British Airways lobbyists have pressured the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to intercede on behalf of the airline to save it from losing more than 50 per cent of its flight frequency to Nigeria following the anti-competitive treatment meted out to Nigeria airline, Arik Air, at Heathrow Airport.
This came as Managing Director of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, Mr. George Uriesi, said yesterday that the Federal Government’s action on British Airways was informed by the need to protect the country’s domestic airlines.
A dependable government source disclosed that Mr. Cameron had waded in last Friday following the insistence of the Ministry of Aviation that British Airways should restructure its London-Lagos flight frequency from seven to three weekly.
British Prime Minister, David Cameron and President Goodluck Jonathan during his two-day official visit to Nigeria.
According to the source, the Prime Minister had written a strong letter of appeal to President Goodluck Jonathan, seeking a resolution of the matter in more beneficial manner to the two countries.
It was learnt that sequel to Cameron’s letter, the President had directed the Minister of Aviation, Princess Stella Oduah-Ogiemwonyi, to grant a week extension to BA to allow both Nigeria aviation authorities and that of Britain sort out the disagreement
The source said: “The British Prime Minister actually wrote to our President on this. So discussions are now at the highest government level and this is why a week extension was granted BA to comply with new flight schedule given to the airlines.
“The import of the letter is to see how to find a way to resolve the issue diplomatically in a manner that Nigeria will not be shortchanged and this can only come if Arik is restored its full flight schedule.”
A statement in Abuja, Monday, by Joe Obi, Special Assistant (Media) to the Minister of Aviation, had underscored the need to allow the bilateral discussion end before the commencement of the new flight schedule of the British Airways to Murtala Mohammed International Airport.
Why BA cut Arik’s flight
The source revealed that the BA had taken the decision to cut Arik flight from Abuja to London following the realisation that the passenger load of Arik had risen sharply since the commencement of the Abuja-London direct flight.
It was learnt that following the downward review of fare by Arik and the upsurge in the passenger load of the airline, BA felt threatened on the route.
Nigeria had been awarded 21 flights on the Nigeria-UK flight, of which Arik uses 12 while the remaining nine belong to Air Nigeria and the defunct Bellview Airlines.
Abuja airport domestic terminal for renovation
Meantime, all domestic operations at the domestic terminal of the Nnamidi Azikiwe Airport Abuja are to be moved over to the International Terminal as from next week.
It was learnt that the present domestic building would undergo renovation to make it suitable for handling of cargo and pilgrimage operations.
FAAN MD explains decision on BA
Uriesi, who spoke in an interview on AIT’s Kakaki programme, said the Federal Government was not comfortable with the manner Arik Air was edged out of Heathrow on its Abuja-London operations, saying the fact that the slots denied Arik were given to British Airways angered the government.
According to him, though the issue of slot allocation at Heathrow was determined by commercial considerations, the sudden increase in the cost of slots to Arik at the airport gave the impression of a deliberate plot to muscle the airline out of the route.
He said failure of government to take action might spell doom for the country’s airlines in future, as other foreign airlines would be encouraged to do a similar thing to Nigerian carriers.
He said: “When you have a bilateral air services agreement between two countries, it is about accessing your market, it is about exchange to that market. The reality of the situation is that the government provides the framework for the access to that market.
“The United Kingdom has 21 frequencies, which gives room for British carriers to access our market 21 times a week, and Nigerian carriers can access the British market 21 times a week, it is all about exchange to access market.
“Now, on the side of the British carriers, it is exchange to your market and what I will exchange for it into your own market. The agreement sort of specifies how that access will work out. For the British carriers, they are utilising the entire 21 slots as they have two carriers, BA and VAA, but on the Nigerian side, only Arik Air is exercising that right.
Rights of indigenous carriers
“It is not really about Arik Air, it is about Nigerian designated carriers, which happens to be Arik Air, which has seven frequencies from Lagos to Heathrow, but a couple of weeks ago, with its five slots a week from Abuja into Heathrow, its slot got taken rather suddenly in the middle of October, they were left high and dry.
“To a large extent, it is one thing to have 21 frequencies, but if you do not have slot at the airport, it is generally about trying to defend a Nigerian carrier. I only want to de-emphasize the Arik part of it: it is about defending Nigerian designated carrier; it is trying to protect the rights of indigenous carriers.
“In the bilateral air services agreement, it is a convoluted arrangement that we have two British carriers at the detriment of one Nigerian carrier. It is one thing to have frequency into the airport without a slot, which makes it difficult. It is good for government to protect the rights of indigenous carriers.
“Slots into Heathrow is probably the most valuable commodity in the air transport industry, and there is a lot of acts associated with access to Heathrow. There are so many countries across the globe, many countries engage the British authorities to get slots into Heathrow.”
“Arik Air quietly went to negotiate five slots a week into Heathrow from Abuja, paying about £600,000 to have the opportunity to lease the slots, and the airline was paying about £52,000 per month for the operations, but all of a sudden, the British authorities informed Arik Air that from the end of October, it will not be able to lease slots to the airline.
“Coincidentally, it turns out that British Airways bought those slots, and even more and began to use six slots about the time Arik Air was elbowed out. There is a whole trade of slots going on in Heathrow, it is almost an essential commodity in the industry.
“One thing is to be able to access the leasing of slots. You can even buy them out right, then they become yours, the other thing is to show a competitive arrangement to elbow some one out of the market, but I think what is important for us to stress is that a lot of people are watching this.
“Other carriers and their owner nations , if a Nigerian registered carrier , could be elbowed out of that market , it means that other Nigerian carriers could be edged out of any other route by the authorities other than the British market. The access to the Nigerian market is prime for British Airways , so in elbowing out Arik Air out of Abuja – London is enough indication that British Airways will have to face some consequences.”
Already, management of FAAN had said it would restrict British Airways’ operations into the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, with effect from next week, citing operational reasons.
This is seen as additional retaliatory measure to the federal government’s slash of the airline’s frequency from seven to three on the Abuja-London route.