April 16, 2024

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FINALLY, Capt Bara Allwell-Brown Unearths What Killed Nigeria Airways

15 min read

Nigeria Airways’ McDonnell Douglas DC 10-30


Capt Bara Allwell-Brown, in this no holds bare interview offers sincere suggestions on nearly all facets of aviation and with anecdotes, he succeeds in driving home his points with the view to giving the industry in Nigeria a shot in the arm.

Brief background of Capt Bara Allwell-Brown

Young Bara Allwell-Brown started training in Scotland as a pilot in 1962. In 1964 he joined the West African Airways Corporation, WAAC, which later metamorphosed to Nigeria Airways and served meritoriously until 2000.

From1963-2000, Capt Allwell-Brown held the Pilot Licences of several countries including the UK, Nigeria, the USA, Norway, Denmark and Sweden, among others

On his elevation as Director of Flight Operations in Nigeria Airways, he exercised oversight responsibility for 2500 staff located worldwide including over 180 Pilots and 350 Flight Stewards and Stewardesses- cabin crew

As Director of Flight Operations, he instituted and enforced the use of a Nigeria Airways Operating Procedures Manual that changed the safety record of Nigeria Airways Pilots from an unenviable one to an internationally acclaimed good safety record.

In his capacity as Director of Flight Operations, he trained, upgraded and deployed over 60 Nigerian Command Pilots (Captains) and successfully implanted a 100% Flight desk crew Nigerianization Program within a record time, 1976-1979.

Please savour the seminal discourse

Octogenarian, Capt Bara Allwell-Brown, at the interview session

Can we meet you, sir?

My name is Bara. I have been in the aviation world since 1962. I have stopped flying the aeroplane. I stopped flying at the age of 60 but I’m still in aviation.

I have just two names. The first name is Bara, the surname is a compound name, Allwell-Brown.

Your State of Origin and Local Government?

Local government? I think in terms of Nigeria. I detest howling my local government and all that stuff.

My mother is a Nigerian, my father is a Nigerian and I am a Nigerian.

How did you get into aviation?

I got into aviation because when I was a young man, I attended one of the best secondary schools in Nigeria. A training institution in Calabar with an expatriate missionary and an expatriate principal. I was going to see the Principal off because I was one of his servants. At the airport, a fireman refused me crossing the barrier but he allowed some expatriates children who were also not travelling but to see off their peers and I told him that one day, he will hold this gate for me to pass.

Did that prophecy come to pass?

Yes, indeed. He was still a fireman in Calabar when I qualified as a pilot and I flew to Calabar once or twice, he actually held the gate for me to pass. Although it was not in a grudging manner, he was excited to see me and I was excited to see him because I reminded him of when I used to come to that airport.

I have heard stories of those days in the late 1970s and in late 1990s that you at times had a white man as the first officer when you were the Pilot-in-Command, that I think revealed the level of competence of our indigenous Pilots, but today domestic operators pride themselves by their cockpit being adorned with white pilots while Nigerians are not even much in use. Is this a commendable vogue?

It’s sad, two words, it’s sad.

What is responsible for that situation since the reverse has been the case now?

Well, let me tell you my aspiration, right from school, in Scotland flying school. One of the comments I made but did not quite go down well with my little English principals was…….when they came to interview me on an occasion on HITV in Britain, they asked me why I was so eager to fly? After telling them the story of the fireman, I also told them that I was dreaming of a day that we would really have a West African Airways corporation with West African pilots. When I looked through the windows of aircraft, all I saw were white pilots, I wanted to see West African pilots and you know in the early sixties, 1962, 1963, to be precise, that wouldn’t go down well with a titled British man and when I came back, my rise in aviation was rapid but it was not man-made, it was made possible by God and hard work. By 1974, 75, about 10 to 11 years after joining the airline, I was head of the department and by 1976, I was the first director of flight operations. I set a target for myself “Nigerianization” and by 1979, we needed no expatriate pilot.

That was about 3 years, how was that feat achieved?

Yes, because, the perspectives were already there it was just a question of grooming, training, and re-training in preparation for them to play those roles and even you would admit that those were the glorious days of the national airlines. Accidents records were pretty good and better than most of the European airline allowance and when I was appointed a young director, one of the first thing the minister said to me was “I want you to address the issue of passengers through training, training and re-training and adhering to procedures and strict disciplines”. We addressed that but we used one stone to kill two birds. We also trained and re-trained the Nigerians making them thoroughbred professionals and giving them command and they took over from the expatriates.

So, if over the years people have resisted “Nigerianization”, all I just have to say is “it is sad,” it is very sad. But let me tell you, I think in the ’80s when Nigerians introduced foreigners into the airline ownership business, there was a certain gentleman, I call him gentleman because I am used to addressing male as a gentleman but what he did was not particularly gentlemanly.

Capt Allwell-Brown, Gesticulating to nail in a salient point

His wife and himself were reputed to have made the remark that they wanted only white men to fly their aircraft but, the fun of it was they needed their pilots to be examined and they couldn’t find any examiner and they contacted Nigerian Airways and Nigerian Airways graciously asked me to do them the favour of examining their expatriate pilots. Even if an irony of failure, they were made to eat a humble pie of getting a Nigerian to examine the so-called expatriates.

Apart from that, Nigerians stopped training a while because one of the first aviation school I have ever seen, Nigerian College of Aviation Technology, NCAT, Zaria, “Golden craft”, we just allowed pilot training there to die and if you don’t train pilots for a period of ten years, you will miss pilots, we have just about used all trained Nigerians, so, people just have to hire expatriates. I hope I’m right because there are still some people with this mentality that they must have a white man because they think it is quality. My take on that is they are people who suffer from an inferiority complex since the record shows that Nigerians are in high demand the world over in this piloting.

At the demise of Nigeria Airways, the federal government said it was liquidating the airline to bring good to the economy, to the country, to the industry and now that they have done that, well over a decade now, with the benefit of hindsight, has the liquidation brought progress to the industry and the national economy? What do you think has happened?

Let me start with what really killed Nigeria Airways since you used the word “demise”. I would use an analogy. If you bought a very expensive car, today I think the expensive cars are Jaguar, Lamborghini, Hummer Jeep etc, For the sake of this discussion let’s pick Hummer Jeep. if you own such a car and you have a 14 years old boy and he said: “Daddy, I must drive a big car” and you give it to him, there is no other result expected than a crash. I am not talking of age in terms of the analogy, I am talking about the quality in terms of experience and discipline.

What kind of people were they sending to run Nigeria Airways? Nigeria Airways was treated as a colony where anybody is posted to manage. When they wanted to do a favour they pick anyone that caught their fancy and instructed him to go and run the place. Nigeria Airways was killed not by the workers as it is much often touted but by these inexperience people they kept sending to run the airline’s business without an iota of experience and commitment, they killed Nigeria Airways.

Were the postings due to a lack of competent managers for the very top position of Managing Director/CEO?

Nigerians as a people have very capable managers; I look at the credentials of Professor Okonjo Iweala, World Bank, (now DG World Trade Organization, WTO) Look at them everywhere succeeding, but what kind of Nigerians were sent as Chief Executives and Board members of Nigeria Airways? You don’t pick a garage attendant and give him Central Bank to manage. What kind of Nigerians were they sent there, definitely, if the airline, Nigeria Airways was their private investment, they would not send those kinds of Nigerians. So, that is my take on that.

Is there any lesson from the little fragment of what is left in the aviation industry in Nigeria now, from the supervisory ministry and the agencies, hope the persons presently there are not the kind of the elements they sent to manage Nigeria Airways? Or the industry now being viewed as another Hummer Jeep, not been given to another 14-year-old boy to manage/drive?

If you don’t put the right people if you put a square peg in a round hole, you are going to have problems, be it in aviation or be it anywhere, put a round peg in a round hole. Remember that talkers, loquacious people can’t do well in any industry. Pick doers, not talkers and if you think that experience built on a good foundation does not count, think of the number of lives that had been lost in the Nigerian aviation sector from the day Nigeria Airways stopped flying. Has the nation really fixed the aviation sector? Think of the number of lives lost. Why were those numbers of lives not lost before the demise of Nigeria Airways?. The way to access anything is before and after. Then you can come out with a fair judgement. That’s my take on it.

Some people speak as if since the demise of Nigeria Airways, there is nothing called aviation in Nigeria, but we still have the aviation ministry, we still have the regulatory body, NCAA. Are they for the international airlines to regulate and the ministry; are they for the airline to supervise?

No, there are airlines in Nigeria. The regulatory body is for aviation not for a national airline, in fact, when they put their focus just on one airline, they interfere with the running of the airline but when they do their job full coverage, they would have no time to interfere in the administration of one organization. So, if your question is, are these bodies still functioning since you do not have a national airline? The bodies are functioning because you still have flag carriers, but there is a clear difference between a flag carrier and a national airline.

We would rather like you to give us the difference between national airline, the national carrier and flag carrier, can you please bring out the distinguishing features?

A flag carrier is an airline that does an international flight with its aircraft. That is referred to as Act 121. So, that may not be the understanding of a flag carrier in some other parts of the world. The word ‘flag’ comes from the requirement that aeroplane and ship should have their national emblem painted on them or flown on them. Since you can’t fly an emblem on an aeroplane, they paint it somewhere in the aeroplane. So if you have that flag, you are a flag carrier for that nation the aircraft bears its flag. So that expression has been twisted, overused, abused by different individuals.

When it suits them they take the American version, if it doesn’t suit them they take the other version. So let’s say an airline in which the government owns either minority or majority or no shares, if we discuss those steps, then it would be better understood by the general public and nobody can misinterpret it. However, I can foretell that once a Nigerian journalist brings this subject, I know he wants to lead me to make comment on bilateral air services (laugh).

It’s an issue because we have heard there are multilateral air services, we heard bilateral air services, which one is multilateral?

As the word sounds, bilateral is a union in between two persons. Multilateral is a union between a multiple numbers of persons that may be two minimum because bilateral is multi, not single or uni but when you say multilateral, it’s supposed to be more than two but if you speak of the strict meaning of the English word ‘multi’ that means it’s not single. In aviation, when you say aircraft is also a multi-engine aircraft.

Capt Bara Allwell-Brown at the interview, on a lighter mood

Is there a need for a nation that has no national carrier being in a bilateral air service agreement?

Let’s differentiate between a bilateral air services agreement and an agreement between two nations to exchange aviation services and to have a flight in between their nations from the nominated airlines to service that requirement. People mixed it up when they jumble all the two things together. 

Yes, you must have a bilateral air service agreement from which now each airline/nation will pick one airline or two airlines as the case may be to service their own end of the agreement. Some nations don’t even pick any airline, they allow other ones to do it both ways. For years, Nigerian Airways was going to Jeddah; the other airlines didn’t come to Nigeria. Here brings you to the issue of royalties because the other guy could say “since you are enjoying all the benefits, give me a part of the cream from it”.

Like the one you just mentioned, in that case, Nigeria Airways regularly flew to Jeddah when Saudi Arabia didn’t come here, what were those requisites?

Saudi Arabia started coming here, I think they have stopped but Emirates also comes from that direction. There is no law that says because you enter into a bilateral service with airline ‘A’ serving nation ‘A’ goes to country ‘B’. Airline ‘B’ in country ‘B’ is not in a position to reciprocate. They should and could go into a commercial agreement.

What is a commercial agreement, what are the elements in a commercial agreement?

Two parties running a partnership, one has the right the other has capacity. So they bring the right and the capacity together to do the business and they share the benefit. So that is, country ‘A’ does not have the capacity but has the route right emanating from the pattern. So airline ‘A’ that has the route right goes into a commercial agreement with airline ‘B’ that has the capacity. Let’s do business together for the benefit of you and me, of course, the country ‘B’ document says in this commercial agreement, you are using the facilities given to you without making material input. So that benefit accruing is mine.

Can you say 100 per cent or the benefit will have to be shared because the benefit is derived from a party rendering the service?

If airline ‘B’ is owned by the state, then the issue of sharing does not arise at all because this is your business, the beneficiary of every bit of money your business makes. The proprietary business is yourself but the travail now comes and I am glad you asked this question because it brings in a national airline into the operation so when it is a national airline owned by the nation, that benefit goes to the nation but if it is a private airline that is a proprietory business then there is the issue of morality in a private organization taking what should have been royalty to the nation and tucking it in but, I don’t think Nigeria has gotten to that stage yet, I don’t think such is happening here in Nigeria.

This is why we seek to seat on the shoulders of elders to see far ahead, get acquainted with the terrain and able to avoid danger. Now let’s examine the Nigerian scene, in all these bilateral agreements, do we have the capacity to match with those airlines from the Dutch, US, Great Britain even Ethiopian Airline and the golf carriers?

Have we proven that we have the capacity to be using our domestic flight? No, definitely not. We don’t have the capacity and even when we have a strong national airline, it does not have the capacity to respond to all those bilateral agreements but it has the experience and the manpower to negotiate commercial agreements, to giving out the odds stacked against it in terms of capacity.

But anything that has like royalty to me does not have much value. The majority of transactions, resulting in royalty symbolizes laziness, so you must add some values, you must get some values that is why some of the latitude commercial agreement gives does align with the national airline. That is the value-added agreement, we are rendering some part of the services, we were rationalizing the capacity of the stronger partner that may not be their route airlines, look in their passengers, can this flight carry their goods and their passengers. It must plan for the future, fortunately, the word ‘demise’ and the way it came was too sudden that, it was so sudden nothing was salvaged. Then the presidential approach was to salvage nothing just wipe off everything.

How healthy for domestic operators is this multiple destinations today, whereby international airliners have slots in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja, Kano, Enugu, nearly in all domestic destinations.

Well, we can’t eat our cake and have it. Liberalization, Open sky, but we must make the best of the situation. When you say domestic airline, you mean flag carrier, Nigerian flag carriers, i.e airlines that bear the Nigerian flag on their tails and have been doing the international flights. Domestic traffic has not declined because of this several destinations, in fact, it helps domestic traffic, many at times because the people still need local flight because the international airlines cannot fly to every airport every day so when they bring passengers to some airport, the domestic carriers drop the passengers on their various final destinations. If you ask me, what is your opinion about that? If the traffic were not there, the flight will stop

So you see, maybe you are looking at it from a different angle but the duty of government is to make life convenient for the travellers not just to create jobs for domestic airlines at the expense of the travellers, they can create job for Nigerian international airline but they don’t really exist so the best answer is commercial partnership.

 Is Nigeria getting every penny it should?

Because we don’t have the answer, I say that is a myopic view because if we crafted a commercial partnership and commercial agreement, appreciable revenue could be made. And if the circumstance changes, they can conveniently adjust that.

Perhaps, my answer is not popular because people have not looked at it from that angle, people are just looking at it from the angle of oh! The domestic carrier will have nothing to do between flight A & B. The capacity of our domestic carrier have not built up to such an expert.

There are idle periods if you have delayed flight that is not due to weather that’s natural salvage then, they are due to capacity shortcut. If delays due to mandolin can be traced to capacity shortcut because if you have a standby, I don’t mean that you should just put one aircraft away lapping and standby but you should schedule your aircraft but you have built-in standby.

They will slap him for that broken-down aircraft provided you don’t have aircraft breakdown in a day. So you see, maybe you are looking at it from a different angle but the duty of government is to make life convenient for the travellers not just to create jobs for domestic airlines at the expense of the travellers, they can create a job for Nigerian international airline but they don’t really exist so the best answer is a commercial partnership.

Can you please, educate us on the commercial partnership?

Very simple, I have the right, you have the capacity short of leasing it from you. In fact, it might be indirectly. I am saying use your capacity, use some of my destinations. Anything I have I bring into that partnership, you have the capacity, I have the rest of the thing we put them together, we operate the service, it’s a win-win procedure and it has value rather than just raw royalty.

This sounds more of a theory. Has it ever been practicalized? Has it ever been done at any time in history in this country?

Very well done. But very silently because it was not too much advertised. The first time Nigerian Airways did it with one of the European Airlines and it worked very well.

** Thank you for your time. The concluding part will be posted at the weekend for your reading delight. The interview was conducted nine (9) years ago, for ALTITUDE Magazine

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