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Legal hurdles await local airlines as unhappy customers pushback

By Wole Oyebade
11 February 2022   |   2:09 am
Local airlines may be in for hard times and an uncertain future as more customers are heading to the law court to demand huge compensations for alleged abuses in the sector.

•Operators seek better awareness of safe flight operations

Local airlines may be in for hard times and an uncertain future as more customers are heading to the law court to demand huge compensations for alleged abuses in the sector.

The travelling public that had for so long bottled-up complaints are letting out on flight delays, cancellations and other alleged rights violations, but in a manner that will severely hurt the beleaguered operators.

The operators though regretted the frosty relationship; they said aggrieved passengers would have reacted positively, if they understood the processes of safe flight operations.

Globally, civil aviation is a high-end and complex business set up that statutorily tries to avoid legal fireworks and its distractions. To this end, international protocol provides for internal dispute resolution mechanisms, especially between the operator and consumers, through the consumer protection department and complaint desks at airports.

The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) seem to have more complaint desks at airports than the number of customer grievances ever resolved. Unimpressed by the laidback disposition of regulators, dissatisfied travellers are seeking legal alternative.

This week, a civil society organisation, Disability Rights Protection Initiative, sued Dana Air Limited at the Federal High Court, Enugu, over alleged discrimination against a physically challenged passenger, Gloria Nwogbo.

The group is demanding N550 million as compensation for refusing and denying Nwogbo from boarding their airline on the grounds that she was disabled, describing the action as “inhuman, degrading and discriminatory.”

Earlier, a lawyer, Emeka Ugwuonye, declared a mission to sue Air Peace airline over seven hours of flight delay. Ugwonye demanded compensation after accusing the airline of delaying his flight, which was scheduled for 4:25 pm until 11:43 pm. He said eventually, his flight arrived in Lagos from Abuja by 12:33am after his flight was rescheduled about four times.

The lawyer narrated: “By 10:00pm, they announced that the flight had been moved again to 11 pm. Finally, the 4:25 pm flight took off by 11:43 pm and we arrived in Lagos by 12:33 am. I spent over an hour at the airport trying to find my luggage where the airline kept it. I went through an ordeal to get home by 3: 00am.

“When I sat back and analysed what happened, I saw a vicious airline operator that has total disregard for Nigerians and which could toy with my life and which put me through extreme pain and suffering. I became convinced that unless I drag Air Peace through the courts, it will continue in such vicious and abusive conduct. I have, therefore, directed our lawyers to start the process of suing Air Peace for damages. I believe this action will be in the public interest,” the lawyer said.

In November, some members of the House of Representatives tabled a N5 billion suit against Azman Air Services Limited over flight delays.

The lawmakers and other passengers were stranded at the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport in Kano on September 22 on their way to Abuja. The flight was reportedly delayed from 12:30pm till 2:30pm, then 6pm, and again shifted to 9:45pm. The lawmakers eventually said they were told that they would leave by 12:15am on September 23.

In the suit dated November 1 and marked CV/2884/2021, filed before a federal high court in Abuja by Nkemakolam Okoro, their counsel, the claimants said the negligence of Azman airline subjected them to “psychological and emotional trauma, public embarrassment” and loss of legislative hour.

But the operators saw the matter differently, seeking better understanding from the litigants. The management of Air Peace, in a reaction, reiterated that no airline benefits from flight delays or cancellations of scheduled flights.

The airline explained that flights are delayed as a result of many factors beyond the control of the airline and this includes bad weather and sudden aircraft malfunctioning.

“On the day in question (in Ugwonye’s case), we had bad weather that led to diversion of flights and sudden aircraft breakdown during and in the middle of operations. We had flight delays in Sokoto, Akure, Ibadan and Kano caused by bad weather. These factors led to multiple delays and outright cancellations never wished by the Airline. It happens all over the world.

“We will never endanger the lives of our innocent passengers and our staff by flying an aircraft that suddenly develops snags or flies when the weather is adjudged unsafe just to avoid deliberate negative publicity. We would rather go out of business peacefully than to have blood in our hands. Yet, we are still sorry for every inconvenience caused to any of our passengers as a result of delayed operations. Those delays are always borne out of safety considerations more than anything else,” the airline stated in part.

Chairman of United Nigeria Airline, Dr. Obiora Okonkwo, said that the airlines are operating within a very stringent operating protocol that even the travelling public need to understand for better relations.

Okonkwo said the sector has recorded one-too-many hostilities from the customers due to poor knowledge of what it takes to operate safely.

“People are always too quick to say that it (delay) does not happen in the U.S. or UK. I have personally experienced 10 hours of flight delay in the U.S. where I got only a bottle of water for the trouble. When a scheduled aircraft is not in the air, it means something has happened. We need better understanding to put an end to cases of passengers beating up airlines’ staffers and obstructing departure of passengers on other routes in protest,” he said.

Okonkwo added that besides weather and snag constraints, the local authorities should improve airport infrastructure to cope with traffic demand.

Aviation enthusiast and lawyer, Olamipo Akinnifesi, however, said that the legal option was a healthy development to bring some sanity into the air travel sector.

Akinnifesi said though some of the cases might not have a happy ending for either of the parties, it would demonstrate that incessant violations of rights are justiciable.

“I have seen cases of unruly passengers taking the law into their own hands in protest against shabby treatments by airline staffers. Some of them saw that as the only way to get back at the operator. With legal redresses, not minding the length of time involved, more people will legally push for their rights and force the airlines to behave as corporate entity and not as danfo operators. I see it as positive development,” he said.

Former commandant of the Lagos Airport and aviation security consultant, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), flayed the regulators for poor oversight of their core responsibility to the travelling public.

“First, which of the economic regulations of Nig. CARs has the NCAA been able to effectively apply? I begin to wonder why the National Assembly went to court to challenge the delay or cancellation of their flight by Azman Air instead of telling the NCAA to cancel the airline’s Air Operating Certificate (AOC) as they did in the case of the NG Eagle (ordering the NCAA to withhold its AOC).

“The lawsuit is another way to go if the NCAA, especially its consumers’ protection department, is not seeing it as its responsibility to protect customers. I hope the customers would remember to sue the NCAA along to bring the seriousness to bear on the civil aviation authority,” Ojikutu said.

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