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Air travellers stranded as NAHCO workers down tools over ‘poor’ pay

By Wole Oyebade
24 January 2023   |   4:15 am
It was complete chaos, yesterday, at the local and international airport terminals nationwide, as a section of aviation ground handlers embarked on industrial action in protest against alleged poor pay, which began exactly 12midnight.

International air travellers checking-in at Lagos Airport after over six-hour delay due to industrial action by NAHCO workers yesterday (Inset: Stranded passengers at the entrance of new international terminal in Lagos)…yesterday. PHOTO: WOLE OYEBADE

• British Airways, Ethiopia, Virgin, Qatar, EgyptAir, others grounded for 15 hours
• Aero Contractors, Air Peace cancel multiple flights, estimate N500m losses
• Protesting workers breach court order, says management

It was complete chaos, yesterday, at the local and international airport terminals nationwide, as a section of aviation ground handlers embarked on industrial action in protest against alleged poor pay, which began exactly 12midnight.

 
And for 15 hours that workers of the Nigerian Aviation Handling Company Plc (NAHCO Aviance) refused duty postings, all customer airlines – foreign and local – were either grounded or returned to base, leaving booked passengers stranded in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano.
 
In Lagos, where the pandemonium was felt the most, hordes of local and international passengers that thronged the busy airport as early as 5:30a.m., met the booking counters deserted and without prior warning.
 
By 9:00a.m., The Guardian learnt that the departure halls of Murtala Muhammed International Airports (MMIA) were already packed, forcing officials to shut entrance gates to avert breakdown of law and order in the terminal. By 12noon, many travellers had gone restless over getting little or no explanation of what was going on.
  
The Guardian learnt that beginning from 12midnight Monday, workers of the ground handling company made good their threats to embark on strike to register their displeasure over welfare issues.
 
The aggrieved workers, under the aegis of National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE) and Air Transport Senior Staff Services Association of Nigeria (ATSSSAN) had earlier issued a five-day notice of strike to NAHCO management, citing slow progress in negotiation for salary review.
 
The workers had requested for as much as 100 per cent increment in pay following the general upward review of ground handling changes in the sector. NAHCO management, it was learnt, had approached the court to stop the industrial action.
 
Unswayed by the position of the court, the workers withdrew services leaving both travellers and airlines stranded. The Guardian observed that all airlines on the morning belt were affected and the Lagos airport bedlam continued until 3:00p.m. when the industrial action was suspended.
   
Airlines on the morning schedule, like Qatar Airlines, Royal Air Maroc, and RwandAir either diverted arriving flights to neighbouring countries or returned passengers to base. Qatar on arriving Lagos had to immediately return to Doha. Air Maroc diverted to Cotonou.
 
British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Ethiopia Airlines, EgyptAir, Asky and Air Peace only began international passenger check-in at past 3:00p.m, after hours of delay.
 
A Qatar-based engineer, Lawal Opeyemi, and his family of six were seen napping at the entrance floor of the new international terminal. Opeyemi said they had been at the airport since 8:30a.m. for a 3:35p.m. flight to Doha.
 
“We got here early to avoid delay that may be caused by the President’s visit to Lagos only to be told that NAHCO workers are on strike without any prior information or email. We have since been stranded here with no single airline staff to address us as human beings and customers. This is only possible in Nigeria.”

Opeyemi later learnt that the flight had been rescheduled for 3:30a.m. (Tuesday).   The situation was not any different at the domestic terminals in Lagos, as all flights for the day were delayed, though for various reasons.

Due to the strike action, Aero Contractors cancelled its Lagos-Calabar flight and delayed 6:45a.m Abuja flight till 4:10p.m. Air Peace airline also cancelled its Lagos-Akure and Lagos-Warri flights. As at the time of visit to the MMA2 terminal, Air Peace Lagos-Uyo 7:00a.m. flight was just boarding at 2:00p.m.
 
Air Peace management regretted the disruption, saying the airline lost about N500 million to the disruption. The airline, in a statement, said: “Neither NAHCO nor the striking union informed us of an impending strike. Our staff reported to work and noticed an ongoing industrial action. If we were informed beforehand, we would have conveyed the same to our passengers early enough.
 
“Now, all morning flights and other subsequent flights have been disrupted – cancelled, delayed and rescheduled. This has cost us over N500 million as we operate over 100 flights daily. Passengers are also attacking our ground staff as they cannot fly.”
 
The management of NAHCO had earlier blamed the protesting workers for the breach of court order and economic sabotage of the air transport sector.
Group Executive Director, Dr. Olusola Obabori, regretted the inconveniences, with assurance that the dispute would soon be resolved.  
 
He said: “We understand the power of negotiation. The company, which has arguably the best welfare package among the local players in the aviation industry, will do all that is absolutely necessary to make its workforce happy even as it delights its customers.”

 
Following a truce meeting at the behest of regulatory authorities, the workers and NAHCO management agreed to immediately suspend the strike and resume work immediately.
 
In a communique at the end of the meeting, the parties also agreed that NAHCO management would withdraw the suit it instituted at the National Industrial Court (NIC) against the unions; negotiations on staff welfare will resume on Wednesday, January 25 and be concluded within the week; and that no staff would be victimised because of participation in the strike action.
 
Obabori expressed appreciation of the company to its clients, who “showed understanding with NAHCO during the period of the strike action and to the passengers who were inconvenienced by the strike action.”
 
He expressed readiness of the company to provide excellent customer experience to its clients and delight them continually, pointing out that both staff and management are key stakeholders in the bigger picture.
 
A director in NAHCO said the company could not be made liable for any liability claims for the disruption.

“This is actually a force majeure and all global airlines understand that bad days do happen. It is only here that some operators will quickly add up losses just like that. In other parts of the world that are even more organised than we are, their workers do go on strike over industrial disputes. This is not any different,” he said.

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