By Chinelo Obogo
Woe betide any driver who tries to pick any passenger coming out of the arrival hall at the Murtala Muhammed Airport (MM1), also known as the General Aviation Terminal (GAT), Ikeja, Lagos. The moment a driver stops there, rough-looking men will swoop on him and prevent him from picking any passenger. If he is lucky, he will be allowed to go, otherwise his car will be towed away.
Indeed, there have been controversies over the rate at which vehicles that stop at the arrival terminal of the MM1 or the link road between the domestic and international wings are impounded by Turas Towing Services, the towing company contracted by the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to enforce sanctions on defaulters of airport traffic rules.
The question on everybody’s lips is this: Was the concession deal between FAAN and Turas Services meant to raise money just anyhow, in the name of enforcing rules or really to solve so-called traffic gridlock at the airport?
Turas Services officials have been accused by many airport users of being high-handed and indiscriminately impounding vehicles without following due process. The company’s officials are also accused of extortion as they impound vehicles on flimsy excuses only to ask the owners to “settle” or be taken to their office opposite the MM2, where they would pay higher fines. Most vehicle owners succumb to such blackmail and pay the towing company’s task force officials and go their way. From such extortion, the officials make huge sums daily for personal use.
The towing company always claims that there are signs that indicate that pick-up of passengers should be done at the car park, but there is no such sign at the general arrival hall or arrival area of GAT of the airport. The only sign, which is not conscpicuous is “no stopping, no waiting, no parking.”
It is only opposite the executive/protocol departure and arrival lounge that such a sign as “pick up at the car park” is displayed.
Daily Sun witnessed how the vehicle of an Uber driver, who later gave his name as Muniru, was impounded as soon as he dropped off a female passenger at the departure lounge of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport. His vehicle was immediately impounded but was later released after he parted with an undisclosed sum of money.
Airport users say that drop-off in front of departure terminals and pick-up in front of arrival terminal are general practice at airports across the world, even with taxis lining in front of arrival the lounge to pick passengers in turn.
According to Casmir Chukwudi, a passenger The Sun spoke to at the airport on the impounding of vehicles picking passengers, some things that happen in Nigeria make the country look ridiculous.
“We travel abroad and you see passengers picked up in front of the arrival lounge and nobody impounds vehicles. Taxis line up in front of arrival lounges in airports abroad to pick up passengers. I have seen it in London, Glasgow, Toronto, Switzerland, Turin in Italy, etc. Why would we start behaving like people from another world simply because some agencies want to make money? They should tell us if this practice is to ensure free flow of traffic or simply to raise funds. I think it is the latter,” he said.
When Daily Sun visited the GAT at the weekend, an airport user, Olatunji, told the paper that the original reason the FAAN gave the Turas Services the job was to ensure non-obstruction of traffic but the activities of the concessionaire have made the airport environment very hostile to airport users, with rampant extortion.
He said: “The officials of the towing company have become a law unto themselves. When they see someone stop at the arrival for a few seconds, instead of politely warning the person to move, they immediately pounce on the vehicle and clamp the tyres. This most often results in chaos and violence. Their mode of operation is not refined at all.
“What people expect of them is that, if someone stops indiscriminately, they should walk up to the person and politely tell the person to move away, but they don’t do that. What they do is that the moment someone stops, not even park, they immediately clamp the tyres and the person’s vehicle. This sometimes results into violent confrontation. But if you warn the offender to move on and he refuses, impounding the vehicle could be justified.
“Sometimes, you see someone stop for a few seconds and maybe the person is taking a call, they would clamp the person’s tyre.
“The signs at the airport are not conspicuous enough. When you place a tiny sign in one corner, nobody will see it. There are drivers who may be using the airport for the first time. If signs are not clear, bold and visible, they won’t see them. You arrest such people and later show them one tiny sign to prove they committed an offence. For FAAN to be free of being accused of collusion with the towing company in this extortion gambit, it should put visible signposts inside and in front of the arrival lounge of the airport announcing that pick-up of passengers is at the car park. Yes, there are some posts there, but some are not very visible. So, most often, people can’t easily see them. More signs should be placed all over the airport, especially the arrival lounge, so that no one would have any excuse not to see them.”
Daily Sun spoke to the GAT terminal manager, Adekunle Aderibigbe, who confirmed that FAAN had received complaints about the activities of the towing company and that a monitoring team had been set up to monitor their activities. He promised that any errant official would be sanctioned.
Aderibigbe said: “The managing director of FAAN has directed that the towing companies should be given training and it started last week and they will be trained and re-trained. They have been told to change their rickety vehicles because some of the vehicles end up causing more damage to the cars that they impound. These are the issues that our managing director observed and we are working on it, and I’m very sure that they will improve.
“We have told them that anytime they see any vehicle stop indiscriminately, they should speak calmly to the driver because it may just be that the driver stopped briefly to take a call or there is an urgent reason for the person to do so. If they don’t want a person to stop there, you tell the person to move and show the person where he is supposed to stop or park.
“If it is to drop and pick passengers, there is a sign that shows that to pick passengers should be done at the car park. That is where we have the physical distancing marking for each vehicle to park. So, no vehicle should be picking passengers in front of the arrival hall and we have drop-off for the departure. We also have signs there that say you should drop off and not wait. We have set up a monitoring team to monitor the activities of the towing company from GAT down to MMIA and they are already working. If anyone of them flouts any rules, the towing company will be sanctioned because that is one of the agreements of the concession.”
The supervising officer of Turas Services, Olawale Abdulazeez, disputed Aderibigbe’s statement, telling Daily Sun that no official of Turas would impound any vehicle without valid reasons. He said that many drivers park illegally because they are trying to avoid paying the parking fee of N400.
He said: “Look at the sign at the entrance of the arrival, it says ‘No waiting, No stopping, No parking’, yet people keep stopping right in front of the signpost to pick passengers. If we stop you, it is your approach to us that will determine how we would handle the issue. I’m in charge of the GAT and its environs up to the Air Force base. At the international airport, there are two towing companies that work there and I can’t say much about their job. No one is required to stop in front of the arrival lounge to pick passengers because it obstructs vehicular movement. There is a car park that has been provided where passengers who come from the arrival lounge are meant to wait for the vehicles that would pick them up. When such vehicles come, they are to drive straight to the car park and wait for the passengers they are meant to pick and the fee for the car park is just N400. It is because many of them don’t want to pay that N400 that is why they always resort to parking in front of the arrival lounge to pick up passengers.
“You can drop off people at departure but we don’t allow them loiter there. When we see some taxi drivers waiting there for long, that is when we would impound the vehicles. When we meet them with the passenger, we don’t tow their vehicles; it is when they keep waiting there for long, even after the first warning, that we tow their vehicles. Even at the arrival lounge, we don’t tow immediately; we usually give warnings first and tell them to go to the car park but most of them usually refuse to park there because they don’t want to pay the parking fees. What they do is to go and turn and still come back to the front of the arrival to wait for their passengers. When we see such defaulters, it is then that we impound their vehicles.
“None of our officials has ever impounded the vehicle of anyone who doesn’t commit an offence. Just look at this man that has just parked in front of the sign that says ‘No parking’. He is now calling the person he wants to pick and someone has gone to warn him. If we arrest him now, he won’t tell the truth about why he was arrested. FAAN instructed us to fine defaulters N15,000 even though what is written on the signpost is N50,000, but, sometimes, defaulters can plead for the amount to be reduced and we would do it depending on the approach and how valid his reasons are.”
It is not only at the airport premises that Turas Services allegedly indiscriminately impounds vehicles. The company’s task force is also said to intimidate and extort money from people who stop anywhere on the link road to the international wing. Victims say the company’s officials operating towing vans don’t care to find out why a vehicle stops. “They just block you with the towing van.”
Oluchi recounted her experience in the hands of Turas officials last year. According to her, she was driving from the domestic wing to the international airport side and her car’s engine stopped working.
“I was still trying to restart the car, when a towing van appeared and blocked me. I was still sitting in the driver’s seat and they towed my vehicle. I could not comprehend it. They never bothered to know why I stopped and ignored my explanation. They said there was a sign that said ‘no stopping, no waiting, no parking.’ They are always quick to show you this on their phone,” she said.
Oluchi’s vehicle was towed to Turas office and she was forced to pay a fine.
Another victim, Hamza, said he stopped to pick an important and urgent call, only for the towing vehicle to arrest him. He negotiated with the towing van operators and parted with N2,000 before he was let to go.
“What they are doing is to extort money from people. Members of the so-called task force of the towing companies are corrupt. They just arrest you, claiming you are not expected to stop, wait or park along the road, just to extort money from you. FAAN should look into what they are doing because, as far as the public is concerned, it’s FAAN that is doing this. Nobody knows about any towing company,” he said.