For over five years now, a Nigerian-owned airline has been enjoying an exclusive New York-to-Lagos route. Although there have been challenges with Arik Air, the airline may have come to stay, and figuring out a way. But one of its strengths is the lush interior of its aircrafts, the standup bar inside the plane in the economy class, and the attractive business class it offers at a rather reasonable rate. Arik Air Vice President in The Americas, Robert Brunner, in this chat with LAOLU AKANDE,THE GUARDIAN, in New York, gives an update on international aviation business, even as the Nigerian airline looks to expand its reach in the African continent.
Can you tell us about the Arik Air’s new frequent flyer miles’ programme?
It’s great; it is very exciting time for us. W Arik Air Vice President in The Americas, Robert Brunner e are still growing and implementing many new types of programmes for passengers. The frequent flyer programme Affinity Wings is just the next step in that process.
So we’re very pleased people can now travel and skip points, redeeming them for free trips or upgrades or various other benefits and awards as they go through the collection of the miles. And reach other status where they can get other benefits as well.
Certainly the passengers have been calling for it for a long time.
We’ve been operating to New York for five years and probably for four years and nine months I’ve been hearing ‘where’s the frequent flyer programmes? It’s great that it’s there now, and, so far, it seems to be running very well.
Is it only for the New York route?
It’s for the entire network, it makes a lot a sense for Nigerians to join it, because they fly a lot of domestic flights. It’s a little more difficult here unless you’re flying 3,4,5 times a year back and forth to Nigeria. It’s hard to get to network and get a lot of points and trips but we actually have quite a few people that fly us monthly or every other month, and stuff like that, a lot of businesses and a lot of people going back and forth.
How do people sign up?
You go to the website, then you just click on Affinity Wings and you can enroll. It is a very simple enrollment process. You just basically put your name, address and basic information in there and you’ll get a number right then and there.
What benefits do you get?
As you travel, you will get a card and get all the stuffs you need. As you go through the tiers from the basic level, you get the ability to collect points and redeem for travel or other redemption benefits.
But you need to have flown quite a few times to get the points, to say I’m now moving up through the different tiers and then you get the associated benefits of priority boarding, other lounge access, free baggage and others.
You have been around for about five years on this New York-Lagos route, how has the business been?
We have started our 6th year last November. The outlook is great. I mean we have been growing year over year month over month right from inception and right all the way through up until unfortunately Nigeria got a touch of Ebola.
That slowed the travel down and pretty much through the end of last year it was still down. But it has started to recover; in December it was coming back up and I think we’re still seeing that so its only February now, so I don’t see all the January numbers yet, but I think they look much better than last August where it was really being hit.
So, I think the people now have realized that Nigeria is Ebola free. Nigerians and Nigeria should be very proud of how well they handled Ebola & how quickly Nigeria was declared Ebola free. It was phenomenal and a round of applause to all those people that were involved in that.
Tell me more about how Ebola impacted your business; were people that scared?
That is probably a good word, but nobody called me up to say “I am scared.” I see macro numbers; I don’t see individuals all the time. But you could just see from the numbers of the people and how few people were traveling then.
And I am not just talking with Arik, the entire market between the United States and Nigeria had a dip, and it was felt by every airline that flies to Africa. It wasn’t just Nigeria, it was all throughout Africa.
Hopefully, now that word is out that it’s limited to a few cities and to few countries, the trend has reversed. And it (sales) is coming back. I think the market is back, I’m going myself in two days; so, it shows you, if I’m not afraid, why should anybody be afraid?
Nigeria handled the Ebola issue very well and I am happy to say that to anyone that brings the issue up.
Has the New York route been a business success for Arik?
It’s been great, month after month as I said, it keeps growing we have a terrific market share here and we’re hopefully going to be implementing some new products that will help people from areas a little further away from New York to get here.
We don’t have the interline agreements with other carriers as yet. For instance if you want to fly from Chicago to New York and get on our plane right now, you have to take a separate airline ticket and that’s inconvenient for people. We’re absolutely thinking about it and working towards it. It takes a lot of steps to get to that point but we will get there, and that will be a big step.
But for what we have right now, there are a lot of opportunities, not just to Lagos but we fly to a lot of good cities throughout Nigeria, and we also fly to a lot of cities in West Africa West and Central Africa.
Arik Air now flies to Accra, Banjul, Cotonou, Senegal, Luanda and Abidjan. So, we are getting people who go to these places to fly via Arik.
We have excellent connections to Abuja everyday. So those are the places that are the next focus to get people to think of us as an airline for West Africa, not just an airline for Nigeria any that’s the big push.
How do you compare with your other competitors on the US-Nigeria route in terms of business success?
Extremely favorably as far as the first to schedule, we are the only non-stop airline flying from New York to Nigeria, which talk about time- savings. I think they (our passengers) will be there in 10 hours & the next closest one is 15.
So we talk about time saving. How many times can somebody say on a round trip basis you saved a whole day? I mean how many times are you sitting there just wishing you could find an extra hour in a day?
Here we’re offering 10 hours on a travel, so you know it’s phenomenal. And then our aircraft itself is brand new, we bought them brand new, it’s now 5 years old but it’s in very good shape, brand new airplane.
And the legroom inside 3-4 inch pitch economy class, which is more than any other airline across the Atlantic. So when you sit down you probably could cross your legs, you probably can’t do that in most air carriers, and that’s a big benefit.
Our rows are 2-5-2; that is, there are only nine seats across. Many airlines would have 10 in the same space. So ours is a more comfortable airplane.
I don’t know if you saw that there was a standup bar in the economy class. Who else has standup bars in economy class? If somebody sitting next to you wants to sleep and you feel like having a chat, you can get up, go someplace and let that person get some rest.
So, it is well thought out with the theme of the passenger. And our business class cabin 75-inch wide flat seats with massage capability inside those seats and 17-inch TV screen. It’s privacy screens going up so if you don’t want to talk to your neighbor you can put your screen up so it’s all very comfortable and it’s designed that way.
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