Airfare hike: How Nigerians are flying against all odds
As the scarcity of foreign currency bites harder on the economy, with attendant effect on ticket fares, Nigerian international travelers are opting for longer flight hours to save half the cost. WOLE OYEBADE reports.
Adeola Makanju received the N1.2m bill in utter disbelief. “You can’t be serious. Are you sure this is for me?”
“Yes, madam. That is their price now,” replied the travel agent and quickly switched to another customer.
Makanju looked round the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) terminal like she was seeing it for the first time.
For about two years, she had planned the holiday trip to United States (US) and just last week, all appeared set for the family of three – two adults and an infant – to fulfill their dream. She didn’t anticipate the current price regime.
July 2014 when the US trip first came to mind, an economic class ticket per head on Delta Airline cost about N300, 000. Now the price has doubled. Lufthansa version of the same ticket is pegged at N700, 000. British Airways offers N800, 000 ticket per head, economy class!
One hour later, Makanju left the airport terminal with a smile. In her hands were economic class tickets of Emirate Airline, valued at N635, 000 (for two adults and an infant). The family will fly cheaper but for longer hours (two days) on Lagos-Dubai- Washington route.
Makanju’s travel agent told The Guardian that travelers are beginning to reconsider their preferences since tickets prices went overboard; costing an arm and a leg.
“People going for leisure (like Makanju) are rooting for those Asian and African airlines, though the travels take longer hours but affordable. Even the business travelers are trying to adjust. That is the situation right now,” he said, on condition of anonymity.
Premium carriers, premium hike
There are no fewer than 35 international airlines connecting Nigeria to the rest of the world and about half of them are premium carriers.
They are premium for reasons not unconnected with regal services that they provide for the Nigerian elite class, largely made up of government officials, oil and gas magnates and other wealthy citizens in the ABC class of the society.
Nigerians indeed have high taste and these tasty mega carriers, like British Airways, Delta Air, United, Emirates, Etihad, Lufthansa, KLM and Virgin Atlantic among others, have never been short of patronage come what may.
“The airlines know that there will always be demand, so they can afford to raise the fares anyhow and still meet their targets. If they have serious competition and not dominating our market, they would not be throwing at Nigerians some of the highest prices possible on the African continent,” a keen observer said.
Currently, British Airways, which had previously charged about N350, 000 or less for an economy class, return ticket from Lagos/Abuja to London now charges about N834, 000.
Lagos-London economy class return ticket flight on Virgin Atlantic now goes for about N801, 000 as against N300, 000 some months ago.
Lagos/ Abuja to London, economy class, on Air France or Lufthansa is currently in the neighbourhood of N400, 000. A Business Class ticket now goes for as high as N3m as against the N1.5m a year ago on the Lagos-London route.
On the Lagos-Atlanta and Lagos-Houston routes, Delta Airlines and United Airlines, which used to fly Economy Class passengers for between N270, 000 and N330, 000 some 12 months ago, now render the same service at an average fare of N600, 000.
Difficult business terrain
Yet, it is not all about the ticket fares, because having the money still will not guarantee you a travel ticket.
The Guardian gathered that operators are beginning to frustrate travelers by making booking and payment platforms inaccessible to travelers paying in cash (Naira).
The alternatives that are now advised through the back door are for travelers to pay (dollars) to airline offices or buy the ticket from overseas. With this new development of paying in dollars, Nigerian travelers are paying more through the black market rates.
Through such practices, foreign operators are helping themselves to acquire scarce dollars and not further compound their woes over inability to repatriate ticket sales, currently estimated at $600m.
It would be recalled that the current administration last year unveiled a fiscal policy, through the Central Bank of Nigeria, restricting access to foreign exchange and funds transfer out of the country. It is one policy the airline operators are blaming for the fare hike and “restructuring” that further raised the odds against travelers.
Apparently unable to cope with the current tide, Spanish Airline, Iberia Plc, said it would from May 12, 2016 halt flight operations into and out of Nigeria due to low passenger traffic it has been recording in the past few months.
The airline, in a letter dated April 19, told trade partners that though the decision was hard to take, it could no longer continue on the route due to low patronage.
Although Virgin Atlantic has not stopped flights into Nigeria, it has sacked all Nigerian crew. This is the second foreign airline in about one year that will be citing difficult times as reason for either restructuring or stopping operations.
Meanwhile, stakeholders in the travel industry have faulted the astronomical cost of air tickets by the airlines, especially the foreign carriers even as they described the excuse of forex scarcity as unacceptable.
Describing the situation where taxes that go to the airlines are higher than base fares as unacceptable, the stakeholders have in fact petitioned the Federal Government, through the Ministry of Aviation, to caution the foreign airlines over the alleged sharp practices.
The Publicity Secretary of the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA), Ngozi Ngoka, observed that the cumulative effect of taxes and surcharges by airlines also generated a final price to the passenger that could be as much as double the advertised airfare for a short-haul flight.
Chief Executive Officer, Gadshire Travels, Gbenga Adebayo, said that the arbitrary increment and gap between what is charged in Nigeria and other African countries on the same routes are due to the failure of regulatory authorities to perform their duties.
Flying longer for less through Africa, Asia
Chairman, Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), Nogie Meggison, however, reckoned that the current “unhealthy development” is driven by the biting dollar shortage and elevated black market rates, leaving foreign airlines facing losses on their routes and struggling to acquire foreign exchange for routine and scheduled maintenance.
Meggison said: “Passengers who often will not book Arik or Medview to travel outside the country, may be faced with no option but to travel using these airlines, since the local airlines still collect naira,” he said.
Indeed, Nigerians are beginning to tilt in the direction of African and Asian carriers, except for those with indelible taste for luxury and still able to have their ways around the forex barriers.
Ticket fares of Nigerian flag carriers like Arik and Medview, and those of Etihad, Quatar, Emirates among others have remain stable and it is no surprise that they had higher patronage in March.
A performance index of international airlines for the month of March, released by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), shows that Arik Air, with 234 number of flights, has a total number of 16,285 inbound and 17,009 outbound passengers.
Emirates, with 101 flights operated, had 18,365 inbound passengers and 22,069 out bound passengers. Etihad, even at 20 flights operated, had 13,956 and 14,867 inbound and outbound passengers in that order.
British Air in March operated 66 flights, carrying 11,643 inbound and 11,318 outbound passengers. Delta Air operated 30 flights, conveying 4,817 and 4,293 inbound and out bound passengers respectively.
United Air, at 26 flights, carried 4,480 inbound and 4,802 outbound passengers. Virgin Atlantic, 35 flights, 7,918 inbound and 6,007 outbound passengers. Iberia, 20 flights, 1,328 inbound and 1,714 outbound passengers for the month of March.
Besides the wider frequencies of the likes of Emirate and Etihad, the free transit visa and hospitality the operators are offering in Dubai are proving to be good compensation for the hours spent waiting for the connecting flight.
A travel agent said: “Our customers would usually want direct flights to Europe and America but now very expensive. They would welcome a cheaper alternative reluctantly due to several hours of waiting in transit.
“But they are usually happy to hear that free hotel stay and food will be provided. It is even an opportunity to visit Dubai for free, for those that have not been there and enjoy some tourism without paying extra,” he said.