Olowo’s Nigerian odyssey

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Nigeria’s air transport industry is viewed, both within and outside Africa, as one of the most disorganised, where a lack of adequate government oversight contributes to the poor safety record of a proliferation of airlines. But Lagos-based Bellview Airlines, in spite of having suffered a tragic accident in 2005, should not be seen as part of this general perception, says Gabriel Gbenga Olowo, who has been the airline’s executive director for 12 years.

“We started as a travel agency in 1992, then set up a charter operation in South Africa, before engaging in executive flights with a Yak-40 throughout Nigeria,” says Olowa. “The acquisition of two DC-9s enabled us to begin scheduled services on domestic routes within Nigeria. This was in the late 1990s.

“Since then, the network has grown from the initial service linking Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Port Harcourt to 14 destinations in every country in West Africa, with extensions to the east. Our great vision is to be able to replace the capacity lost through the demise of Nigeria Airways.”

With a fleet of two Boeing 767-200ERs and five 737-200s, the airline now serves the capital cities of Senegal, Guinea, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cameroon, Congo, Uganda and, since the end of October, Johannesburg in South Africa via Gabon. A four-times-a-week service from Lagos to London via Freetown in Sierra Leone is flown by associate Bellview Airlines SL, operating under a Nigerian airworthiness operating certificate.

Olowa says Bellview has been designated to operate between Lagos and New York, which he hopes will be inaugurated in December with a 767. A Lagos-Mumbai service has been discontinued as uneconomic.

Gabriel says he is not afraid of competition and welcomes airlines flying to Lagos, from where, he says, “we should be able to partner [foreign airlines] and distribute traffic from there.” He refers to interlining partnerships with Air France, Virgin Nigeria, Continental and United Airlines to make his point.

What he objects to is foreign airlines flying directly to the main domestic destinations like the capital Abuja, Kano, and the oil-rich region of Port Harcourt. “This would be detrimental to the local people, you would be indirectly destroying the economy and domestic opportunities for Nigerian airlines,” he says.

On the domestic front, he claims a market share of some 40%, but says there is still unfulfilled demand. “Although the [Nigerian] government is now shifting towards the private sector, and all airlines in West Africa are moving to private ownership the private sector needs time to grow. Africa’s future will be in the private sector but we must integrate at a profit, we must work the economics.”

Olowa bemoans the lack of progress in liberalising the market, saying that it took Bellview Airlines two years to negotiate a bilateral with an unnamed African country. “If you deny access to markets, I cannot provide a service. We are not moving forward yet,” he says. “I have seen growth, but I have not seen development.”

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