For over 79 years British Airways has been operating in Nigeria, one man who has been part of the success story in the last 25 years and who has seen it all, Mr. Kola Olayinka, tells the story to our Abuja Bureau Chief OLUMIDE BAJULAIYE and Tourism Editor BAYODE OSAKUNRIN…
Sir, you left British Airways some times ago, now you’re back, why did you leave and why did you come back?
Thank you very much, great question, I left at the time I did because at that particular point in time I felt I needed to do something else in life. I had worked in almost every department in the airline. I had worked in marketing, sales; I have been out of the country; I have worked in London; had worked in Kenya, I had worked in Abuja as regional manager. Honestly, there was really nothing left for me to achieve at the time, so I just felt like let me try something else. And I left of my own free will. And when it was time to come back home, I came back home. That’s the way I love to refer to it, because British Airways is home. I have spent almost half of my adult life, if not 2/3 with British Airways and that really means a lot. It is a company that has made me, it’s a company I love dearly. And so coming back home was very, very easy. I always say this to people, you can leave British Airways but British Airways can never leave you. It’s in the blood, its like DNA you can’t stop being your father’s child. Even when I eventually leave I will always be a British Airways’ person because that’s who I am.
When you left, what were you doing?
My intention was to do my own thing, do business of my own of which I actually started. But then an opportunity came with Qatar Airways when they were starting up in Nigeria. I was invited to be part of the start-up team. I saw it as a different challenge I have never done something like that before. I thought I will do that and I did join them at the time. I actually did that for almost five years. In those five years we were able to stabilize the airline, and we were able to start flying daily out of Lagos. We started with three flights a week, five flights a week, then move to a daily operation. With fantastic set of staff, it was fun while it lasted. I always refer to it as if I was on secondment. As if I was on loan to Qatar Airways. Once that job was finished, another opportunity came in British Airways and I seized that opportunity and here we are today. It’s four years on now since I came back.
You have seen it all in the airline industry, how will you rate the aviation industry in Nigeria to that of foreign country?
We always have to be very objective and conscious of our national pride as a country. To answer your question directly, and I will digress a little bit. I think aviation in Nigeria has developed. When I say that, people say why? Though, we still have a lot of things to do, yes. Do we still have a lot of grounds to cover? Yes. Are there still things to improve massively? Yes. But why do I say aviation has developed? If you cast your mind back 10 years ago, the likes of Qatar were not here. The likes of Emirate just got in. Turkish, and a whole lot, Etihad, a lot of airlines were not here. So in terms of opening up Nigeria as government always describes it as a hob, Nigeria has developed. Almost all foreign airlines are in Nigeria. That tells you something. It means we’re a great nation of people who are very adventurous, who love traveling, who like to take advantage of every opportunity in the world. I always say to people that there is hardly any part of the world you will go to and you won’t find a Nigerian there. We are very enterprising people. We want to go out and bring the goods of other nations into our own nation. On that point of view I will say aviation has developed. Now, to go to areas where we think there might still be opportunities, if you look at infrastructure, there are a lot of things we can do. Government has done so well, so far so good, but there is still so many grounds we can break. We can look at other great airports in the world. We can look at the latest one, Terminal 5 at Heathrow, fantastic airport in terms of functionality, in terms of provision of infrastructure, in terms of people passing through an airport effortlessly. Most airports now are changing, they are no longer a place you go to take a plane and travel. It’s like going into a shopping mall, do all your shopping, have fun in a very nice lounge, be able to use your wi fi, even when you don’t have money to pay for it. Most airports in the world will give you 30 mins on your ipad, iphone with all the technology happenings. It is a place you should feel at home within the confine of time you’re spending there while waiting for your next flight. As Nigerian people, if really we want to make progress, this is one area we need to look at: provision of infrastructure that matches the standard that we have in other parts of the world. In fact in other parts of Africa you will be amazed. If you pass through some African airports, I recently went to Johannesburg I was amazed at the facilities they have in their airport. Functionality and the service they have at the airport. I think yes, we’ve come a long way, but we have a lot of work to still do on our infrastructure.
What is your assessment of BA now and before?
You know we’ve come a long way as an airline. BA is now in its 79th year of operation into Nigeria. So we have been here a very long time. Having flown into Kano many years ago, 78 years ago; having moved from different type of aircraft; we have flown the trident, we flew DC10, we flew all type of aircraft, right now we are flying 747 into Lagos and very soon we will fly 747 into Abuja and so we have come a long way. We have also matured with Nigeria, we came in here long before independence, we took independence and got independence together with Nigeria and we are still here because BA is an airline that is very loyal, very loyal. I’ve been with this company now for over 24 years and I know that BA is very loyal, loyal to the people that are there customers, loyal to their staff, loyal to the nation of which they operate. For BA, Nigeria is like home, you find a lot of Nigerians flying BA not because we get a lot things right all the time, but because we take pride in our service. My CEO once used this phrase, pride is in our DNA. Not the negative pride, not the kind of pride that says you’re arrogant, but pride in serving people. In our quote of arms, we say- to fly to serve. We fly to serve people that is what we do. We want to provide fantastic service, that’s what we’ve been doing and we will continue to do that for a long time to come.
How have government policies affected your operations?
Aviation is a highly regulated industry, and for the right reasons. You cannot just wake up and want to fly a plane, because it involves the lives of people. Without being critical that’s what has to happen, it happens all over the world. We are regulated by ICAO, all airlines all over the world. International Civil Aviation Organization regulates what we do or we are coordinated by IATA. IATA looks at what we do and shape all of us so that there is uniformity, and there’s a level-playing ground for all airlines. So there are no undue advantages. In Nigeria, we are also being regulated by the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA. You obey the laws, keep people save, fly safely. BA as an airline takes safety as our number one priority, nothing else is so important than safety and security. It is not something we compromise or even ever think of compromising. So for us, the more regulation the better. It keeps people safe, it keeps our sky safe, we don’t want an aircraft that drops people from the sky, we want to fly people safely and comfortably.
If by any chance you become Minister of Aviation, what will you do differently from what is happening now?
That’s a very political question. To go specifically, if I ever get that kind of opportunity which is not beyond my God, the first thing is to thank God. The second is to plan and strategize, look at what has been achieved before and look at perhaps any mistake of the past. Learn from them, surround yourself with extremely smart people probably smarter than myself and then chart a way forward. In any organization, the most important thing is that a leader must have vision of where you are leading the people. The Bible says my people perish for lack of knowledge. If you do not have vision, your knowledge will come to a waste. Where are we going? Where is aviation in Nigeria going? We spoke earlier on about infrastructure, are those the areas we need to focus on? No minister can do it alone, if that opportunity comes, the first thing I will do is I will praise my God. Secondly I will surround myself with people who are smarter in the industry, then I will learn from people who have done it well before. Are there things we can learn from other great airports in the world? Are there things we can learn from people who built these airports? Can we borrow expertise from them? Can we bring them to come and help us look at ours? Of course once you’re there you start looking at the issue of funding, government policies, and government directions because you have to follow the leader.
Will you say the Nigerian Government has provided the enabling environment to thrive in your business?
Honestly, I strongly believe so. Nigeria is a place you have to be strong. I am speaking as a Nigerian, you have to be resilient as a businessman in Nigeria. You have to be smart. You have to think faster than the competition because the better man will win on the day. If you look at the consuming public, they are wiser. Technology has changed everything. You can’t come and bamboozle anybody. Before you say anything, they know their airline, know their seat, the food they want, the movie they want to watch. They know the manufacturer of the plane or the engines. If the customer is at the centre of what you do, then you have to start thinking like them, and that is what British Airways is doing. We just spent about five billion pounds to refurbish our First Class cabin. You really have to listen to your customers. British Airways is like a 5-star hotel in the air. The government never stops anybody from providing the best service. They never stop you from listening to your customers. At British Airways customers are our priority, that is what is topmost in the mind of the management, and that is what they drill down to all of us.