Du Preez: We Need Safety Conscious, Visionary Airline To Partner With In Nigeria

Qatar Airways is one of the biggest Gulf airlines that has shown massive investment in route expansion, not only in Nigeria but in Africa. In this interview with WOLE SHADARE, Qatar Airways Vice President for Africa, Hendrik du Preez, speaks on how Africa can be the biggest aviation market in the very near future, challenges facing aviation in the continent, and the incredible story of Qatar Airways in Nigeria, among others

How has it been managing Qatar Airways?

It has been interesting for us for a couple of years for all of the aviation industry. If you are reporting the aviation industry, you know how tough it has been.

It has been very challenging no doubt. I hope you people are getting very well around it. It is our hope that the global aviation industry will return to profitability and back to recovery in 2022. Looking at Qatar Airways specifically, as an airline, how have you been able to surmount these challenges and your plans amid COVID-19?

Hendrik du Preez

Thank you. Like you rightly said, we don’t know where we are with the pandemic. It is over now. I think the key thing as Qatar Airways was that we never stopped flying unlike a lot of our competitors that grounded their fleet. The least amount of destinations that we covered was 33 destinations and right now, we are back to 140 destinations again. The key thing is that we never stopped flying. We worked very closely with a lot of the governments; we did repatriation flights to bring people from all over the world back to their homes. There was a lot of learning initially at the early stages of the pandemic, on how to manage things with the right safety precautions. It is a fact that we never stopped flying and our aircraft has never been on the ground. We didn’t have the challenges of trying to get these guys back to the air again. If our aircraft had to be on the ground, it has to go through lots of checks for them to get back to the air. I think that the lot of lessons we learnt initially and how to manage it safely, how to transport people safely. There are precautions on board, safety that we gave our crew, some innovations that we have had, the cleaners we started using onboard. The fact that our airport never closed and we were able to implement those measures in the airport; all of those combined to give us the opportunity to open up those routes again and people started travelling in there again. At the same time, we launched 16 new destinations in Africa during COVID-19.  Kano and Port-Harcourt will be the 7th and 8th destinations that we are launching during this pandemic. So, we are very proud of that.

Looking at Africa as a whole and Nigeria specifically, what are your expansion drive, and how suddenly Qatar is looking at Africa as the new frontier?

I won’t say it is a sudden interest. Qatar Airways has always been on the card for us as well.  I am a South African. I am a firm believer in Africa. There are opportunities in Africa and if you look at the number IATA has forecast, Africa is going to be the biggest aviation market in the foreseeable future. It is the fastest-growing aviation market. Not the biggest in the world but the fastest aviation market in the world. I think these are laudable opportunities and the fact that Africa has been hugely underserved lately. If you look at Flight radaryou can see that Africa is one of the most underserved markets. There is a lot of opportunities there. During COVID, it brought out a lot of opportunities for us. The fact that we were able to respond to the emergency enough quicker than our competitors, has put us at a very good advantage. At the same time,  it has given a lot of people faith in Qatar as a brand, to trust us as a brand, to be able to safely transport them reliably around the world. We launched six new destinations. We are constantly reviewing ways we can improve our services, where we can add destinations. We launched destinations into Accra and Abidjan as an example. Accra was an easy launch as the third flight beyond Lagos; three times a week flying beyond Lagos. We saw a good success on the aircraft tag to Lagos. We tag Accra and we tagged Abidjan to that three times a week. We moved that to five times a week and we have moved that to seven times a week since last week. Lagos was the same. We have a daily flight, we went to ten. We went to 14. We tagged Abuja. Abuja is on its own. We are going Abuja daily, tagged Ghana and Port-Harcourt.  Consistently as the market responds, we find a new segment; we try and improve the service and the frequencies to those destinations as well.

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Qatar Airways aircraft

I would take you back to your new routes in Nigeria. You have a strong competitor and you have to go to Lagos, Port-Harcourt and Kano, and Abuja, do you see a huge market in those places? Are you not also worried that a lot of Gulf carriers are also going to the places you have mentioned, thereby depleting traffic on those routes? What are your strategies and plans to make sure that you are far above your competitors in this market?

If you just look straight over my shoulders, you will see a big billboard out there proclaiming that we are the best airline in the world. We won the Skytrax award and we are the only airline that has won this award six times in a row. Nigerian travelers are very discerning travelers not only we are the best airline in the world, our hub, Hamad International Airport is the best airport in the world and was crowned one of the best airports in the world last year. We have the best Business class as awarded by Skytrax. I think it is a combination of our strategy, expansion to Africa, increasing our footprint, giving more opportunities for people to travel. That is one of our big strategies not just for Nigeria but for Africa. We want to see Africa as our own, making it more accessible for people and I think that is our strategy for Nigeria. There are different segments of people travelling. If you look at the need for people travelling from Kano, it is different from people travelling out of Port-Harcourt. The traffic flows from the two of them are different. I think Port-Harcourt; supports our network because a lot of energy companies that are operating down there are starting quickly ramping up the business and connecting to our network of 140 destinations. So, all these companies working in Nigeria to bring people back and drive that economic growth again. With Kano, they are a lot of different types of travel. People living there could visit families living abroad and a lot of travels to the GCC, there are a lot of people travelling for trade purposes. I think they complement each other. I think one of our products is our network and the fact that we have been a reliable carrier. We talk about our competitors but not all of them are back there yet. I think that is the biggest advantage we‘ve got. I think we are forging our own strategy.

What other benefits can customers get from your airline with your route expansion programme in terms of cost and incentives that would make you have a great share of the burgeoning market? I agree that you have one of the youngest aircraft fleets in the world, the wide connection, but beyond that, what other incentives do you have for your customers in this market?

Overall, we are competitive when it comes to pricing. We good pricing with superior and safe products which are key. We have the option of 140 days connections. If you take Lagos for instance where we have got two flights a day; it is an option people have to make it more convenient which is a key factor while other people may find the cost or the number of destinations they would have to travel unto our network. We also have a number of problems we are facing since the pandemic when we launched for students club specifically for students who can go online and enroll in the student club and these are additional benefits. These are specifically for students that study abroad so that they can get additional baggage when they travel abroad, they will get free Wi-Fi access when they are on board. We have our frequent flier club that everybody that flies with us kept enrolled with to assess gates through our frequent flier programme. I think it is a combination of these factors. We are looking at it holistically as a total value proposition.

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Could you kindly run through your operations, your fleet because Nigerian travelers are very sophisticated because they have the money to spend? They have accused some airlines of operating ‘old aircraft’ into Nigeria even though some of us know that aircraft age is relative in the aviation industry?

You mentioned it. We have got the youngest fleet in the skies. You can’t accuse us of bringing old aircraft to you. I know there have been some challenges with the acquisition of other airlines. Currently, we are flying the A350 into Lagos. Looking at our fleet, it has been one of the success factors that we had during COVID-19 because we have quite a diverse fleet; we got different gauges of aircraft. If we are stuck up with one, we can add slightly bigger aircraft if the market increase. We don’t compromise on the product; we can use slightly bigger aircraft. We have got a range of B787, A350; both wide-bodies. We are constantly monitoring that. At this stage, the product coming into Nigeria is one of the youngest products. It has got the key suite on those flights. I understand as you said, it is discerning travelers from Nigeria that expect the best.

Over time we have not seen foreign airlines partner with Nigerian airlines to assist them to distribute passengers going to the hinterlands? Are we looking at something like codeshare with Qatar Airways with any of the carriers here in Nigeria?

The key thing all over the world is to find the right partners to work with. In Africa, we have over 20 African airlines that we partner with, and if we think that there is an opportunity for us to work much closer with them that will be great. In all the markets that we are in, we cooperate with the domestic airlines that we have both seen the benefits at the end of the day. There are many aerodromes and airports in Nigeria that we won’t fly into, we can feed on the rest of our network unto the domestic carriers than can feed unto the network and even regionally. There are quite a bit of un-served opportunities in the region if you are looking at the neighbouring countries to Nigeria. Even if there are these opportunities, like you said, one of the key things is to find the right partner that we both have the same vision and to make safety and security are in place, having the ability for all passengers to enter another airline that is safe. It is something that we are investigating to see if we can work much closer in the Nigerian market as well. There are some of our partners we have been able to align our schedules with. At the end of the day, it just gives opportunities to people to travel, to grow the aviation market, and is beneficial for everyone.

Looking at your partnership with some African airlines, one that is striking is the one with RwandAir. How has that worked for the two airlines over the years? Do you have confidence in the airline to match your operational scheme? Do have other planned codeshare with other African airlines? What is the symbiotic relationship that exists between Qatar and Rwandair?

We have got different levels of relationship with many carriers globally. Qatar Airways got ownership in a number of airlines globally. We are part of the IAG group for instance. We have worked closely with Rwandair over the last couple of months. We announced the first part of the codeshare agreement which will cover 65 destinations on our network and their network. That is one of the areas that are underserved historically and for us to work closely with Rwandair to feed into their network and to have access to a broader network globally. It is what we are working on closely at this stage. We will be able to make more announcements, about how we are strengthening on it and building together.

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Looking at aviation in Africa, it seems to be in its infancy, very small and fragmented, how best do you think Africa can grow its aviation industry in terms of infrastructure and others? How does infrastructure impact your operations in the continent?

It is true that there is an infrastructure challenge in Africa. You have seen many countries that have built new airports, renovated new terminals to enable more airlines to operate in those. I think close cooperation between government and airlines is crucial to enable business. Aviation is an economic enabler just by enabling trade, enabling business; that in itself drives economies. Safety is another key area that needs to be looked at that gives a lot of concerns globally about the safety of air travel in Africa and it is putting those concerns at risk by relevant regulatory authorities looking at the safety of operations, development of infrastructure. The government needs to be able to support as well, not to make the infrastructure to be costly by imposing unnecessary taxes because those taxes directly comes out of the pockets of the travelers at the end of the day. That sums it up. It is so expensive to operate to some destinations that it becomes unaffordable for travelers at the end of the day. I think it is a multitude of those things combined that would enhance or mar aviation in Africa.

Looking at COVID-19 restrictions, how much of this affected Qatar Airways? How much of it should we expect that will affect your airline?  

A lot of airlines were impacted the same by the restrictions imposed by the countries which are really bad for airlines. It affected us but we never stopped flying and we started much quicker. That is the agility we have had. We are in good stead right now but most countries are re-opening their borders. A lot of countries are relaxing restrictions and with that, the confidence of travelers would be boosted at the end of the day. A lot of people are not confident enough to travel because what happens if they are halfway into their destinations and you don’t know what is going to happen. As more countries relax, you see more confidence building up, you will see a sharp steep curve of regaining momentum again. I hope so anyway.

We have seen many African airlines reaching out to big airlines like yours for technical assistance, how many countries in Africa have approached you for settling up an airline. Egypt Air is assisting Ghana to float a national airline. Are you going to be of help if Nigeria approaches you for technical assistance?

There are different types of partnerships we have with airlines globally and not just in Africa. It is not something I can comment on to say yes or no. It depends on the type of partnership. We work very closely with many airlines and like I said we have got different types of relationships that we do have with them. I think the economics of scale with partnerships and if both can benefit at the end of the day, it is going to be key in the aviation industry for them. I am a key believer in partnerships. In Africa, there are still many opportunities, to work closely with other airlines.

 

Do you have African pilots; specifically Nigerians working for Qatar Airways as pilots, engineers, cabin crew because the argument is that most of the foreign carriers do not like engaging Nigerians, how true is that?

I don’t think it is very true. Obviously, we have got more than 160 nationalities working for Qatar Airways. We have got people from all over the world working for us as a company. I don’t know the exact number of Nigerians working for us in Qatar Airways, but we definitely do have people from Nigeria working in the company. The key is how this enables job creation or how aviation drives job creation to make us fly into multiple airports.

Wole Shadare