Managing Director of Bristow Helicopters, Captain Akin Oni, spoke to the press on aircraft maintenance in Nigeria and the reluctance of oil majors to invest in offshore fields, amongst other issues. Chinedu Eze was there. Excerpts:
Your operations in 2013
As a whole, over the last year the business has been essentially flat. So we have not lost market share, which is a good thing for us. If you look at the operating environment, our business is largely driven by the oil industry. in the last year as some of you report and read in the press, because of the PIB there has been a great deal of reluctance by the old majors to spend money; that is, investment in new fields. So we have retained our share of the market. We have not increased or decreased the business in the in the year and we are very happy with that.
We say that because there is lot of competition in the market now and the only opportunity that we see going forward is the opportunity that will open up if the PIB is passed or in the event that the oil majors decide to venture into the deep water market without the approval from the PIB. That would open up new opportunities and that is what we are looking forward to. We hope that either the PIB is passed or the oil companies decide to go into the fields they found or carry out even more exploration business. That essentially describes the business at the micro level.
Contributions to Nigeria's development
If you look at the rest of our business today I can say that we have built probably the biggest heliport in West Africa in Port Harcourt and with the facilities that we have there. In the last year we have built a new hangar and extended the new hangar. It is probably the most sophisticated and the best facility that I have seen in this part of the world. I can also openly tell you that it has the best infrastructure that I know is available in Nigeria, even in the rest of Bristow Group on a global basis.
So in Port Harcourt today we have, in addition to the hangar, extended our passenger handling facility. We have also extended several other parts of the facility to make it an environment where you can safely conduct an aviation business and certainly our terminals operate better than what I see in the rest of Nigeria. And out of Port Harcourt we now operate large aircraft (helicopter), which originally was restricted to Lagos. So we operate three large aircraft; sometimes four, which are the latest and the greatest in the helicopter market for our offshore operations.
We have the S92s, the Super Puma LT and the Super Pima L. Unfortunately we lost one of the Super Puma in a fire incident in Port Harcourt. When I say lost, the aircraft is there but it received extensive damage that we have to go out of Nigeria, to the manufacturer for it to be rebuilt. As for the rest of the business in Port Harcourt, we have seen business move out of Lagos and move into Port Harcourt and that says a lot about the confidence of the oil and gas companies in the changes that are taking place in the Niger Delta.
You may remember that few years back we were in a bit of crisis in the Niger Delta and a lot of companies moved their business to Lagos. Now there is a shift and a move back to Port Harcourt. Also in the Port Harcourt area we have seen an increase in the ad hoc charter market which involves more of the marginal players; that is, small operators, the companies that were grown over the years and now they are striking out and doing things on their own and developing their own capabilities, which is positive for us in this country.
We continue to run our business in Eket, which is in Akwa Ibom and unfortunately our business in Calabar was closed. We had a contract in Calabar but that had closed and some of the business was moved to Port Harcourt. Of course, that says a lot about the expansion in Port Harcourt. That expansion cost the amount of money that we spend on developing Port Harcourt. For example, I can say the hangar we just put up in Port Harcourt; the original hangar was over $3 million. The extension cost well over $2 million and investment in the region of $6 million in the hangar in Port Harcourt and I say this with a lot of pain, because of the fire, we lost a substantial part of that hangar and it is going to cost us at least $2 million to put that hangar back.
I am being specific about the numbers so that you will get the scale of the loss and as a result of that fire we lost a huge amount of money. $1 million is peanut when you consider what we lost in Port Harcourt. I am not going to give the figure and the reason I am not going to give the figure is because it is a competitive issue. I don't think it is right to do that. The aircraft in Calabar have been moved to Port Harcourt; some have been moved to Lagos. We had to move two aircraft to Lagos and they have not been working. They are parked at the ramp here (in Lagos). They have not been working since the last five to six months. But nevertheless we replaced them with modern aircraft.
In Lagos we continue to operate three S92s and they go to deepwater fields from Lagos to support Chevron's operation in Agbami and we do some work for ExxonMobile from Lagos as well, but on a much smaller scale. We have had to suspend the building of a new facility in Lagos but we hope to start that again later this year. We have been trying to beat the rain; we have not done very well with the rain. We have a passenger terminal here in Lagos which we intend to extend, making it much bigger and provide more facilities.
What is driving our business is largely our focus on developing Nigeria and that is developing Nigerians. As I speak today we have a partnership with the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria. That partnership currently allows us to put 40 Nigerians in the school. 20 had just graduated and we currently have 40 undergoing aircraft engineering training there. Our partnership with Zaria means that we support them with several things. Last year we put six instructors through a training programme in the United States with a view to helping to develop their aviation training. So they went to the school in the US for two months each.
While there they were exposed to the curricular they use to expose aircraft engineers in the States. We are currently in the process of sending another four to the Bristow Academy in Florida. We also acquired an aircraft, Robinson R22 and sent to NCAT, Zaria to be used for aircraft training. It is in the hangar here; we are just waiting to transfer the aircraft to the school.
We try to develop capacity in Nigeria. We have students there so we benefit from the programme. So we will continue to engage Zaria in their training activities because we benefit from it as well as the larger community. We will also continue the training we arranged for them in the US. So that is an area we have been working on. An area I would also want to talk about is what we have done for over 30 years now.
I was in one of such programmes; in fact, I was in the second programme, which is Nigerians being identified through aptitude and selection process and being provided pilot training. Helicopter pilot training is not available in Nigeria. The Nigeria Air Force has such school in Enugu and we are looking at them, but as we have done in 30 years, we continue to provide such training. The interviews for the selection are going on. At the moment we have 18 Nigerians undergoing training at Bristow Academy in Statesville, Florida. We are currently in the selection process for another 20. They have missed the course which is supposed to start in the 12th of May. The selection process is still on and the visa process in the American embassy can be tasking and daunting.
That is the situation but we expect to put 20 students in the academy over the next year. That is not a cheap prospect at all. It takes a huge chunk of our money. We feel we have a responsibility to do that. If you look at the rest of the organisation we are doing the necessary thing to give Nigerian opportunity in the management structure, so not just in the area of aircraft engineering and training. We are moving expatriates where we can and replace them with Nigerians.
More Nigerians Engaged in Higher Responsibilities
I think that today if you look across our organisation we have the highest number of Nigerians in the management in this history of this company and if you look around the aviation business in Nigeria; I think we stand out. As it is today we have Nigerian chief engineers in our operations. That had not happened before. These are people we trained that they went through the process like I did 30 years ago. They are very competent people; they have risen to that level, they run operations; in fact the person in charge of fixed wing operation in Lagos is a Nigerian and the person in charge of our operation in Eket is a Nigerian. So we are very proud of that achievement and we are going to see more of that going forward.
Investment in Infrastructure
We built our own infrastructure. Government is not involved in helicopter operations. So the infrastructure we have here is built and operated by Bristow Helicopter Nigeria Limited. To look at investment in infrastructure in Nigeria, in the last two years we built a hangar in Lagos here. What I have achieved since the four years I have been managing director here is that we have successfully changed and improved the number of Nigerians who work and see the opportunity in aeronautical engineering. If you go to the shop floor today, especially if you go to the new hangar, you will see the changes taking place here.
However, in terms of infrastructure, I know a lot of people want to see maintenance hangar here, but we do all our maintenance in Nigeria. We do not take any aircraft out of Nigeria for maintenance. No one; we carry out D checks in Nigeria; we do 100 per cent of our maintenance here; even the most sophisticated aircraft, the S92 is done in Nigeria and Nigerians are involved in the maintenance.
In terms of our facility alone, initially when we started we thought it would be in the region of $3 million but we ended in the region of $5 million. There is no hangar in Lagos in terms of capacity for maintenance and equipment that has what we have there. Otherwise those machines would have been flying out of our country to Europe for maintenance. So we developed that capability. By far, the biggest amount of investment that we have in Nigeria in the last year has been in Port Harcourt.
On training, each Nigerian we put in Bristow Academy in the US to get them flying cost us something in the region of $250,000. At $250,000 and we are training 20. That is just ab initio training. The cost of recurrent training for pilots is humongous.