BY YOMI BADEJO-OKUSANYA
Recently I had to take a trip to the United Kingdom and was faced with the challenge of which airline to fly based on my schedule and pricing. Eventually, largely swayed by the renewed sentiment of ‘Buy Nigeria, I settle for Arik Airline, the self-professed ‘Wings of Nigeria’.
I looked forward to the flight experience even though I had once flown the airline on the same route many years ago. But at that time I was unable to critically assess it as it had just launched its UK route and in a group that distracted me severely. But on this occasion, I was thankfully alone. My friends who believe I know everyone will have been shocked to find out that I only recognized two people in my cabin of choice. This is in contrast to what happens on my regular airline where I often know the larger portion of the cabin, plus ground and cabin crew for good measure.
Our outward journey started late due to the fact that the flight had to be combined with that of another indigenous airline that had been cancelled for operational reasons. Despite that, the flight was uneventful. I found the cabin space rather generous, the staff courteous and a wide choice of entertainment options both local and international. The cuisine was not very appealing to me even though I am not a big fan of airline food. This is however not to say it cannot be significantly improved upon.
The return leg left dead on time. This time I checked in online which I was unable to do on my outward journey. Not only that, the flight landed in Lagos at 3.40 am, a forty good minutes ahead of schedule. Quite unbelievable for Arik that had gained notoriety for being abysmally late on its local flights.
This advantage was however masked by the lack of on-board entertainment and vanity kits for those in business class. Barring these hitches, it was a good experience for me, the biggest plus being that I was able to avoid the Murtala Mohammed International Airport during the highly riotous hours of 6-10pm.
However, Arik still has a long way to go if it intends to compete with international airlines. There can be no Nigerian standards. It has to be global. While the airline has a lot to do in this area, it has even more work to do in terms of brand essence, appeal and likeability. These are seriously lacking. Being the nearest thing to our national carrier, its brand conversation is relatively weak. The experience of United Kingdom starts once you step on a British Airways flight ditto for Virgin Atlantic and many other foreign airlines. Beyond its tagline, Arik fails to strongly communicate Brand Nigeria in costume, imagery or otherwise. Why any of our traditional attires can’t be proudly infused into the crew’s attire? eg. Caps adorned with aso oke which is uniquely ours. If that was the aim of the printed blouses won by the female staff, then in my opinion, it is a very weak and uninspiring one. Another unique platform to strongly communicate Brand Nigeria is completely lost by Arik not having its own business class lounge. Rather it shares one with several other international airlines even in its own home country!
Furthermore, Arik is not doing enough reaching out to its primary target Nigerians. Beyond mere advertising, we should see more of the airline in various aspects of our national life like entertainment, sports, business, tourism, economy etc. There are creative ways of weaving the brand into the fabric of the nation. A significant vacuum exists in its sector that can be taken advantage of as a key mover of the Nigerian economy. Arik cannot afford to sit on the fence. It must strongly join in the conversation of nation-building as part of its reputation management strategy. Perhaps, the airline is too busy coping with core issues of operations leaving the ‘mundane’ one of brand communication to just a desk. If that is the case, then it is not the way to go in building a sustainable brand. Arik must not only make its brand more appealing, but in doing so, it must constantly think out of the box! Presently the brand lacks character beyond its functionality.
The government of the day must also line up behind our national brands like Arik. What a morale booster it will be if President Muhammadu Buhari or his deputy Professor Yemi Osinbajo leads a large Nigerian business delegation to the United Kingdom and all of them fly Arik. This will surely send a strong message to Nigerians that we must own and support our own. Government must also encourage its staff to ‘Fly Nigeria First!’ Otherwise, the government risks the possibility of appearing insincere in its call for us all to ‘buy Nigeria’.
The government can still go further by supporting the indigenous aviation sector. Buoyed by the potential of flying 180 million people, we cannot stand by and watch foreign airlines take the lion-share of this market leaving us with miserable crumbs. Government must facilitate low interest loans and facilities that will oil the sector. Anybody that has collected and diverted previous disbursements from the Aviation Intervention Fund must be investigated and swiftly brought to book. Such people must be dealt with as national economic saboteurs. I also counter any idea of the government launching a national carrier as history has shown that government business is not in business!
I will encourage all Nigerians especially frequent flyers, to start by committing a certain portion of their portfolio to flying indigenous airlines like Arik on their intercontinental trips. The advantages of this as earlier enumerated are quite considerable with Nigeria being the ultimate beneficiary. Yes I admit, there will be the initial discomfort of adjusting to new standards, but that is the only way we can build our national businesses. After all, ‘if Rome was not built in a day’, why should we expect the ‘wings of Nigeria’ to be.
Yomi Badejo-Okusanya consults in a public relations firm and writes from Lagos, Nigeria.