk of your revenue as an airline, which is over 30 per cent at the moment. We ensure that we don’t spend on things that are unnecessary, but at the same time, we don’t compromise on the services that we offer to the end users.

What are the major challenges SAA is facing flying into Nigeria?

We were just talking about fuel and I think fuel shortage is one of those challenges in the sector in Nigeria. Just few weeks ago, we had shortage of fuel in the country and for you to continue to fly successfully into Nigeria, you will need a reliable partner and we are fortunate that we have that. With proper planning on the challenges we have in place and contingency plans, we have been able to surmount them.

How do you see Nigerian aviation market compared to other aviation markets SAA operates?

The Nigerian market is vibrant, dynamic, very demanding, complicated, sophisticated, rewarding and more than anything else, is an enjoyable market for us at SAA.

Source : Independent

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