While many carriers are battening down the hatches and clawing capacity back during the economic crisis, managing director of ambitious Nigerian carrier Arik Air International, Michael Arumemi-Ikhide, says the airline is pressing ahead with its aggressive international expansion.

Having built a strong position in the Nigerian domestic and African regional market since launching three years ago, Arik in December launched its move onto the international stage by launching on the Lagos-London Heathrow route. London will be followed by flights from Lagos to Johannesburg in the second quarter and New York JFK flights in the third quarter as the third of its new Airbus A340-500s, an order it opportunistically took over from Indian carrier Kingfisher, arrive.

"It will take us to 11 international destinations in the next five years," explains Arumemi-Ikhide of its international development plan, pointing to other target areas such as Asia and the Middle East. "There is a lot to play for out there."

Michael Arumemi-Ikhidi(200) 
 Arik Air International  managing director Michael Arumemi-Ikhide

He describes London-Lagos as an "absolute priority" and believes the carrier can make its mark in service levels on a highly competitive market.

"There are challenges in that we are going up against some well-established legacy carriers, but there is an opportunity to differentiate yourself," he says.

"We want to offer a world class product. We believe we have revolutionised the flying experience in Nigeria," he says, pointing to the carrier's introduction of new regional jets and Boeing narrowbodies on domestic and regional services. He says the carrier intends to bring this into the international market, providing a level of service not previously provided by Nigerian carriers and competitive with international carriers.

"For far too long, not just Nigerian carriers but foreign operators, would use older aircraft [on Nigerian routes]. The attitude of third world, second rate had prevailed for too long," he says.

Amid increased competition one carrier which was operating on London-Lagos has suspended its long-haul operations - Virgin Nigeria opting out at the end of January citing a number of factors including increased competition from Middle East operators following the award of fifth and sixth-freedom route rights. It for now is concentrating its operations on its domestic and regional routes.

The timing of Arik's international launch, though, co-incides with the deepening economic crisis. "We didn't account for the global situation we have come into in terms of the recession," says Arumemi-Ikhide. He notes Nigeria has not been insulated from the problems but as a cash economy has not suffered in the same way as other credit-dependent economies. "Our domestic and regional operations have not seen any weakening," he says, and while saying it is too early say what impact the recession might have on the London route, he adds the London performance has been ahead of expectations.

"The opportunity is very different from what is out there [elsewhere today]. In Nigeria you have a position where the passengers are under- served - which is different from say the transatlantic market where there is over-capacity. It is a perfect scenario for growth," he says. "We are still going ahead with our growth. Africa is well placed for development, it's a green-field territory, it has a commitment to first class service. This lends itself to being a very successful venture."

Arik A340-500 
 ©Airbus/H Gousse

Arik's ambitions are clear in its fleet plans. In addition to the Bombardier CRJ900ERs, Boeing 737s and now Airbus A340-500 aircraft already deployed, it has orders in place for five Boeing 777-300s, seven Boeing 787s and four Bombardier Q400s. It also has a letter of intent on four Boeing 747-8s - though has not yet ruled out Airbus A380s - and is looking to lease at least two A330s.

He believes Arik can succeed because of a combination of the opportunity - helped by economic and air transport reforms in Nigeria - and the capability to deliver a high quality product. "We have to show it is possible to have an international global brand out of the heart of Africa," he says.

Alongside developing its fledgling international presence, the priority for the carrier is to develop and consolidate its domestic and regional operations - from which it generated a $16 million operating profit at the nine month stage of last year. Arumemi-Ikhide believes this will be a key in differentiating it in the international market and providing feeder traffic. "That will be the lifeline for the international network. That's what sets us apart from our rivals. "

While backing the Government's attitude and support thus far, he believes this needs to continue in developing the country's aviation infrastructure if the airline's own major investment in new aircraft over the next 10 years is to be maximised.

"You need the infrastructure in addition," he says. "We have made it very clear we need them to continue the good work and concentrate on the airport infrastructure. If we are going to be a world class airline and hub, we need to have the airport infrastructure and facilities to support that."

Source: Airline Business