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A Determined Chairman, An Honest VP And A Game-Changing Airline: A Love Story

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Perhaps, love's got nothing to do with it.

After all, with sky-high fuel costs, plummeting budgets and increasing bankruptcies, the global aviation industry is driven more by the bottom line and less by emotion. Yet when it comes to Nigeria, the bottom line seems bleaker still. From 2002 to 2006, the country was plagued by a series of tragic plane crashes which took hundreds of lives and eroded consumers' ability to trust their domestic airlines. Global brands like Virgin have tried -- and failed -- to reverse this misfortune by partnering with the Nigerian government, as they did in September 2004 to launch a flag-carrying airline.

Minted Virgin Nigeria Airways, the partnership never quiet took off, and by September of 2009, it was over. Stakeholders re-branded the airline as Nigerian Eagle Airlines, and upon buying majority ownership in 2010 Jimoh Ibrahim renamed it Air Nigeria. New names didn't solve Air Nigeria's old problems, and the airline remained dogged by safety issues, culminating in its grounding in June 2012. Yet these pale in comparison to Lagos-based Dana Air, the airline behind the tragic plane recently, which led to over 150 deaths. In such an environment there's no reason nor logic nor business plan that would move a sound investor to launch an airline in Nigeria.

Nothing really. Except for love.

It was was a love of country that inspired engineering magnate Sir Joseph Arumemi-Ikhide to, as he tells it, "return Nigeria to its rightful place, as a leading aviation market." To that end Ikhide purchased two Bombardier CRJ aircraft in 2006 and hired staff to fly the popular route between Nigeria's old and new capitals, Lagos and Abuja. These were the first new planes to be flown in Nigeria in 20 years. Beyond being a point of pride for the upstart airline, it served a very practical purpose for Nigeria's domestic fliers who at the time numbered over six million. (Reports show that by 2011, that figure skyrocketed to 12 million.) In the years since, Arik Air's fortunes and presence have equally grown. In technology, they are leaders not just in Nigeria -- but on the world stage.

Their use of the prestigious monitoring service Lufthansa Technik AG, the leading independent provider of maintenance for aircraft, is a first not just for Nigeria but the African continent as a whole. That dedication to safety has served Arik well in their rapidly expanding roster of locations, which has far surpassed their inaugural route to include several cities in sub-Saharan Africa, the U.S. and England. It's also earned them back to back awards from Security Watch Africa as the Best Security & Safety airline in Nigeria from 2007 to 2009. The net result has been an aggressive growth in Arik's market share, which the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority confirms is at 58% and rising.

The rapid rate at which Sir Arumemi-Ikhide has accomplished the above is not lost on him.

"What has been actualized has outstripped my vision for this airline," he says in our exclusive interview. "If someone told me on our inaugural flight day (29 October 2006), with one aircraft and one route and a handful of staff, that just over five years later we would have grown to a fleet of 23 aircraft, deployed on 44 routes with over 130 flights daily being run by a staff of over 2,500 worldwide I would not have believed it. That's not to say that was not my ambition, it is just the sheer pace of how it has grown that has been breathtaking."

The success has firm foundation in Ikhide's most impressive investment of all: his workforce. Arik Air has placed its onus on hiring and developing top notch pilots within the country. Key to this plan is grooming female captains, of which Arik currently has over a dozen. Despite its pro-Nigeria philosophy, the carrier also values a diverse staff and has employed several esteemed airline professional from Europe and the U.S. to develop the growing airline.

Chief among these is Bob Brunner, Arik Air's affable, honest and straight-shooting Vice President of Americas. With over 30 years experience at British Airways, where he started from the ground up and rose to executive ranks, Brunner is a seasoned vet in the industry. The native New Yorker he has a remarkable understanding and passion for the Nigerian market which serves him well in his task of building Arik's presence in the U.S, and specifically the New York market.

"Nigerians are proud of their heritage and our owners want the airline to be a point of national pride." says Brunner. "[We want] a business that shows Nigerians can run a global, service-oriented business which can successfully compete with the well-known airline brands. A business all Nigerians can be proud to look at and say 'That's my National Airline.'"

Such insight will be key in overcoming current challenges that dull Arik Air's competitive edge in the U.S market. These include developing programs and technologies that are standard to a New York audience such as online check-in, partnerships with international carriers and frequent flyer programs.

"We are very focused on constant improvement," asserts Brunner. "We know when we made the decision to fly to London, New York and Johannesburg we would be a five-year-old airline competing with companies with more than 50 years experience. We couldn't possibly have all the infrastructure developed that they had and thus all the same offerings. We are focused on those things that will have the most impact -- give the customers the most benefit. Even as we are today, Arik provides the best travel experience from JFK to Lagos of any airline. "

Brunner's sentiment may be subjective, but it proved truthful on my recent flights between New York and Lagos. From first class to the economy cabin, the craft was clean, modern and boasted a decor that lovingly paid homage to Nigerian culture.The Lagos-based crew was friendly and attentive as they graciously welcomed guests aboard. Mealtime was a cultural celebration with a menu that offered Western style dishes but highlighted Nigerian specialties like joloff and okra soup.

On both routes, the hundred-plus customers who packed the flight exuded greater to lesser degrees of joy over the experience. But whether reclining in Arik's luxe first class cabin, chatting over cocktails at the in-flight bar, or mingling in spacious economy seats, no one was indifferent. Superior service and a sense of cultural and national pride peppered the experience Arik created for these customers. It was something that was entirely lacking in subsequent flights I took on other national airlines like Air Nigeria and Aero Charter.

At the end of the flight as I observed sleepy-eyed, satisfied customers greet attendants good-bye and their final destination hello, one thing was clear about Arik Air: love may have everything to do with it after all.

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