Africa has a vibrant travel market – Ferri

Nicolas Ferri is vice president for Europe, the Middle East, Africa and India at Delta Air Lines. He discusses with OYETUNJI ABIOYE on the plan of the American carrier for the African region, among other issues

This is your first time in Nigeria; can you share the reason for this trip?

Absolutely, recently, in November of this year, I started as Vice President for Europe, Middle East and Africa for Delta Air Lines. I’ve been with Delta for over a decade, but I’ve been in this role since November and one of my goals is to be at every one of our stations this year. I think it’s really important to meet our customers, to meet the employees, to see the operations, to understand the market we serve. And from all these points of view, this visit was a brilliant success.

How do you see the growth of air traffic in Africa in the years to come?

I think the market is dynamic, I think they (various mainland markets) come with their own challenges. Our long-term plan is based on a number of different strategic initiatives. First, we don’t have to wait three to five years. Currently Delta serves Lagos with daily flights from Atlanta and I would like to let you know that starting next month we will be re-introducing Lagos to New York (JFK) three times a week. This means that on a weekly basis we will have 10 departures from Lagos, this will be our biggest station in Africa, we are very excited about that. We recently received permission to start in Cape Town, South Africa to complement our service in Johannesburg. We will also fly to Johannesburg, Cape Town and Atlanta.

We fly of course to Accra, we fly daily to Ghana with Delta planes but potentially, and really important to underline, is the fact that we do all of this with AirFrance, KLM and Virgin Atlantic. So we have this joint venture where we share everything we do 50-50. Thus, our non-stop flights from Africa to the United States are on Delta planes, but in addition we have commercial agreements and we make it easier for customers to get to the United States via Amsterdam, Paris or London. So we think, according to you, that the vision for Africa is to continue to grow where there are opportunities to maintain non-stop flights to the United States, but also to continue to grow with AirFrance, KLM and Virgin Atlantic. And I think that’s really important in this partnership. We have a lot of advantages, we have the choice of schedules with more and more flights but from the point of view of our customers, if you are a corporate customer and you have a contract with Delta, it is also valid on AirFrance, KLM and Virgin. If you are a travel agency, you have access to the same advantages but if you are a customer and choose to join our loyalty program, for example SkyMiles, or choose to join the Airfrance loyalty program , KLM or Virgin, what happens is that those miles are just as good to earn on one of those airlines as they are to redeem. So the options you have are really great. Additionally, this is another growth pillar of our strategy in Africa, we have a cordial relationship with Kenya Airways and I believe this also provides opportunities for intra-African travel.

So we really try to create opportunities and connections for African travelers in more ways than just a flight or two flights here and there.

Speaking of your partnership with Kenya Airways, are you considering a partnership with any of the Nigerian airlines as I remember Delta used to have a partnership with a Nigerian carrier but the airline is no more. Are you considering this kind of partnership again?

We are always looking at opportunities, today there is nothing on the horizon but you know the industry is very dynamic so we are always open and optimistic in terms of creating opportunities for customers. We are always figuring out what the customer wants and how to get it safely and seamlessly to the destination, but today we have nothing on the radar here in Nigeria from a partnership perspective. We think we are very well covered with Kenya, AirFrance, KLM and Virgin.

You just mentioned launching flights to Cape Town, outside of Johannesburg, do you plan to expand your entry into Nigeria, perhaps Abuja or Port-Harcourt?

As you know, we served Abuja for a few years and discontinued this service, so right now, as I mentioned before, our focus is really on providing our best service in Atlanta and New York. We are by far the largest US airline here in Nigeria, we have been here for 15 years so we are very proud of this uninterrupted service and look forward to many more.

COVID-19 has arrived and impacted global travel, now that air travel demands are starting to increase, what do you expect in terms of demand in Africa in general?

I think not only in Africa but around the world, what happened is that traffic really crashed for everybody, it was our worst time in the industry, and for Delta in particular, we’re really happy that things have picked up speed, what’s really interesting is that it’s being picked up much faster than expected. We had said that, for example, it would take us until 2024 to fully recover. Based on our revenue, a few days ago we had our best day in Delta revenue, which means it was our best day in terms of new sales at Delta. There was a lot of pent up demand, customers just couldn’t travel or were very limited where they could travel. What we’re seeing now is that they have this newfound freedom in how they can travel, not just to connect friends and family, but to connect business travelers. Everything is really happening and it is happening very quickly.

The other thing the pandemic has done, every decision Delta makes was not made short-term, it was made long-term. Delta was probably the only airline in the world not to lay off staff. We had volunteer programs, our employees went through it but no Delta employee was involuntarily terminated during this time. It is therefore very important, so that this loyalty can continue.

We are now in the process of introducing a new cabin to our Delta Premium Select aircraft which I also hope customers will be able to see soon. These decisions were made at the worst time when the airline was in real trouble, but we knew the Delta franchise, service and brand were going to be fine. So we never quit and I think that was a really good decision that customers are benefiting from right now.

The Russian-Ukrainian war came suddenly, how did this affect Delta’s traffic to Europe and possibly other markets?

First of all, my thoughts are really with the Ukrainian people. What is happening today is outrageous, in 2022, in the middle of Europe, so we really hope, whatever the impact on the business, that the situation is corrected soon because it is horrible. That said, the main impact we’ve seen is on fuel prices and the global supply chain, but like I said, from a demand perspective, we haven’t seen an impact. At first, it’s surprising when you say you haven’t seen any impact. I think the reality is that given the pent-up demand that we were talking about earlier, people all over the world are so eager to travel, it’s neutralized any potential impact that could or could have come from what’s going on in Ukraine so well now, I think other than the price of fuel which has impacted everyone, we haven’t seen any impact on travel.

Speaking of aviation fuel, it seems that fares on the Nigeria-US route have increased. Why?

I’m not sure air fares have increased significantly in Nigeria or anywhere else. I think airfares are really a direct result of demand, so if the demand is there, there’s a possibility of access. So I don’t think tariffs have increased exponentially from Nigeria. Looking to the future, we cannot legally comment on fare destination, so I will stop there, but I will tell you that we offer extremely competitive prices from Nigeria to the United States via our non-stop flights.

Nicholas, Delta has been here for 15 years and you have also been in a few markets in Africa for a few years now. Are you looking for what you might call Delta’s own lounge at one of these African airports?

We do, in a way, here in Nigeria. What we have done for our energy customers is what we call the energy fair. So our energy related customers have access to this very exclusive lounge which we believe is a cut above any other lounge at the airport so we are delighted. We are not planning to build our own Skyclub. In fact, our strategy is first and foremost to create the best experience and make Skyclub another reason you want to travel. So we mainly focus on the United States, where the bulk of our clubs are.

We also have partners in several airports. In addition, we have partnerships with AirFrance, KLM, Virgin Atlantic, and we use their lounges. They also do an amazing job in the lounge areas. I don’t think in Africa or anywhere else you will see many new skyclubs. You’ll probably see a few more Skyking lounges and you’ll probably see a lot more use of communal lounges or shared lounges at airports around the world.

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All rights reserved. This material and any other digital content on this website may not be reproduced, published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or in part without the prior express written permission of PUNCH.

Contact: [email protected]

Willie R. Golden