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Beyond rhetoric in aviation’s customer-care crisis

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[files] Passengers wait in line at the departure terminal of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, in Abuja, Nigeria on September 7, 2020. (Photo by Kola Sulaimon / AFP)

Consumer protection rule book mandates airline operators to make 100 per cent fare refunds after a three-hour delay, and the Federal Government is pushing for its enforcement. But in an industry where regulators face difficulties in recovering billions worth of accumulated debts, there is little hope for unprotected consumers to get a quick refund. Rather than mouth a solution, stakeholders say a more coordinated approach across the board will stem the festering mess in domestic operations. WOLE OYEBADE writes.

Local flight operations can be chaotic, and sometimes bizarre. The latter best describes a scene at Abuja Airport some days ago.

There were about three passengers at the door of Aero Contractors flight to Lagos. They had left the departure lounge only to see the aircraft door shut on them. They went irate and all hell let loose.

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As the video clip showed, one of the travellers kicked at the door, attempting to force it open. Another pounced on an official with squabbles and hot exchanges. None was mindful of the risk of falling off the elevated stairs! Inside the fully packed cabin was not better. It was chaotic everywhere.

Findings later showed that the flight was delayed and overbooked. Eyewitness account said that the airline deployed a smaller aircraft short of already checked-in passengers.

“Staff at the boarding gate failed to explain to checked-in passengers. They waited until the aircraft was filled up before they gave the explanation.

“At that moment, some of the passengers became disruptive. In fact, the boarding gate was closed by FAAN AVSEC, but the passengers including the lady in the video forced the doors open and ran to the foot of the aircraft,” the informant said.

Last Wednesday, Air Peace customers on the Lagos-Abuja flight had a similar experience. The flight originally booked for 10:20 a.m. was rescheduled by nine hours. One of the passengers, Enitan Akinnifesi, only saw the reschedule notice on arrival at the airport.

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“I got to the terminal just before 9 a.m., only to be told that my flight has been moved to 7p.m. Just like that? They don’t even realise that people travel to keep up with appointments. I didn’t take it lightly with them.

“Then their supervisor came to explain that the 10:20 a.m. flight departed much earlier and the next departure was 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. She was apologetic and pledged to get me on the 4 p.m. flight.”

The 4 p.m. flight didn’t depart on schedule. Two hours later (6 p.m.), checked-in passengers were served biscuits and soft drinks. Another three hours later (8:55 p.m.) the 4 p.m. flight took off.

A businessman and regular traveller, Salihu Mohammed, said it was disappointing that local carriers have lost the essence of on-time departure and customer service experience.

“I have been flying domestic in many parts of the world for a long time, but I’m sorry to say, I have not seen any like our operators. They just don’t care. Just when you expect them to get better, they get worse. Take Lagos for instance, once you don’t fly between 6 and 9 a.m., you have no schedule reliability. Is that how to do the business?”

Indeed, the airlines have their excuses that are sometimes force majeure like weather disruptions. It could be low traffic like the case of Air Peace, given the Muslim festivities. Others are operational issues and capacity constraints like the case of Aero Contractors above.

But the customers deserve a better deal in airlines’ schedule planning than has been on offer lately. It was on that basis that the Minister of Aviation recently read the riot act that customers should be entitled to 100 per cent refund after a three-hour delay.

Beyond an iron fist approach, stakeholders say there is need for better enlightenment on rights of customers, better intervention by the consumer protection agency and concerted efforts between the airlines, regulators and service providers towards seamless services.

Silly season in civil aviation
In this age of pandemic, it has been a difficult and slow restart for commercial operators. However, of the 14,662 domestic flights operated in the country in the first quarter of this year, at least 7,554 were delayed. A total of 149 flights were cancelled according to figures released by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA).

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Curiously, only 47 customers complained to the authority. Five of the cases were for lack of courtesy by local operators, 10 cases of over-booking and denied boarding. A total of the 41 complaints were resolved.

The figures share parity with the pre-COVID-19 trend. In 2018 for instance, Q1 recorded a total of 14,633 flights out of which 8,825 were delayed and 208 cancelled.

In 2017, out of the total of 48,319 flights operated by eight local airlines, 30,214 were delayed, while 872 were cancelled.

Apparently flustered by the damning figures and myriad of complaints, the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, recently said consumers have a right to 100 per cent refund for flights delayed beyond three hours.

Delays between 10 p.m. and 4a.m., the carrier shall provide hotel accommodation, refreshment, meal, two free calls, SMS, email and transport to-and-fro airport.

“On domestic flights delayed beyond one hour, the carrier should provide refreshment, and one telephone call, or one SMS, or one e-mail. They should send you an SMS or email or call you to say, ‘I am sorry, I am delaying for one hour’.

“For delays of two hours and beyond, the carrier shall reimburse passengers the full volume of their tickets. Delays between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., the carrier shall provide hotel accommodation, refreshment, meal, two free calls, SMS, email and transport to-and-fro airport.”

The Minister, who said his ministry has started sanctioning some airlines that default on consumer rights, however, urged passengers not to be unruly at airports.

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Director General of the NCAA, Musa Nuhu, noted that before the 2015 amendment to the Nigerian Civil Aviation Regulations, airlines were supposed to pay 100 per cent compensation to passengers after two hours delay, but the regulatory agency amended it to three hours to accommodate the complaints of the indigenous airlines and in a bid to ensure fair play for all.

Nuhu, however, clarified that in case of natural phenomenon, the airlines would not be sanctioned by the agency, describing it as a force majeure.

He added that airlines were given Air Operators’ Certificates (AOCs) based on the fact that they would comply with civil aviation regulations, maintaining that once any of the carriers is found wanting, the agency would not hesitate to sanction such an airline accordingly.

Nuhu regretted that most passengers don’t report to the regulatory agency whenever their rights were trampled upon.

He said, NCAA would soon commence a campaign to educate the travelling public on their rights and the available report channels.

“We will implement the new law to the letter, but if the consumers don’t complain, how can we know? We need to educate the passengers about their rights. All airlines were given AOCs based on the fact that they will comply with the regulations. During our surveillance, if we find out that they don’t comply appropriately, we will sanction them. But, on the issue of force majeure, you can’t sanction them. It is an act of nature and even the law recognises this.”

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The NCAR 2015 Section 19.6.1.1 as amended indicated that for domestic flights, when an operating air carrier reasonably expects a flight to be delayed beyond its scheduled time of departure, it would provide the passengers with reason(s) for the delay within 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time.

Concerted effort, not grandstanding
A top operator told The Guardian in confidence that the refund order would not solve the problem, but cause more chaos and confusion in local travel.

He said flight delays are more often than not caused by factors beyond the airlines.

“I agree with you that on-time departure has massively reduced. However, we must all remember that we are in the rainy season where the weather changes more often and safety rules forbid airlines from taking risks. So, who pays for that? When flights are delayed because of air movement and emergencies, is it also the fault of the airline?

“As the regulator, I cannot question them if I want to remain in business. But let them know that by calling for a blanket refund of airfares, they have further emboldened unruly passengers to attack airline officials,” the operator said.

Aviation consultant, Alex Nwuba, explained that flight delays have been with us since the beginning of time, there seems to be an expanded interest in delays “as if it is something deliberate and can be fully mitigated.”

Nwuba said all the talks about 48-hour refunds seems not to take note of the fact that aviation is a business in which the operators have cash flow management as part of their process.

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“The money from the ticket you purchased was not kept in the bank waiting for you to travel. It was used to fund the numerous and often unrecoverable costs of your trip, trips before and after. Those that have never run a business are attempting to create an environment that will lead to more business failures or at a minimum, difficulty in running airlines. I have often said that talk is nice but the 48-hour rule is unrealistic and perhaps unenforceable because there will be many ways to justify a delay. Even in court, it may not be enforceable.”

He warned against making unenforceable laws that will lead to worse situations.

“We must not get carried away by the infrequent delays in normal refunds that are clearly also challenges with cash-flow and in many cases with airlines facing severe cash-flow challenges and business sustainability issues. We are making regulations for unusual matters, which damage even the usual cases that can be considered the norm of business.

“Policy and rule-making require robust consultation and deep reflection; too often our policies are spontaneous and lacking in the robust thinking that is required to grow things, business, the economy, jobs and industries. If the soil looks dry and you water the plant and it is desert specific, you will surely kill the plant from overwatering. I think we should face the real difficulties of the industry to grow, create and preserve jobs, while ensuring a pleasurable experience for the users,” Nwuba said.

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