By Louis Ibah
Airlines in Nigeria are now operating under very frightening or intimidating conditions, no thanks to the country’s poor aviation security and regulatory institutions.
They have failed to stem the rise in passenger attacks on airline staff and assets within the country’s airports’ terminals in recent months.
“No businessman can operate successfully under a condition where his employees have to be molested anyhow without adequate protection as we now see at Nigerian airports,” said Managing Director/CEO of Air Peace, Mr. Allen Onyema. “These are some other people’s children, husbands, brothers, and uncles, and they are above all, human beings. It should stop before it gets to a situation where we begin to think of self-defence,” he added.
Michael Obu, a passenger who spoke with Daily Sun at the Lagos airport acknowledged that there has been a rise in passenger abuse of airport workers and he described it “as very disturbing.”
Said Obu: “Few years ago, say about six years ago, you could count the number of incidences where you witness a passenger verbally insulting or shouting at an airline or airport worker for whatever reasons. I am a businessman and a regular flyer; I shuttle between Lagos – Port Harcourt – Abuja – Kano, and I can say it was even a very rare sight to see a passenger beat up an airport or airline worker; I can’t recollect witnessing any even up to 2011.
“But in the last two years, things appear to have degenerated; there is hardly any day I go to the airport to fly that I don’t witness an incident where passengers are either quarrelling on top of their voices with airline staff for one reason or another. And I have also witnessed passengers physically assaulting airline staff. It is now a common sight, but it is also a very disturbing trend because this assault could go on for hours and you don’t notice any timely or prompt intervention of the security personnel stationed at the airports,” Obu added.
Causes of passengers’ rage
In the last one year, four airlines – Arik Air, Air Peace, Medview, and Turkish Airlines – have openly come out to report the assault of their staff and destruction of their properties by unruly passengers. Going by the spate of passengers’ attack on airline staff, one would be forced to conclude that Nigerian passengers are sick or deranged, but that is not the case as explained by one passenger who simply identified himself as Noah.
“It is the airline or the staff at the counter that provokes the passenger and I speak from experience,” said Noah whom Daily Sun caught up with quarrelling at the counter of one of the airlines at the Lagos airport.
“This sort of thing where you book a flight for 7.30am because you have an important business meeting somewhere to preside over or even a wedding or burial by 10am and you leave your house to go to an airport before 5.30am for a 7.30am flight only to be told that the flight has been rescheduled to 10am, and from 10am it is moved to 12noon, and from there to 4pm, is capable of making any sane person go crazy,” said Noah.
“I want to go to Owerri from Lagos and they will say the flight has been delayed for technical reasons; what are technical reasons? That same airline that says technical reason for Lagos – Owerri will board Lagos – Abuja, and Lagos – Port Harcourt, and they expect you to take their technical reasons as excuse to wait from 7.30am to 4pm. It is unfair and it is capable of instigating unrest because most times the airlines are playing pranks on passengers by not coming out to tell the truth,” Naoh said.
Why flight delays, cancellations
The surge in passenger attacks on airline workers has been linked to frustrations from poor service delivery, especially impromptu cancellations or delays of scheduled flights by commercial airlines, which come with unexpected alteration of passengers’ plans and projections for the day.
Without doubt, Nigerian airlines, owing to a combination of factors, have become very guilty of frequent cancellation or rescheduling of flights, most times, without explanations that are logical and convincing to the passengers. And neither do they care to make available any form of compensation to the affected passengers.
Smooth flight operations have been severely hampered in Nigeria in recent years owing to a lot of factors, says Nogie Meggison, President of the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON). Meggison listed such factors to include the fewer number of aircraft in the fleet of existing airlines, the scarcity and exorbitant cost of aviation fuel to power the available aircraft to keep to scheduled departure time, unavailable forex to do routine maintenance on aircraft and prompt payment of their insurance, as well as the absence of the requisite navigational aids that allow aircraft takeoff and landing at airports under severe weather conditions.
Megisson said airline operators, whenever they experience any of these factors, are often left with no choice than to declare a force majeure in the interest of safety. And this usually leads to flight cancelation or delays which infuriate passengers. Meggison, however, admits that it is not usually a very pleasant experience for airlines to cancel or delay flights given the attendant losses.
“We want to fly because we are in it as businessmen and passengers should understand this that no airline owner makes money keeping an aircraft on the ground,” said Meggison.
“Most times, it is not the fault of the airline but the operating environment. How do I fly an aircraft when I can’t find the fuel to power it and how do I fly an aircraft into an airport where there is no navigational equipment that can allow me to see the airport and land under poor visibility because of harmatan haze? These are the types of challenges we face,” he said.
It is estimated that the airline industry loses a minimum of N200 million on any typical day the slightest flight disruptions like cancellations or rescheduling is done. On several occasions, AON has demanded that the government make investments in modern navigational aids to assist pilots land even at zero visibility in line with modern trends. But the government is yet to yield to that plea.
The Air Peace case
Last week, Air Peace condemned the attacks on its staff by some unruly passengers in Abuja, Lagos, Calabar and other parts of the country, warning that it would no longer condone members of the public endangering the lives of its workers.
According to the spokesman for the airline, Mr. Chris Iwarah, “it is highly regrettable that security agents have failed to halt the trend of members of the public invading airport facilities to attack airline workers.”
Said Iwara: “On Thursday, April 20, 2017, the winglet of one of our aircraft, which was being towed within the very limited space at the ramp of the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos to position for departure, had a partial contact with the stabiliser of another of our aircraft. We subsequently declared the two aircraft unserviceable in line with our high safety standards.
“We were, therefore, compelled to adjust our schedules to close the gaps created by the two aircraft, which were scheduled to do 14 flights. While we were trying to salvage the situation, some unruly passengers took the law into their own hands.
“Some passengers, who were to fly with us from Abuja to Benin, however, went violent. They attacked our staff in Abuja and almost killed our duty manager. It took the intervention of Air Force personnel, who were reportedly called in by the airport authorities, to rescue our duty manager from the mob. But that did not prevent the passengers from destroying our facilities. The menacing passengers also prevented others from boarding their own flights, thereby complicating the situation.
“In Lagos, some other passengers attacked and almost killed our station manager. Also in Calabar, unruly passengers had an unchallenged day, preventing our aircraft from flying. On Sunday, April 16, our staff were also attacked at the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos.
“It is surprising all these attacks could take place at the nation’s airports, a high security environment, without any challenge whatsoever from security agents. The situation has, therefore, left us with no choice than to resort to our right of self-defence to prevent our staff from being killed. We can no longer tolerate unruly passengers maiming our staff.
“Security agencies must, therefore, rise to the occasion before our staff, who are also people’s children and parents, are killed. This is the least the government can do to prevent unpatriotic citizens from bringing the few surviving airlines in the country down,” Iwarah added.
The Arik Air case
Spokesman for Arik Air, Mr. Banji Ola, narrating the experience of the airline said, “on Wednesday, January 4, 2017, our Lagos-New York JFK service, which was to operate at 11:30pm had to be rescheduled by 24 hours to operate at 11:30pm on Thursday, January 5, 2017 due to the shortage in supply of aviation fuel by the major fuel marketers. Our Lagos-Johannesburg service and Lagos-Accra service was also on ground awaiting fuel while the Lagos-New York service was standing by for fuel. Aviation fuel supply has been epileptic in the country over the past weeks where availability of stock and terms of service are not guaranteed on a consistent basis by the marketers.
“Arik Air pursued all possible options to source fuel for the international flights on January 4, 2017, but when our Customer Service Manager at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, approached the passengers to explain the situation to them, one of the passengers chased and attacked him. This was followed by a mob of passengers who brutally beat, kicked and chased the Arik Air staff throughout the terminal building. The staff was later rushed to the hospital where he was treated for injuries sustained during the attack.
Arik Air managed to source a small quantity of fuel and despite eventually sorting out the departure of the Johannesburg service, some of the passengers from the affected services damaged the check-in counters, check-in systems and equipment, preventing the airline from being able to check-in passengers on January 5, 2017.
“This serious breach of security and lawlessness by some passengers who assault and cause bodily harm to the airline’s personnel cannot and will not continue. Passengers continue to take the laws into their hands and the severity and frequencies of such criminal acts are on the rise due to lack of appropriate action or preventative measures from the security agencies,” Arik Air added.
Ban on alcohol sales
The Air Peace CEO, Mr. Allen Onyema, also recommended a ban on the sale or consumption of alcohol inside airport terminals in the country, saying that some of the unruly passengers are usually intoxicated.
“I once approached a man who was shouting at top of his voice and abusing me for a delayed flight and as he dipped his hands in his pocket to fetch an handkerchief to wipe his face, a bottle of Chelsea alcohol drink fell off too. And those nearby told me he had been drinking for several hours and they attributed his violent conduct to intoxication” said Onyema.
“These kinds of persons in airport vicinity are very dangerous. There should be a law banning alcohol sales and its use inside our airports,” he added.
Spokesperson for the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Mr. Sam Adurogboye, said the regulatory agency was completely against passengers venting their anger on airline staff.
“What we are experiencing lately, the unruly behaviour of passengers and the resort to the beating up of any airline staff is a serious criminal offence and should not be tolerated,” Adurogboye said. The NCAA spokesman said under the Nigerian civil regulatory law, aggrieved passengers had the right to seek for redress in a situation where they feel their rights have been infringed by the airline through the Consumer Protection Unit of the NCAA.
“We have consumer protection officials at all airports in the country. Aggrieved passengers don’t know about this. But it is time they knew that they must not always fight but look for these officials mostly stationed at the departure and arrival halls and lodge their complaints because on daily basis we are assisting passengers get back their rights from airlines,” Adurogboye added.