With the huge demand for air travel in Nigeria in recent times due to fear of insecurity, it has become very obvious that the country has a long way to go to meet the air transportation needs of the citizens with many state capitals and cities lacking connectivity.

Apart from Lagos and Abuja that are frequented by most airlines, other cities still remain either unserved or underserved.

With few airlines operating at the domestic level, only fewer are filling the void created by absence of strong airlines to provide seamless connectivity for thousands of passengers.

In Nigeria today, Air Peace remains the largest airline in West and Central Africa controlling over 50 per cent market share within the country’s domestic market.

This explains the fear of some Nigerians when on November 23 the news emerged of the indictment of Air Peace chairman, Mr. Allen Onyema by the United States Department of Justice over alleged money laundering. Many Nigerians, especially members of the travelling public, have expressed mixed feelings over the fate of Air Peace.

While the chairman has vowed to clear himself of the allegations and prove his innocence, analysts believe there is need for the federal government to protect the airline which has raised the bar in aviation by providing seamless connectivity and linking more cities which were hitherto unserved.

With over 25 operational aircraft, Air Peace which clocks five years in October has more planes than other domestic carriers combined and remains the largest employer of labour in the aviation industry. To further grow the fleet of the airline to over 40 in a few years to come, the carrier has ordered more aircraft, especially the Embraer 195 E-2 jet series, which delivery would start in the first quarter of 2020.

The airline, in April 2019, set a continental record by signing a whopping $2.1bn deal with Embraer to order for 30 brand new planes with a firm order of 10. It recently added three to make it 13 Embraer 195 E-2 series.

In 2018, the airline set up a subsidiary, Air Peace Hopper, after taking delivery of one of the 50-seater new generation Embraer 145 jets. Under the subsidiary, the airline promised to link many cities in the North and South of Nigeria, including Enugu-Kano-Enugu, Benin-Port-Harcourt-Benin, Port-Harcourt-Kano-Port-Harcourt, Lagos-Warri-Port-Harcourt-Warri-Lagos, Lagos-Warri-Abuja-Warri, Lagos-Kaduna-Lagos, Lagos-Sokoto-Lagos, Abuja-Sokoto-Abuja, Abuja-Bauchi-Abuja, Lagos-Makurdi-Lagos, Lagos-Jos-Lagos, among others.

This will not only open up and energise the economies of the different cities and states, but also create massive job opportunities for the people, the chairman said in an interview recently.

The creation of Air Peace Hopper was part of its no-city-left-behind strategy to connect many more underserved and unserved cities in the country.

Very soon, we shall start flying Abuja-Ibadan-Abuja daily, Kano-Ibadan-Kano and Owerri-Ibadan-Owerri three times a week. This is part of our no-city-left-behind initiative and our plan to interconnect various cities of Nigeria, giving our esteemed customers more seamless connections.

It will be recalled that just last month, the airline announced the commencement of Kano-Owerri-Kano flights, Onyema said in a chat with newsmen.

In July, the airline deployed one of its three wide-bodied B777 aircraft by launching the Lagos-Sharjar Dubai flight. Air Peace today remains the only carrier on the international route and it has been designated to fly other international routes like US, South Africa, London, China, India, among others.

The Chief Operating Officer of Air Peace, Mrs. Oluwatoyin Olajide, noted that the airline has experienced a consistent rise to become an airline of global repute, adding that the past five years have been laden with challenges but our loyal customers have made the journey worthwhile for us, and we owe them as well as other stakeholders immense gratitude.

She revealed that from seven aircraft at launch, Air Peace now has 25 aircraft in its fleet, excluding the 10 brand new Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 30 Embraer 195-E2 aircraft it recently ordered.

She stated that in five years, the airline has recorded a number of firsts in the aviation industry in Nigeria and West Africa.

From seven aircraft and five routes at the launch of our operations on October 24, 2014 to 25 aircraft and 22 routes, our esteemed customers have consistently supported us and now, we can boast of being Nigeria’s and West Africa’s largest airline, she said.

The airline took Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) a notch-higher when it evacuated stranded Nigerians in South Africa in the heat of the xenophobic attacks and the attendant loss of lives and property in that country.

According to Onyema, his decision to evacuate Nigerians was not to curry any favour but to help mankind and encourage other Nigerians to be their brothers’ keepers.

However, amidst the recent indictment by the US Justice Department and his vow to prove his innocence, Nigerians are of the opinion that the federal government must stand firmly with the airline not only to protect the over 3000 families working with the airline but to stabilise the country’s air travel industry.

Speaking with our correspondent, Mr. Olumide Ohunayo, a member of the Aviation Roundtable however believed that contrary to the insinuation that government had been silent on the matter, it must have been carried along from day one when the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) commenced its investigation.

He however reiterated that Mr. Onyema remained innocent as at today and needed all the protection from government to get a fair trial.

He said: Is Mr. Onyema guilty? Absolutely no! As at today, he is not guilty, that is why he has time to defend himself and he has himself reported at the EFCC submitting his passport. So this shows that the government is involved and in the know of what is happening.

What can government do? What I expect from government is to try as much as possible to protect Air Peace airline itself. Air Peace is the biggest airline in the industry; it is the highest employer of labour at the moment. It is an airline you cannot allow to go down, or be affected by this indictment.

So we should continue to protect the airline and we also have a right to protect Mr. Onyema. Mr. Onyema is a Nigerian with repute, a man who just did well by rescuing Nigerians from South Africa. This is a man that was called to the chamber of the House of Representatives and honoured.

According to him, the issue of indictment can be resolved through negotiation with the American government.

You must find a delicate balance of protecting Air Peace first and foremost, protecting Mr. Onyema being a Nigerian that has shown passion for the country and that has intervened starting from the Niger Delta militants, to the recent rescue of Nigerians from South Africa.

So he is not somebody that you just say, ‘push and take to America’, no. Government should participate in the negotiation, in the process and even in helping him through the legal processes and procedure to ensure he gets fair trial and fair judgement through the American system.

On his part, the President of the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), Comrade Abednego Galadima, called for fairness in resolving the issue of the Air Peace chairman whom he described as a lover of Nigeria and unifying force, saying the allegations should not affect the airline.

What happened is unfortunate but there has to be fairness in treating his matter and government would have to give him all the protection he needs.

The entity (Air Peace) should be protected so that it doesn’t cause so much of a gap in the industry, the carrying capacity. It is unfortunate, I am worried. Let there be fairness in pursuing it, he urged.

On his part, aviation analyst, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd) said, I don’t think the government is unaware of the process that led to the indictment of Air Peace.

Indeed, the EFCC gets grants from the FBI and works in cooperation with the US agency and cannot say it is unaware of the Air Peace investigation.

Source: African News Agency