NCAA and foreign airlines’ contempt for Nigeria
There is a sense in which a Federal Government’s recent vow not to allow foreign airlines to treat Nigerians with contempt can be regarded as one of those tongue-in-cheek statements by the authorities. We think so because the evidence is to the contrary, as several foreign airlines and beneficiaries of our robust market have literally assumed serial scorn for our travelling public.
However, if the country as a whole must regain its deserved respect in the international aviation community, then the sleepy Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) especially, must wake up to its regulatory duties and drive a fair competitive system that puts the Nigerian travelling public first in bilateral pacts.
Ever since the Chicago Convention was signed in 1944, countries across the globe have been entering Bilateral Air Service Agreements (BASA) to enhance connectivity. BASA aims to guide and facilitate commercial air transport operations for mutual benefits through the reciprocity of flight operations across both ends. Nigeria, as at the last check, has racked up over 100 of such agreements. But without a national carrier or strong representation by the local flag carriers, Nigeria reciprocates an average of five out of the 30 countries that fly aircraft daily in and out of Nigeria.
Indeed, bilateral agreements are stringent commercial rules mainly to guarantee safety, security, business sustainability, and full value for customers. Perhaps with the admixture of international aero politics in many countries, the pact has become a no-nonsense path: you either comply with all the rules or you drop off the sky.
Such has been the experience of Nigerian airlines abroad. Med-View Airline Plc, for instance, had barely completed the launch of Lagos-London operations when the capacity gaps and embarrassments of stranded passengers at London Gatwick Airport began to surface. It didn’t take too long before the flag carrier was banned, not only in the United Kingdom but in the entire European Union (EU) airspace over alleged safety and sustainability concerns. It is noteworthy that the singular episode took enormous wind out of the airline’s sail. Med-View has lately stopped all regional and domestic operations, putting shareholders’ funds in jeopardy.
But for strange reasons, the NCAA has neither taken a firm stand against similar infractions by foreign carriers nor risen in defence of Nigerian flag carrier and the flying public abroad. By the enabling Act, the NCAA is the apex regulatory body of all operators and service providers, coupled with the safety, financial and economic regulations of the relevant airlines. But on the contrary, the apex regulator was never bothered when the foreign carriers deployed some of their worst and almost rickety aircraft only on Nigerian routes. Regular travellers can tell that it is always a new-world of customer-experience and satisfaction travelling from a foreign carrier’s hub to a point beyond than inward or outward Nigeria.
Granted that the Nigerian airspace is a high-risk environment due to security red flags, with higher insurance premiums often placed on designated aircraft. But the airlines’ flagrant disdain for Nigeria runs deeper. Sometime ago, the Delta Airlines A330-200 airplane made an emergency air return to Lagos over contained fire outbreak in one of its engines shortly after takeoff for Atlanta. Despite injuries to some passengers, the airline only reported the serious incident to U.S. and not to Nigeria – the country of occurrence – contrary to the international civil aviation rules.
The Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) Nigeria had to threaten the crew and prevent access to the aircraft before a Delta six-man team flew in to apologise to Nigeria and submit to local investigators. Overall, it smacks of gross hypocrisy that the system that prides itself as the custodian of global best practice and regularly audits Lagos and Abuja airport for U.S. airlines can afford to violate extant rules overseas, right on the watch of our NCAA.
It should, therefore, surprise no one that airlines like Turkish Airline, Emirates, Royal Air Maroc, Saudi Air, Egypt Air among others, would continue to commit infractions without penalties. Besides flagrant delays, some of these airlines often overbook passengers and their luggage without the right capacity, and later blame Nigerians for having excess baggage. Such pushbacks are insulting given that these airlines had heavily charged and received fees for the excess luggage.
It also amounts to gross disrespect for customers, who only arrive in Lagos, Abuja or Port Harcourt to discover that their checked-in baggage is still left behind at the hub without plans whatsoever to deliver them soon. A recent factsheet by the Consumer Protection Department of the NCAA showed that flight delays and baggage issues are in excess of 50 per cent, which is unacceptable by any standard. The Turkish Airline’s case lately jolted the docile NCAA’s interest because it went overboard by 85 per cent, especially at the peak festive season.
Lest we forget, the Nigerian market has a huge significance in the global aviation community, which no one should undermine or treat with levity. The Lagos route alone is one of the most lucrative worldwide. The Virgin Atlantic CEO, Shai Weiss, said as much during his visit to Lagos last December. After all, where in the world is there a population of 200 million happy-go-lucky people with penchant for air travel? Where in the world do 32 foreign carriers freely feast daily without corresponding competition or drive for reciprocity by their colonised host market?
For a fact, the Nigerian market yearly contributes $3 billion to these foreign economies, says the Airlines Operators of Nigeria (AON). Local travel agencies, who should know, estimated a whopping N525 billion in ticket sales in 2018, and has even grown by about 10 per cent in 2019. Turkish Airlines, and company, knows the implication of being suspended from Nigeria, which elicited the 360-degree turnaround and switch to the more appropriate aircraft size within 24 hours of NCAA’s threat.
While our authorities have stayed too long in bed with these foreign carriers, the paying Nigerian public deserves better deals. It is the sole responsibility of an autonomous NCAA to see to this. Thankfully, there is a change of leadership at the top of the NCAA. It is only expected that the in-coming Director-General will stay awake to his duties and enforce our deserved respect both in value for money and competition for our economic benefit.
As a matter of economic importance, the Ministry of Aviation and NCAA should drive competition and reciprocity as against the so-called revenue-drive that has become the lame excuse for obnoxious multiple destinations given to foreign airlines. It is unacceptable that foreign airlines now run shadow local operations under the guise of Fifth Freedom Right. A foreign airline once ran Kigali-Lagos-Abuja-Lagos-Kigali flight, contrary to the international and domestic rules. Ethiopian airlines daily run four or five destinations to Nigeria, without any from Nigerian airlines to Addis Ababa. With such gross complicity and sheer rape of the local market, can the local airlines grow or foreign airlines respect us? It is no longer sufficient to say that local airlines are weak. The NCAA has a duty to protect them from stronger foreign carriers and support their growth.
To complement the foregoing, officials of the Consumer Protection Department of the NCAA must go beyond lounging in airport cubicles to paying proactive attention to statistical feedbacks from Nigerian travellers. The truth is that the majority of Nigerian air travellers are not happy for all manner of reasons. The overriding Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC) must as well pay keen attention to the aviation sector and enforce its provisions – at least to tell both local and foreign airlines that the system values its people and not a jungle.
On the whole, our government and regulators alike must remember that bilateral trade (agreement) is a voluntary marriage of convenience between two parties with applicable terms and conditions. Once the benefits are no longer mutual or rule convenient, then it is time for a comprehensive review or a divorce.