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Yuletide demand spikes airfares by 200% amid haze disruptions, delays

By Wole Oyebade
20 December 2021   |   3:50 am
Nigerians travelling by air this season is in for one of the most expensive pricing regimes in local airfares, but without corresponding value for money or customer satisfaction...

Passengers at Lagos airport (MM2) yesterday. PHOTO: AYODELE ADENIRAN

Economy tickets sell at N100,000 on average
• Consumer satisfaction tumbles as travellers suffer without protection
• NCAA alerts pilots, crew to poor visibility, safety precautions
• We have low capacity to meet demand surge, operators confess

Nigerians travelling by air this season are in for one of the most expensive pricing regimes in local airfares, but without corresponding value for money or customer satisfaction.

 
While airfares offered by the local operators have twice doubled and cost an average of N100,000 for less than an hour flight, the number of flight delays has also hit a frustrating threshold with travellers left to lament and weep at the airport terminals without succour.
 
Conspicuously missing in the confusion is the consumer protection department of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC), two agencies mandated to enforce the rights of consumers and mete sanctions to airlines for deterrence.
 
The apex regulator, NCAA, at the weekend warned pilots and crew to be wary of the poor visibility and exercise maximum restraint in accordance with safety rules.
 
Local airlines, though apologised for situations beyond their control, gave assurance of doing everything possible to ease air transport services as the festive peak period beckons.
 
Indeed, local aviation recorded marginal growth this year with two new airlines bringing the toll of scheduled carriers to 11. Conversely, an increase in fleet capacity and wider route coverage has not lowered airfares; rather, it ballooned it.
 
A survey of the current airfares showed a slightly varying price range across the airlines and routes. On average, Economy Class one-way tickets on all routes, subject to seat availability, that was earlier sold for N33,000 were on the airlines’ platform quoted between N42,000 and N118,500 as of yesterday.
 
Over the counter of agencies, it ranges between N71,000 and N121,000. Return tickets for the same class averaged N140,000 on online sales platforms. The one-way Business Class ticket was offered for an average of N135,000, also subject to seat availability.
 
For instance, an Arik Air Lagos-Sokoto Economy flight ticket that used to sell for N42,000 went for between N76,800 to N106,800 on the airline’s official platform.  Its Lagos-Port Harcourt corridor was quoted at N68,000. Lagos-Warri cost an average of N75,000 on a one-way trip. Air Peace future flights into the south range between N42,000 to N60,000, with a tendency of spiral effect as the travel date and festivities approach.
 
A travel agent, Olaolu Adams, said the industry is already in a “festive mood” with airlines raising fares on few available seats.
 
“The major carrier, Air Peace, is calling the shots and others are following. Full Economy on Air Peace that sold for about N54,000 last week is now N81,000. Other airlines will give the same ticket between N74,000 and N78,000. It is the laws of demand and supply, which is often on the demand end at this period of the year.
 
“With insecurity, kidnappings and the likes, many Nigerians going to Southeast are bound to travel by air. Most flights from 19th (yesterday) upwards are already fully booked. The few ones available are offered to the highest bidder. Except airlines create more flights, we will continue to have scarcity and ridiculously expensive airfares,” Adams said.
 
The Chief Operating Officer of one of the local carriers said they were not averse to adding as many flights to meet demand, but for the low capacity facing the local airlines.
 
He said despite the foreign exchange liquidity crisis that has made mandatory maintenance hectic for all carriers, the 2020 global lockdown still has a telling effect on operating capacity.
 
“The truth is that many of our airlines still have airplanes either stuck overseas or on the ground. That is a serious challenge no one should overlook. The push-in demand is the right motivation for us to recover unserviceable aircraft and bring them back into operations,” he said.
 
Indeed, operators have been seeking alternatives to shore up the fleet deficit. For instance, Air Peace, with 20 domestic routes to service, recently took delivery of two leased Airbus 320s to boost its operations. The equipment came in as the airline also brought in the fifth of its brand new Embraer 195-E2 aircraft, bringing its current fleet capacity to about 33 airplanes.
 

Indigenous carrier, United Nigeria Airlines (UNA), has also acquired a new Airbus 320 aircraft to further boost its fleet and expand its route network, bringing the airline’s fleet capacity to eight. The aircraft would be deployed to Lagos, Owerri, Asaba and Enugu route operations this season.
 
By the Nigerian Civil Aviation Regulations (Nig. CARs), airfare pricing has been deregulated and is subject to cost analysis of the operating carrier. The caveat, however, is that a carrier that may wish to change rates should intimate the Directorate of Air Transport Regulation (DATR) of the NCAA with a cost analysis of the new pricing. As at press time, there is no confirmation of airlines intimating the NCAA of the new pricing regime.
 
Travel specialist and Chairman of the Airlines Joint Passenger Committee of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Bankole Bernard, said it was most disappointing that the industry was fast becoming lawless, with no form of engagement between the operators and regulators, nor protection for the consumers.
 
Bernard, who had his Akure-Lagos flight delayed for six hours without an apology recently, said the regulatory authorities have consistently indulged excesses of the operators “like they are beyond control”.  
 
Consistent decline in scheduled reliability of the local operators worries Bernard and many others that depend on air travel to get by.  
 
For instance, 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 NCAA.
 

Curiously, only 47 customers complained to the authority. Five of the cases were on discourtesy by local operators, 10 cases of overbooking and denied boarding. A total of the 41 complaints were resolved. 
 
In 2019 alone, the NCAA recorded 65,401 flights, of which 37,510 (about 57 per cent) were delayed and 356 cancelled.
 
Apparently angered 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 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.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’.
 
“Delay for two hours and beyond, the carrier shall reimburse passengers the full volume of their tickets. Delay 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.”
 
Findings, however, showed that none of the rules has been implemented, though with the NCAA insisting on not getting most of the complaints formally.
 
The NCAA, at the weekend, noted that delays and cancellations were inevitable where safety on account of weather disruption could not be guaranteed.
 
Director-General of the NCAA, Capt. Musa Nuhu, in a circular to pilots and airline operators, stated that moderate to severe dust haze, early morning fog especially along the coastal areas, which in some instances can reduce horizontal visibility to less than 200 meters are expected during the period of November 2021 to March 2022.
 
Nuhu added that with air-to-ground visibility reduction due to dust haze or fog, aerodrome visibility may fall below the prescribed operating minima and in severe conditions, dust haze can blot out runways, markers and airfield lighting over wide areas making visual navigation extremely difficult or impossible.
 
In this circumstance, “flights are bound to be delayed, diverted or cancelled where terminal visibility falls below the prescribed aerodrome operating minima. Operators shall ensure that necessary measures are put in place to cushion the effects of flight delay or cancellations on their passengers,” the circular read in part.
 
Former Commandant of the Lagos Airport and aviation security consultant, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), said airlines might be excused on the airfare spike, as they are for once charging the right fares that are commensurate with economic realities.
 
Ojikutu recalled that from the 1990s to date, exchange rates had spiked several times without airlines changing ticket fares. He said it was no surprise that the airlines continued to struggle, owing service providers and regulatory agencies deductions of five per cent Ticket Sales Charge (TSC) and Passenger Services Charge (PSC), just to stay afloat.
 
But on incessant delays and flight cancellations, Ojikutu flayed the regulators for mediocre 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 (recently) 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 NCAA to withhold its AOC).
 
“The minister just recently said to the public the various sanctions against each airline for certain levels of delays hourly. But, these are what one would hear in other climes from the responsible civil aviation authority. I am still wondering if the NCAA is now a department of the ministry that has lost its powers as contained in the 2006 establishment Act. What I expect to be happening is for air travellers to begin to sue the airlines and the NCAA, to enforce their Constitutional and the Consumers’ Protection Rights,” Ojikutu said.
 
Assistant Secretary of the Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative (ASRTI), Olumide Ohunayo, reckoned that the travelling public should go beyond complaining, rather, they should make formal complaints to the authorities and demand sanctions for erring operators.
 
“It is not enough to complain on WhatsApp platform or send viral videos on how badly they have been treated. The formal approach is to make a report at the NCAA’s Consumer Protection desk at the airport. It is only the incidents that they know of that the NCAA will act on. We should not be tired of reporting.
 
“The lasting solution is that as aircraft are coming in, the operators must begin to work on their schedule integrity, which is very poor on the part of Nigerian airlines. The NCAA should also do monthly statistical data of flight operations and schedule reliability. They should put that in the public domain for consumers to know airlines that respect their schedule and those that do not.
 
“Secondly, the airlines should also begin to look at those things ASRTI has pushed for, in terms of commercial negotiation or a central clearing house such that if passengers are stranded, they can simply use the ticket on another available airline that will also get the revenue. As an operator, when you begin to lose your passengers and revenue to your competitor, then you will start taking your schedule reliability seriously,” Ohunayo said.

 

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