Recently, the minister of aviation, Stella Oduah, assembled the representatives of most foreign airlines operating within the country. Some of them included; British Airways, Lufthansa, Emirates, Egypt Air, United Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines, Delta Airlines, Iberia Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Qatar Airways, Air France/KLM, Kenya Airways, Turkish Airways, among others and accused them of “ripping off Nigerian passengers through fake promotions” and some other sharp practices.
The minister acused the airlines of embarking promotions that do not exist and advertising fares that could never be secured by passengers. She also said the airlines embarked on media campaigns without obtaining the mandatory approval from the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), as well as factoring all kinds of illegal fees into tickets prices.
“These surcharges have absolutely no basis or justifiable reasons to be imposed, maintained or increased,” said the minister.
“Surcharges are also a way of cheating the federal government and local businesses in Nigeria, since they are non-taxable but are being used to load up the cost of travel outside the basic fares.”
Oduah stated that the “Nigerian market remains open for exploration but will be permanently closed to exploitation” and insisted that ” . . . in exchange for the continuing profitable business environment and hospitality it provides for the airlines (Nigeria demands that), its citizens must be treated fairly and equitably, according to international best practices.”
Although the British Airways’ Kola Adeyinka and his Emirates’ counterpart Paulos Legesse, pledged to improve their services and denied discriminating against Nigerian passengers, the director-general of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Dr. Harold Demuren, said matter-of-factly that foreign airlines “fenced off” seats on cheaper fares and force Nigerians to buy high-priced ticket.
Most airlines have in excess of 20-25 fare classes while only a fraction of such are available in Nigeria. The NCAA chief described as “very poor” the quality of service on the Nigerian segment of trips, and added that the condition of service for Nigerian employees “is materially different from non-Nigerians.” He said the carriers promoted mediocrity by elevating rooky expatriates to senior management positions,despite the presence of more qualified Nigerian personnel. According to him, the federal government “is now focusing on consumer protection and there are several regulations which require better services and treatment of Nigerians.”
Between January and September 2009, the NCAA received approximately 46, 998 complaints through its Consumer Protection Unit from aggrieved passengers who were badly treated in one way or the other by some airlines within and outside the country. The complaints pertained to lost baggage, flight delays and cancellations, poor in-flight service, high tickets and shabby treatment by airline personnel.
Oduah may not be the first cabinet minister to have a running battle with foreign airlines operating in Nigeria. Femi Fani-Kayode, who served as minister of transport and aviation during President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government brought up the issue of maltreatment of Nigerian passengers travelling on foreign airlines and threatened to ground any one of them that would continue with the practice. To prove his seriousness, he ordered the airlines to ensure that all its flights into Lagos arrive latest, 6p.m (1800 hours) local time, instead of 8 or 9p.m which the airlines were used to.
Equally, former minister of aviation, Babatunde Omotoba, specifically declared war on the British Airways for what he described as the airline’s “insensitivity.” Despite being provided a conducive environment to operate and rake in so much money in ticket sales, the minister regretted that the British airline was yet to reciprocate the gesture by having Nigerian flight attendants in its employ.
He accused the airline of operating against industry regulations “in a manner which is inimical to Nigeria’s airspace safety and security, and against airline regulations and security of the airspace.
“Some of them have been coming here for over 50 years, yet, they have never trained any Nigerian pilot. They have never trained any maintenance engineer or employed any Nigerian into their cabin crew. Even the travel agents that they should be paying their commissions are not paid by them. They are just very selfish,” Omotoba added.
It would be recalled that on March 27, 2008, the airline committed a contemptuous act by evicting 136 Nigerian passengers from a Lagos-bound flight from London.
Nigerians aboard that flight had reportedly protested the maltreatment of one of their compatriots who was being deported and was on the same flight. The miffed passengers, including one Ayodeji Omotade, who had served as spokesman, were later ordered out of the aircraft. The airline, according to British media had to offload the passengers in consultation with, and on the advice of the United Kingdom (UK) Police. After the incident, the British Airways in the face of rising public outrage and criticism, maintained disdainful silence until May 2, when it issued a press statement, through a media consultant. The official response arrived more than a month late, and over a week after the federal government had expressed serious concern.
Many aviation analysts and stakeholders in the sector blame the audacity of foreign airlines to commit infractions and get away with them on the undue preferential treatment they enjoy. They point out that foreign carriers have long capitalised on the loopholes created by the bilateral air services agreement (BASA), for instance, to gain so much economic power to the extent that they could challenge the authority.
They said the federal government gave the mega carriers undue advantage by granting them more frequencies and multiple entries into the country’s international gateways through Lagos, Kano, Abuja and Port Harcourt. They also said the airlines had not been investing in the country. Instead, all the money made in Nigeria was repatriated to their home countries to develop the economies of those places.
The national presidents of the Air Transport Senior Staff Services Association of Nigeria (ATSSSAN) and National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE), Benjamin Okewu and Safiyanu Mohammed, argued that the vacuum created in the aviation industry by the absence of a functional national carrier for the country remained a major problem.
The death of the Nigeria Airways Limited (NAL) in 2003 made Nigerian airlines play second fiddle in the global airline business. All the airlines which came after the death of the NAL have found it extremely difficult to match the standards set by the liquidated carrier.
The union chiefs said that since the liquidation of the NAL no Nigerian airline had obtained air traffic rights to serve a growing number of international routes from Lagos or anywhere. Thus, the lucrative international routes and frequencies are dominated by foreign airlines operating into Nigeria. About 42 international scheduled and cargo airlines operate more than 200 weekly flights into Nigeria while Arik Air is the only Nigerian carrier that operates services to New York, London and South Africa.
A Central Bank of Nigerian (CBN) report showed that all the foreign airlines included British Airways, Emirates, Virgin Atlantic, Air France, Delta Air, Qatar Airways, South African Airways, Egypt Air, Kenya Airways and Turkish Air repatriated over N200 billion in one year while the only indigenous airline with appreciable share of the ticket sales was Arik Air.
According to the document, British Airways topped the list with approximately N32b, while Emirates earned N21b; Virgin Atlantic grossed N11b; Air France N10b; KLM N10b; Delta Air N7b; Qatar Airways N6b; South African Airways N5b; Egypt Air N4b; Kenya Airways N2b and Turkish Airlines, N1b. Alitalia grossed N931m; Iberia, N769m; Saudi Air, which only flies into Kano from Jeddah N846m; China Southern N769m; Afriqiyah N302m; while Royal Air Maroc, which began operations a little over a year ago, made N266m. The only Nigerian carrier among the big players, Arik Air, recouped N4b from ticket sales.
The president, National Association of Nigerian Travel Agents (NANTA), Dayo Adeola attributed the problem to lack of clear-cut aviation policy.
“It is one policy today, another policy tomorrow or the issue of multiple airport operators. When you buy a ticket worth N1m, what stays in the country out of that N1m is the five per cent government tax. Five per cent of that amount is N50, 000, and then the airport tax is $35. That is all. The remaining amount is changed to dollars and taken abroad,” said Adeola
Arik Air chairman, Joseph Arumemi-Ikhide, who had always been on the forefront in the fight against capital flight from the airline sub-sector, said that foreign airlines were making brisk business in Nigeria, much to the disadvantage of the local carriers.
The director-general, Nigeria Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC), Segun Runsewe, contended that for the Nigerian aviation industry to move forward, the country would need a national carrier, but warned that if it was not well managed, Nigerians would not patronise it, considering that air travellers in the country have options.
He however recalled that while the NAL operated, flights were delayed, because of a political or royal individual who should have been at the airport at least an hour before boarding. According to him, such delays and incompetence sound the death knell for the airline. He stated that unlike the past when Nigerians had limited options, the contrary is the case now, as many international airlines fly in and out of the country.
“Look at this: in those days of the NAL, they would delay a flight because of a personality. You can not do this with some of these international airlines. I am not arguing against a national carrier, but efficiency should be in place,” said Runsewe.
He pointed out that aviation and tourism are an inseparable duo, as they sell the country to the international world, and stressed that countries of the world now consider tourism, a way of developing their economies.
The Congress of Aviation Unions and Professional Associations (CAUPA) maintained that the liquidation of the NAL occasioned huge economic losses.
“A national carrier is a generator of employment and sustenance of economic and industrial development,” said the CAUPA.
However, it explained that establishing a national airline would not necessarily mean a 100 per cent investment by government.
“The federal government, as a morale booster, should invest at least 10 per cent in the proposed airline and the public allowed to invest a sizeable chunk, so that some facilities and waivers can come to the airline,” the CAUPA said.
A former engineer of the defunct airline, Engineer Sheri Kyari, contended that it is not a hard and fast rule that the proposed national carrier should be owned solely by the federal government.
“I am looking at a situation in which the federal government has 10 per cent holding temporarily and allow Nigerians to be the majority shareholders. The 10 per cent shareholding is just to give investors the confidence that government is participating in building such a carrier. I am not talking about the British Airways’ model. I am talking about government sharing percentages to the states, local governments and individuals. Let them invest, let it be a Nigerian thing,” said Kyari.
Sounding sentimental, he said Nigerians would be patriotic enough to fly their country’s flag carrier and be spared the harrowing experience they have on board foreign airlines.
“Nigerians are very patriotic people when they know that this is their own thing. I believe that giving them the opportunity to invest in the airline will make them identify themselves with it,” he remarked.
If the type of ownership model proposed by both Kyari and the CAUPA were adopted, it would be necessary for the federal government to enact the ‘Fly Nigeria Act’, so as to make the airline competitive on international routes. The legislation, according them, would “compel government officials who travel overseas to patronise the carrier”.
It would be recalled that a memo on the need to make government functionaries fly Nigerian carriers when they embark on overseas trips was submitted to the federal executive council meeting for deliberation in 2009.
Christened ‘Fly Nigeria Policy: Patronage of Indigenous Airlines by Federal Public Officers’, it sought the council’s “approval for the introduction of a policy (Fly Nigeria) making it compulsory for all federal public officers to patronise Nigerian airline operators when undertaking official trips overseas on routes operated by the indigenous Nigerian airlines.”
The new policy was one of the initial outcomes of meetings between the federal government and the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON).
A 10-member committee comprising federal government officials and members of the AON was set up to look into grievances raised by indigenous airline operators.
Indigenous airline operators had, in a petition to the late President Umar Yar’Adua, stated that some of them might go down if identified challenges in the sector were not given urgent attention. The airlines also complained that government officials hardly patronised the indigenous airlines.
They also expressed worry that airline ticket sales were a major avenue for capital flight and the Central Bank of Nigeria figures indicated that foreign airlines operating more than 180 weekly frequencies into Nigeria repatriate about N200 billion annually to their various home countries, while Nigerian airlines on foreign routes operate less than 45 weekly frequencies.
Former secretary-general of the African Airlines Association (AFRAA), Nick Fadugba, who welcomed the move, said it was a “vote of confidence passed on Nigerian carriers”.
“It is a welcome support for Nigerian airlines. This is what obtains in the United States of America, under the ‘Fly American Act’. US government employees must fly American airlines. Why should Nigerian government employees who love to fly business and first-classes fly foreign airlines?” said Fadugba.
Arik Air chairman, Joseph Arumemi-Ikhide, said the nationals of some big carriers patronise their local airlines.
“I remember when I was in the USA, I had a meeting with an international institution and they said they wanted to come visit us in Lagos, I said, ‘Okay, we will give you a ticket to fly from New York to Lagos’. They said, ‘No’, that they would prefer to fly in a US carrier, and I said, “But our aircraft is brand new”. They said they were aware, but that they are not allowed to fly a non-US carrier, as long as a US-carrier goes to that country. Unless there is no US carrier going there,” said Arumemi-Ikhide.
“The government has to make a policy. On the other hand, Nigerians need to take a stand by taking pride in our products. Yes, we have made some mistakes. We are just about five years as an airline and two years now as an international airline.
“Some people told me that we don’t have frequent flier when we started in those days. Before the British Airways came, there was no frequent flier. We should understand that before Arik came, Nigerians were treated like dogs by some of these foreign airlines.
“They didn’t have respect for Nigerians. It was when we came and we introduced Nigerian food, music and the rest. If we show that we have some dignity that we can be given due respect. Government should understand that Nigerian airlines have difficulties and we as a nation should support our own.”
However, managing director and chief executive of Sabre Networks, Gbenga Olowo, does not believe that a national carrier is a necessity.
“We do not need another national carrier. Who will own such an airline? Is it government that has proved incompetent in a less demanding industry, talk more of aviation? That concept is obsolete and events have overtaken it. We now have almost 10 flag carriers, with different potentials. The pilots, engineers and commercial/operation workers, one way or the other, have had stints with the NAL.
“Government should be serious about the provision of the needed support to them, and make them economically viable and internationally competitive. Subsidy on aviation fuel to help their growth remains a strong option to consider as an oil producing nation,” Olowo said.