Nigeria: Why We Are Reviving Mambilla Air - Hillview CEO, Malabu

26 October 2020

The CEO of Hillview Travels Ltd, Aliyu B. Malabu, in this exclusive interview speaks to why he wants to revive Mambilla Air. He also spoke on the state of Nigeria's aviation industry, and doubted the feasibility of having a national carrier in the lifetime of this government.

What is your educational and business background?

I am Aliyu Bello Malabu from Malabu in Fufore Local Government Area of Adamawa State. I am the promoter of Mambilla Airline Services. I went to primary and secondary schools in Kaduna. I also went to Georgetown University, Washington DC. I was in the House of Representatives during the Shehu Shagari presidency before the coup happened. When the coup happened, I decided to go into business. I started Mambilla Air and a construction company in the 70s'.

What was the idea behind Mambilla Air, how did it start?

Mambilla Air started at Gembu in Mambilla Plateau. They only have one bank, which was and still is, UBA. So we had the staff of UBA wanting to go to Gembu and they were complaining of the bad road to Gembu. I had an uncle who was an executive director in the bank. He approached me and asked about the possibility of getting an aircraft to Gembu to ease movement to their branch. I said I will arrange it. I went and spoke to Dornier, and we leased an aircraft.

We took them to Gembu and they were satisfied. After that the electoral body wanted to deliver materials to Gembu. They contacted us and we delivered the materials to Gembu, Takum and other areas in Taraba then. Unfortunately, we have not had any patronage from INEC in recent years. They use the Nigerian Air Force aircraft because of security.

Mambilla Air stopped operations in 2011, what happened?

We were leasing the aircraft from Dornier IAEP in Kaduna and unfortunately IAEP stopped using that particular aircraft. They wanted to go to bigger aircraft. They sold some to the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) and the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS).

We approached the Nigerian Immigration Service to lease some of the aircraft but the NIS refused. They said because of the security issues, they had given all the aircraft to the Nigerian Air Force to fight insurgency. So we were out of aircraft and we stopped operations.

Why do you want to restart operations again?

We want to restart operations because of the Mambilla hydropower dam coming up. The consultants of the dam approached us if we could handle the transpiration of their staff to the dam site. We said we were willing because we already have an airstrip in Gembu. So we can fly them to Gembu, and use a helicopter to fly them to Mambilla hydro site. Apart from flying the hydro dam workers, we are also looking at tourism, which we were doing before.

Why didn't you lease the aircraft elsewhere to keep your business going?

The reason is because we applied to get an aircraft but it wasn't possible because of funds. We just got stuck. We spoke to the various companies that had the machines to lease but they couldn't because of the restrictions that existed on our part and their part too. So we just left it fallow.

Must it be Dornier?

Well, maybe I was just being sentimental about the Dornier 228. But right now, if we can't get it, we will have to go for another aircraft type.

Why haven't you applied for an Air Operator License rather than relying on partnership?

We wanted to apply then but that also meant that we had our funding to buy our own aircraft, which at that time, we weren't ready for. It was easier and made more business sense to lease from Dornier then.

What is the capacity of the fleet you are looking at right now?

We are looking at having two Dornier 228 but it is not a must that it be Dornier. We are interested in short takeoff and landing aircraft and one helicopter. Because to get to the site of the Mambilla Hydro, we need a helicopter.

What is the size of investment your company is willing to make now?

We are willing to put in up to N500 million equity investment, which is about $1 million.

How do you intend to source the funds?

Through the banks. We have spoken to some banks, they are interested but they also want to see how viable the business is before they will come up with the balance. Of course we will also have equity injection into the business.

Mambilla has an airstrip, what is its condition now?

The airstrip can still be used because I have been maintaining it since 2011 to make sure it is functional. We cut the grass and make sure the airstrip is in good condition.

How much have you spent maintaining the airstrip since you stopped operation?

Since it is not like a standard airport, we spend close to N3.6 million every year on maintenance.

How early do you expect to break even when you start?

If we invest N2 billion, we are looking at between five and seven years to break even.

Do you think the business is sustainable beyond the Mambilla dam project?

The reason we stopped operation in 2011 was just the lack of aircraft. We were doing tourism before and also flying government officials. If we get aircraft, we will have other passengers willing to fly because of the distance.

Taraba has had issues of insecurity, do you think tourists will be excited?

I'm glad you mention the security aspect. Insecurity in Taraba has reduced tremendously now. We have both the Air Force and the Nigerian Army bases in Gembu and surroundings when we had those crises a couple of years ago.

Why is the aviation industry not growing as fast as it should considering the market?

Most of us have to lease aircraft. There is no capital for us to leverage on and leasing isn't easy because of the terms. Most of us can't afford it after a while.

What would be the solution?

I wouldn't call it an aviation bank but if the minister can come up with an intervention fund just like we had years back in the shipping line, it will be good.

There may be funds but we may not still get it right, what should be done?

The solution is to look into it and make sure it is done in such a way that it is mutually beneficial. We also have to be serious about having the aviation leasing company. It will help.

The National Carrier has also lingered, do you see it happening?

We just take the minister at his words.

Do you see the National Carrier coming on stream during this administration?

To be honest with you, no.

What is the state of aviation professionals with several pilots unemployed?

We just need more airlines. We train pilots every year and if there are no airlines to absorb them, what use is their training? Unless we have more airlines, there is nothing to be done. Of course the national carrier would have been much better to absorb the pilots and other aviation professionals. There is a limit to what private airlines can do.

Do you have plans to go into scheduled services?

Yes, in the future we are looking into that. For now, we are looking at Gembu, Jalingo and Yola services only. With future expansions, we may go into Gombe and other smaller airports but definitely not big airports like Abuja, Lagos and the rest of them. We are more like a regional carrier.

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