Led by a brilliant aviation aficionado, a local airline that started as a conveyor of pilgrims is set to take over Africa. Charles Ajunwa who witnessed the airline's inaugural flights to Abidjan, Conakry and Dakar, reports that it was a pleasurable experience.
One bright Wednesday morning, last month, I received an invitation to join a group of journalists on a one day trip to Abidjan, Conakry and Dakar via Med-View Airline. Med-View, one of Nigeria's leading carriers, was launching new routes into ECOWAS's Francophone bloc, with a triple flight per week schedule.
The news was not surprising. After storming into the aviation space in 2007, ferrying Hajj pilgrims from Nigeria, the airline commenced domestic operation in November 2012, with a fleet of two Boeing 737-400 aircraft at inception and added another one Boeing 737-800 just a month after. Since then, its growth has been frenetic, driven by consistent excellent customer service and professionalism.
On the departure day, I left for the Murtala Muhammed International Airport very early in order to avoid the notorious Lagos traffic. Though the road leading to the international wing was poorly lit, I noticed the expansion work going on on both sides of the road. No cars were parked in front of the departure hall which in the past constituted nuisance to travelers. A new car park sited few metres helped to give the airport a facelift.
Inside the Departure Hall, the air conditioning system worked perfectly well while the conveniences were kept spotless.
I walked straight to the D section of the departure hall, where Med-View Airline front desk is located, to make enquiries about the trip. The entire space was decorated with blue balloons, a sign of ceremony. The airline's workers, who were smartly dressed in their blue attires, were friendly. I felt relaxed at this point.
While milling around, the Managing Director of Med-View Airline, Alhaji Muneer Bankole, walked into the hall without any form of funfair. Bankole who was clad in white lace and a blue cap strode briskly to the airline's stand, exchanging pleasantries with passengers waiting to collect their boarding passes. He struck me as a simple man bristling with energy.
After the immigration checks, the Abidjan bound passengers were ushered into a small hall, where refreshments were served. When our flight was announced for boarding, a lady stationed at the entrance of the Boeing 737-800 vessel with inscription '5N-BQM A.ALTHUNAYAN' carried out final checks on all passengers' travelling documents before ushering them to their seats. As the airplane was taxing down to the tarmac for take-off, the female stewards took few minutes to demonstrate safety rules to passengers. After welcoming and thanking passengers for patronising the airline, the pilot, Capt. Diakady, a Guinean, announced that we would arrive Abidjan at 9:05am local time. Meanwhile, passengers on the flight were treated like royalty - assorted foods, snacks and drinks were served.
As the airplane made its descent, I observed that the Abidjan International Airport was surrounded by water. When it touched down and was taxing along the tarmac, a stationed vehicle pumped out water which covered the aircraft. Then it halted and the door opened and a large crowd of enthusiastic Ivorian officials and staff of the Nigerian Embassy in Ivory Coast were on hand to receive the Med-View chief, Bankole and his entourage comprising staff of the airline, chiefs representing the Oba of Lagos and journalists, with love and warmth.
A brief ceremony was carried out and a cake cut before the stationed shuttle bus conveyed the delegation to the main building, a few metres away from the tarmac. At the entrance point, people were subjected to rub their hands with cleansers before they entered into the terminal building. The health measure was understandable given the region's recent experience with the deadly Ebola virus.
After conducting the delegation round the airport, we were later taken to a conference room where journalists were addressed. Bankole, who called for more integration among member countries of the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS), noted that the expansion of scheduled flight operations from Lagos to the three Francophone countries would strengthen bilateral cooperation between them and Nigeria. He said that the improvement in Nigeria's connectivity with African countries was in line with the Yamoussoukro Decision which was formally adopted during the Assembly of Heads of State in Lome, Togo, in July 2000.
"The essence of ECOWAS is to integrate all members as one family," Bankole said. That is to say, what is your own, is my own. What is your own, is our own. I have been in the industry for over 40 years. I started with the Nigeria Airways. Everything I do is because of the passion. I cannot do anything without talking about aviation.
"That is the Ambassador from Senegal to Nigeria, he left everything to follow us. The ambassador from Guinea left everything to join us. I promise to keep the faith, to keep the consistency and with your support we are going to lead the trail in both passengers, cargo and every other international connection because today, we are doing four flights to Jeddah, we are commencing Dubai, and we are in UK for four flights. And our dream is to be in Houston, Texas in the nearest future."
He added: "We are in seven countries already in West Africa. Our coming here is a big testimony to show the brotherliness of the ECOWAS community. This is the dream set by the founding fathers of ECOWAS and the essence of this community is to integrate everybody as one family. ECOWAS can become a force to be highly respected if we integrate and maximise our abundant potentialities.
"We are here to strengthen Nigeria's relationship with your country and we thank your government for allowing Med-View to come into your country."
He assured that the three weekly flights to be operated would be in accordance with the recommended safety and security practices.
According to Bankole, the airline had deployed a modern B737-800 aircraft to service the Lagos- Abidjan- Conakry - Dakar route to give comfort to the passengers.
The President of Cote d'Ivoire, Mr. Alassan Quattara, who received the airline delegation at the Abidjan International Airport lauded the relationship between his country and Nigeria. Quattara, who was represented by the General Manager of the Ivorian Civil Aviation Authority, Mr. Silue Sinaly, noted that the country would give the necessary support to the airline to ensure its operation was sustained. Also speaking, Mr. Bodewole Adebowale, representing the Nigerian Embassy in Cote d' Ivoire, said the over one million Nigerians in the country were delighted with the airline's coming.
After the ceremonies, we boarded the airplane again to Conakry, Guinea. The airplane took off from Abidjan International Airport at exactly 11:32a.m. and while cruising at an altitude of 34,000 feet above sea level, the pilot announced the arrival time as 1.22p.m. local time. Before the female stewards could serve passengers another set of food and drinks, Bankole went from seat to seat, greeting everybody on board. His humility, to say the least, was infectious.
As we descended into Conakry International Airport, again, I noticed that the airport was surrounded by water. Immediately the airplane touched down and was taxing down to where we would disembark, a stationed vehicle began to release water on the aircraft. Rather than alight to the tarmac, we were received by Guinean officials from the hanging tunnel from where we were ushered into the conference hall. Before then, Bankole had performed the traditional tape-cutting. When he announced that the pilot of the airplane that convened us was a Guinean, the whole hall erupted with shouts of joy as he was formally introduced. He harped on the same message on integration which he said would create jobs for the youths of the country who are ready to work.
President Alpha Conde, who was represented by the Director of Guinean Civil Aviation, Mr. Mamady Kaba, welcomed the delegation. Conde, who is the current Chairman of the African Union (AU), said air transportation was very important for socio-economic development and thanked Med-View for improving connectivity within the region. On their parts, the Guinean Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Gaossou Toure and his Nigerian counterpart, Mr. Bala Maringa, said strategic partnership between both countries would be boosted by the ease of connectivity.
We boarded the airplane to our final destination, Dakar, Senegal. The airplane took off from Conakry International Airport at exactly 3:45p.m. and arrived Dakar International Airport at exactly 4:46p.m. local time. While the airplane was descending, I observed that the airport, too, was sited close to the sea. The city was beautifully marked out with high rising buildings dotting the landscape. Shortly after the airplane touched down, a stationed vehicle sprayed water on the airplane as it taxied down. The delegation, led by Bankole, was received by officials of the Senegalese Government.
President Micky Sall, who was represented by the Senegalese Ambassador to Nigeria, Habibou Damn, also lauded the airline for extending operations to the country.
"First of all, as a representative of Senegalese authorities in Nigeria, I feel very proud to another Nigerian airways coming to Senegal after some years and I hope it will not be the last," Sall said.
On what it portends, he said "well, this is showing the relationship that exists between Nigeria and Senegal and at the same time this is showing the will of the leaders at the very highest level of ECOWAS to improve the connectivity between our respective countries, facilitate the passport for our people so that they can travel very easily.
"My message to the business men from Senegal, Nigeria and from all other ECOWAS countries is that we need this connectivity not only in the airways but in the land and sea. This is the only way we can develop trade amongst our countries and give jobs to our people. So ECOWAS is on the move, the Heads of State in ECOWAS want to facilitate lives for the people of ECOWAS. We are working for ECOWAS of the people.
"The relationship between Nigeria and Senegal has not developed, the reason is simple. It's very poor. There are not many flights between Senegal and Nigeria. That is why the coming of this new company- Med-View Airline will help develop the relationship between Senegal and Nigeria," he said.
An elated Bankole also harped on the need for integration among ECOWAS countries in terms of doing business and otherwise. He reiterated that the implementation of the Yamoussoukro Declaration is of great benefit to the airline especially as it has started the integration of the West African region which has the potential to provide a vast market for air travel with its over 300 million population across board.
"We have the passion to drive governments to the opportunities that exist in Nigeria especially in air transport business in the West African sub-region and beyond Africa. We are happy to come in here to do business. We are very proud of the reception we received. There is pressure on our side for the job that has been assigned for investors to come in here. We want to assure you that this journey which was started by our great leaders will continue to unite us, as family members of ECOWAS we will continue to work together for the good of all the nationalities," he said.
On the new international airport built by the Senegalese Government, he said "We are proud for the new international airport that will be inaugurated this November. We want to thank His Excellency, the President of Senegal for his initiative, for building a new airport. Air transport is the fastest growing business and the fastest means of transportation. We are proud to be associated with the development on with what is going on here."
Speaking on the type of services passengers on Med-View should expect, he said, "First, we are known for our customer satisfaction and promptness on departure as those who fly with us can confirm. We are not only sub-regional airline, we are an international airline. We have four flights to the United Kingdom using Gatwick as our base. We also have four flights to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and by God's grace come December 7, we are hitting Dubai Terminal One. Same time, we are looking at the United States come summer and at the same time we want to get to the over 300 million passengers in West Africa, that population alone is a huge market."
Later, our international passports, which had been collected by the Senegalese officials after a brief ceremony at the airport, were returned and stamped before we boarded the airplane from Dakar International Airport for a stopover in Abidjan. The journey took two hours thirty minutes. We left Abidjan after a brief stay without disembarking from the airplane and arrived Murtala Muhammed International Airport at exactly 12:05 midnight. After all the immigration checks, we proceeded to the exit hall. Again, the MD of Med-View Airline, Bankole walked up to the journalists to thank them for being part of the inaugural flights to Abidjan, Conakry and Dakar. He looked very smart after the 17 hours journey. He has this natural passion for air transport and he doesn't hide it.
The airline's international destinations include: London Gatwick, Dubai, Jeddah, Accra, Freetown, Monrovia, Abidjan, Conakry, Dakar while local destinations are Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Yola and Maiduguri.
Flying on the wings of Med-View Airline was a pleasurable experience.