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Turbulence for operators as dissatisfied passengers go unruly

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Stranded passenger at Abuja airport recently

Air passengers in Nigeria are resorting to self-help to ‘deal’ with operators that allegedly take them for granted. But on the line too is aviation security and safety of all. WOLE OYEBADE writes.

Terminals at major airports around the world are used to cases of unruly passengers over-stepping their bounds. But similar incidences in the last one week in Nigeria appear to have assumed a new dimension and a cause for worry.

General Aviation Terminal (GAT) at Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, was a beehive of confusion and chaos last Sunday. The section occupied by Air Peace had everything in place by a semblance of peace.

Inside the crowded departure lounge, an official of the airlines was already on the floor writhing in pains. He had been rammed into a concrete pillar in a brawl. His colleague got a punch that staggered him too. The second blow was a knockout. Standing over both victims was an irate passenger that was apparently not done.

“I will teach you people lesson today,” the middle-aged man roared at other helpless workers in sight. “What nonsense! You took my money for services you will not render and you are telling me to cool down?

“I give you just 30 minutes, otherwise you will see how I will deal with all of you today,” he said to the approval of other waiting passengers.

The sin of the airlines was to have delayed a Lagos-Uyo 2pm flight till 5:40pm. And according to Air Peace, notices were sent 24 hours earlier to all affected passengers. The combatant passenger, who claimed to be retired police superintendent, would not hear any excuse.

At the recently reopened Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja, a similar faceoff was recorded just two days earlier. It was Air Peace and its passengers as well.

According to reports, angry air traveller pounced on the airlines’ duty manager and his team, beating them black and blue following an announcement that their much-awaited Abuja-Benin flight had been cancelled.

In the attack that ensued, The Guardian learnt that the manager was stripped naked, facility of the airline damaged, even as irate passengers poured to the prohibited airside to obstruct other airlines from taken off in protest.

An eyewitness of the Abuja attack, Eniola Akinsiku, relayed that tempers flared when Air Peace announced the cancellation of a 2pm flight at around 9pm.

According to Akinsiku, “Passengers considered it an affront to be so treated shabbily. It means they just don’t care and the people said enough is enough. I felt the same way too. If your plane has a problem and not coming, you don’t wait till midnight to announce it. How do you expect people to react when you have just ruined all their plans?

“Personally, I don’t support violence, but our airlines are used to taking us for a ride, with no one to put them in check. That is why passengers are taking it upon themselves to fight for their rights,” she said.

Low confidence in the air
Fact is that local airlines in the country have been having it quite rough and turbulent in the sky, giving little or confidence to the flying public. If it is not issues with efficient services, it is about safety in the air.

Just last week, an Aero Contractors plane bellowed smoke into the cabin mid-air. Two days later, Dana Air plane had bird strike at take off point. Med-View plane had earlier developed fault also mid-way into a trip. In these instances, on-board passengers later took to social media to narrate how they “cheated death”, without sparing operators and regulators rain of abuses over sham services.

Arik Air had the largest fleet in west and central Africa until it recently went from 28 aircraft to nine and with debt burden in excess of N387 billion. Air Peace that has since stepped into the shoes of Arik Air, commanding the biggest share of passenger traffic, successful made waves until the events of last weekend.

It was gathered that the winglet of one of Air Peace plane in error clipped the wing of another aircraft at the ramp of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, rendering the two Air Peace aircraft unserviceable.

Similarly, a truck operated by SAHCOL ground handling company allegedly rammed into another of Air Peace aircraft at the Benin Airport and rendered it unserviceable. It was three out of 10 aircraft grounded within the spate of 18 hours. At stake were about 24 flights that had to be absorbed into the tight schedule.

Corporate Communications Manager of Air Peace, Chris Iwarah, explained that the issues of three unserviceable aircraft affected the whole of their operations and it was duly communicated to all affected passengers.

Iwarah, however, regretted the “violent conduct and attack” by some unruly passengers in Abuja, Lagos and Calabar, while “security agents failed to halt the trend of members of the public invading airport facilities to attack airline workers.”
Hiding under the veil of ‘operational reasons’

Quite disturbing for a passenger is to be delayed for hours without good explanation than “operational reasons” from their airlines.

According to experts, a lot comes under the term ‘operational reasons’, which include bad weather, fuel scarcity, technical issues, late arrival of operating aircraft and so on that passengers don’t get to know.

Chief Operating Officer of one of the airlines explained that airlines do not deliberately keep the travelling public in the dark when there are issues. According to him, “it is the regulator’s instruction to announce ‘operational reasons’ whenever one issue or the other causes a temporary delay.”

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Air Peace, Allen Onyema, didn’t absorb his airline and others from the blames. Onyema, however, described the faults as fallouts of rather harsh business environment that has made it almost impossible for any airline to survive.

He recalled that the lifespan of most airline in the country is five years, while only eight are still in operation out of about 150 Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) registered in the last 17 years.

He said the mortality rate is abysmally high because of a pot pourri of factors and the latest of which is the impatience and passengers’ unruly conduct.

While he regretted that Air Peace in the last couple of days “disappointed” its loyal customers and Nigerians, the CEO said the situation was just temporary and should not warrant a breakdown of law and order.

The imperative of caution
He added that the current trend where unruly passengers are taking the laws into their own hands; invading airside, attacking innocent officials and destroying facilities will further expose the sector to security risks.

According to him, “Our dear passengers too must know that officials are other peoples’ husbands, wives and children and should be treated accordingly. Passengers encroaching airside and blocking aircraft is an aviation risk besides the ripple effects of flight delays across the country.

“There is no doubt that we have issues and we are not shielding ourselves from blames. But we all need to be patient to put things right. We will someday get there,” Onyema said.

He urged the Federal Government to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol at terminals, citing that most unruly passengers were under the influence of alcohol.

Spokesperson of the NCAA, Sam Adurogboye, said the development was quite unfortunate and amounts to unruly behaviour, which is a violation under aviation regulations.

Adurogboye added that flight delays or cancellation is not an excuse for anyone to molest or invade prohibited areas like the airside.

In ideal situation, he said, such unruly persons should be arrested by Aviation Security of Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and handed over to the police for prosecution.

“I see no reason why Air Peace or any airline should be sounding helpless in such situation. The circumstance is not lawless and that is why the appropriate authorities are there to ensure law and order,” he said.



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