Ms Ijeoma Nwogwugwu wrote a brilliant article on Arik Air in Thisday Newspaper on Monday , 9th April 2012. She titled it: Pulling Arik from the Brink. It is a recommended read. In her excellent piece; she focused on the external macroeconomic factors affecting Arik; from its financial challenges, to regulatory drag in the Nigerian aviation sector and issues around need for new and competent senior management team. I cannot disagree with any of the points raised in her article.
But I will like to address some of the internal microeconomic obstacles and challenges facing Arik and how internal transformational steps (in addition to the erudite advise of Ijeoma) can change the fortunes of Arik and make it the most profitable Airline in Nigeria. I will call my analysis the seven sins of Arik Air.
I must begin with a confession; Until February 2012; I had never flown Arik at all. I have read lots of bad press reports about the airline; so I simply stayed away. But my trip to Nigeria in early February 2012, was arranged at a very short notice; so my host in Nigeria could not get a seat for me on Virgin Atlantic, so he (without notice to me) bought Arik Air ticket for the trip. My initial reaction was that of horror; but I decided to brave the experience and see what happen. My flight to Lagos from London was actually a better experience than I expected. The staff were polite and lovely; and the food was excellent in the Premier cabin that I travelled in. So I was looking forward to my trip back to London a week later.
Just after take off on my return journey; I noticed that the seat next to me was occupied by a face I had seen before. It was Dr. Michael Arumemi-Ikhide, the Group CEO of Arik. So after an hour into the flight, I decided to venture a short conversation with him. We ended speaking for about three hours. I raised many of my concerns for Arik with him and he listened well and responded frankly and with candour. I was impressed by his openness to admit the errors in Arik’s operational proposition and explain the changes planned. For the sake of confidentiality I will not repeat all he told me in this article; but I can say confidently that he was not lacking in ambition for the airline. But it seems to me that his excellent intentions and the reality on the ground don’t always match. I ended the conversation by saying that I was not sure I will fly Arik again after my first and only round trip on it. My concerns are many. So we ended the conversation by exchanging numbers.
Two days later; I received a message on my office line in London from Michael. I returned the gesture and we exchanged pleasantries and he then offered me a complimentary ticket for a flight to Nigeria anytime I wished. He wanted me to experience Arik again in the hope that I will be converted to become a regular. Incidentally I was due to travel back to Nigeria few days latter for a short visit; so I took him up on the offer. On my way to the airport in London; I got a call from an old friend who was a former Nigerian Ambassador to Brazil. I told him I was on my way to Lagos. He glibly asked which airline I was going with. Hesitating a bit, I said Arik. His response was swift and sharp “You are bold” was his retort. Needless to say he was not a fan of Arik. But by now, I was a man on a mission. This time; I travelled again in their Premier class; but as a mystery shopper. I deliberately took notes of all the failings I noticed and problems observed. These observations make it easier for me to make these recommendations to Arik; in the spirit of patriotism as a supporter of anything Nigerian.
The First problem I believe Arik has is a Branding one. They have not branded themselves in a way that sells them well to any particular demographic of the travelling public. Their economy class is OK; but their Premier/Business class is not exclusive or premier in experience. With their generous luggage allowance; they offer the best luggage allowance of any airline flying the Nigerian route. So this should appeal to certain demographics; but the cost of their ticket does not fit the budget of the same demographics. I have been monitoring Arik’s flight cost weekly since February and it seems to me; they are deliberately pegging themselves just bellow the BA and Virgin in Economy; but not enough to sway those that travel on these foreign airlines to switch. In one case I tested; Arik was just $30 less that Virgin. This is not enough to overcome the reluctance of doubtful travellers. Their Business prices are not significantly different from the competition. Also their lounge in Lagos is bog standard, low class, lacking in facilities and badly furnished; compared to BA and Virgin lounges. There is no clear Business Class check-in desk in Lagos; despite the overhead sign saying otherwise. I had to queue behind economy class passengers to have my passport checked before I was ushered to a check-in desk. It also seems from the staff reaction that Business Class passengers are rare commodities on the airline.
This image problem means Arik is attracting good number of economy passengers due to their generous luggage allowance; but their Business class cabin in practically disserted. From my four flights on Arik this year; the maximum I counted were eight passengers in a business cabin that sit at least forty. In my last flight back to London; we were only three in the Business class cabin. So Arik need to decide if it wants to be the Rynair (low cost, high volume travel) of Nigerian International Flights or if it wants to attract more business and premium passengers (where more money is to be made). There was a report I read a few years ago that stated that BA makes 70% of its profits from Premium travel cabins. Right now Arik, is not winning the battle for hearts and mind of either travel class. So there is a need for a rebranding of Arik in terms of marketing message and positioning. BA caters primarily for the Elite and there pricing and facilities shows that; economy is just a necessary evil for them. Virgin positions itself midway as a good Business airlines (below BA of course) that also do decent economy travel. Arik is current a terrible business traveller airline; but not cheap enough to attract the volume needed in economy either. It is currently seen as offering the worst of both worlds it seems. So it is make your mind up time.
Secondly; I believe Arik need to sack their current PR company and get a new one. The company is always in reactive fire-fighting mode. As a market leader in any industry; you need a pro-active PR machine. The media will not hunt you down for good news; they thrive on the bad news. Hence many of the bad press Arik has been receiving are due to poor PR and marketing operations. For instance I asked Michael during our chat in-flight why Arik’s flight to New York the day before was cancelled last minute as reported by all the media in Nigeria. He explained the problem they had; but then said that all the passengers that needed it were put up in a nearby hotel at Arik expense, including their feeding and transportation back the next day. But guess what; None of these positive acts were reported in any of the news report about the incident. It is when Arik does not do the right thing that the media carry the news; but when they do well, Arik does not push its own achievement in a proactive way. So there is a need to begin to lead and set the story agenda by being pro active and not wait for the media to report bad news and then respond to it; sometimes badly too.
Thirdly; Arik need a revamped Frequent Flyer Programme (FFP) as a matter of urgency. Most of my friend that fly Virgin do so largely as a result of their successful frequent flyer club programme. I know people who will insist on their company flying them on Virgin throughout the year on business trips; with the aim of using their miles/points for a family holiday later that year. A programme such as this will begin to build a nucleus of loyal customer base that Arik can then build upon for greater success. A FFP is the reason many people fly First or Business class but without paying the full fare. For Arik, you have to go a local ticketing office to get a paper application form for their Wingsplus programme. What planet are they living on? On most other airlines; you apply online or get the form in-flight. It is even promoted onboard. Non of these happen on Arik. Arik, get yourself a viable FFP right away.
Fourthly, Arik need to revamp its Duty Free shopping programme in-flight. Currently; many of the prices in their in-flight shopping magazine are more than high street prices; so what is the point. In fact on one of my flight the lead stewardess agreed that it was not cheap buying on Arik. Added to this problem also is the fact that all the products in the magazines are priced in US dollars. How can the leading Nigerian airline not have prices in Naira on its in-flight magazine? Arik need to create a good revenue stream (just like BA and Virgin) from its in-flight shop. To become profitable; every little helps.
The Fifth concern I have relates to Arik’s banal website. The website is so basic and lacking in added value functions. You cannot check in online; you cannot see or reserve your seat or meal online as is possible with Virgin and BA.
The Sixth issue is perhaps to some the most important problem with Arik; and that is Poor Communication. Both internally amongst its staff and externally with customers. During one of my flights out of Lagos; we were kept waiting at the gate for over thirty minutes. The Captain then came out angry and I saw him shouting at the supervisor at the gate asking why the passengers were not boarding yet. She in turn said she was waiting for a clearance from the captain. Well it was not a pretty sight. I also have a friend who is a Captain with Arik and he confirms this problem with poor internal communication is evident all the time. But worse is the pitiful communication with customers. Why must everything be done last minute? Why can’t passengers be warned in advance where possible?
Finally, my Seventh issue with Arik, is its lack of reliability. This is the number one reason everybody I know in business do not fly Arik internationally. Of my four flights with Arik so far this year; only one has been on time. The other three went way over the time that I missed a meeting in London last time when we arrived almost two hours late. This needs to be sorted by Arik. Time is precious for business travellers. And they will pay extra to fly with a reliable airline than fly with an operator that does not have a record of reliability no matter how cheap. Moreso, Arik is not that cheap in comparison.
If Arik can sort out these seven sins I have identified and resolves its macroeconomic challenges as identified by Ijeoma; it will see an upward turn in revenue and safeguard its future as truly the wings of Nigeria. With Air Nigeria international travel to London in operation now; Arik has a very short window indeed to redefine itself and mount a major fight-back and place itself on the road to profitability. We in turn, as Nigerians need to become more patriotic and fly Nigeria; even with its challenges. This is the only way we can all benefit by reaping the benefits of a more competitive aviation sector and also do our country proud. Come on Nigerians. Yes we can!
FINAL NOTE: I initially wrote this article for a Nigeria Newspaper (Businessday) as a way of alerting Arik’s management to some pertinent issues and also encouraging Nigerians not to give up on the airline. I believe we need to support our own, despite the imperfections. Despite being contacted by the PR firm working for Arik, thanking me for the balanced contribution; Their Chief Executive, Dr. Michael Arumemi-Ikhide; who was keen to take all my calls before the article, decided he only want to talk to sycophants and YES men who will not tell him as it is. Well, I am not one of those. He stopped taking my calls. So I too stopped calling. No Whahala like Nigerians say. It is impossible to find the Truth guilty.