by Chinelo Obogo
On February 4, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) announced the suspension of Emirates’ operations in Nigeria for violating the presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 (PFT) directives and COVID-19 protocols. This followed the United Arab Emirates (UAE) policy stating that all passengers departing Nigeria are required to obtain a negative COVID-19 certificate after an antigen test must have been conducted at the airport on the date of departure with the passenger bearing the cost.
Though the Federal Government reversed the suspension, Emirates, the UAE-owned airline has since refused to fly out passengers from Nigeria, an act which the president, of Nigerian Association of Travel Agencies (NANTA), Susan Akporiaye, says is reprehensible. In this interview, she said NANTA is in full support of Nigeria’s policy of reciprocity because according to her, the UAE’s policy was putting excessive financial burden on passengers from Nigeria. She also spoke on how the losses incurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and how the association plans to disburse the bailout funds given to it by the government.
FG’s response to UAE’s policy
The antigen test that Emirates Airline was demanding was put in place by the UAE government because according to them, many Nigerians come into their country with negative COVID19 test results but later turn out to have the virus. So they felt that they needed to protect themselves as cases of COVID19 infection has started rising because they welcomed everybody.
But the issue of the fake test doesn’t apply only to Nigerians because some countries were outright banned from coming into Dubai but we were not stopped. It means that it was not only Nigerians that had the issue of fake tests and I am happy about that. I saw a video of some fraudsters in the UK who cloned some of the sites for COVID tests and send results to people, so the payments being done online goes to them and they then send negative results to you. They were apprehended by the UK police and it was later revealed that one of the negative results that was sent belonged to a Nigerian. This would give us a bit of succor that this kind of thing is not being done only in Nigeria.
A Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test is more comprehensive than an antigen test and the possibility of detecting the virus is more with the PCR. You can test negative with the antigen test and positive with the PCR and that is why with the antigen, your result comes out in less than 20 minutes. You can’t use the antigen test to curb those that are going into your country with fake test, so what I would advise the UAE government to do is that since they already have a PCR test being done on arrival in Dubai, that should take care of that. You don’t need to bother people again to do another antigen test before they travel. The one carried out on arrival in Dubai by their own medical team at the airport would be the one they should use.
The question asked is that what if the person tests positive on arrival in Dubai? The UAE should then adopt Canada’s approach. Canada says that when you come into the country, you would undergo a test, then immediately quarantine and if you test positive, you would be treated at your own cost of $2,000. What if the person gets there and he doesn’t have $2,000? The way it will be done is that before the person even boards the aircraft, he has to prove that he has $2,000. It is very simple. If they cannot prove that they have the money to take care of themselves when they board, they don’t board them. If you put all these in place, you would find out that no one would go and do fake tests any more. Nobody can carry fake test to Canada and the UAE should have adopted that method instead of putting people through hassles.
We should also give kudos to our government because many governments think they can dump anything on Nigeria and we would not have a choice. Is UAE saying we don’t have qualified medical personnel in Nigeria that they have to bring in their own specialists into our country to carry out antigen tests for intending passengers at the foot of the aircraft? When the Nigerian government rejected UAE’s directive, I was very happy. Mind you, you would do PCR test of N50, 000, you get to the airport and do antigen test for N36, 000, you get to Dubai and they will do another test at the airport which you would pay for, by the time you want to depart, you would do another test and pay for it, that is making four tests. By the time you calculate how much you would spend on four tests, you would realise that it is not worth it at the end of the day because it would discourage a lot of people from travelling to Dubai.
COVID19 has come to stay, so the best thing is to look for a lasting solution like what Canada has done. Because of that policy, Emirates have decided not to carry passengers out of Nigeria and they should pay for that. However, that is not to say that we condone the fake COVID test results. We are opposed strongly to it because such activities give us a bad name.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has been coming up with ways to make travelling easy and they have opposed the imposition of multiple tests and encouraging countries including Nigeria. IATA has been very lenient with travel agents. In the past, they have always been very strict but now they are more understanding because of the situation in the industry. For instance, we requested for a review of annual dues because we were asked to pay the 2019 rate. In the past, once the deadline for payment elapses, you will be immediately disconnected from the system but the collective payment of annual dues that we were supposed to pay to IATA has not gone through but so far, they have been very understanding.
The payment has not been made because we haven’t been able to access forex as the Central Bank of Nigeria has not made it available to us. But IATA understands what is going on and they have not cut off anyone which is unlike what used to happen in the past.
Another bombshell we had was the divorce between Leadway and IATA which may force many agencies to be out of business by the end of March. We had an emergency meeting with IATA and they said there is no going back on the Leadway arrangement. So we had to go and look for alternatives which we know is difficult. IATA then gave us soft landing again and said that they would not default anyone that is not able to meet up but would give them till September 30 to sort things out. That is why we are grateful.
We didn’t know how much we were going to get or the form that the palliatives would take but we are grateful to the Minister of Aviation, Captain Hadi Sirika, for making it possible. NANTA is a very big organization, so we were not really lucky in terms of how much each person would get unlike some associations that have few members. However, we are happy that the government even thought about us no matter how small the amount would be.
The last update I was given in January by the department in charge of registering travel agencies shows that we are over 600 and since then, we have received about 100 certifications. There is also another emergency list of about 60, so in total, we are over 700 and you know that I said the palliatives is going to be for the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) certified members. The amount given to our association is N196 million to be shared among many people. I’m happy that the funds came to us and we must also render accounts to the government but getting the account details of so many people is not a day’s job and that is why we have not started disbursing. We are getting close to rounding up, but up to 20 per,cent of those whose names are on the list are refusing to send their details and I have told them that if they do not send and their neighbour gets money, they should not come back to me. We are trying to be as fair as we can. That is why we are giving our members enough time. The money is still intact in our account and once the disbursement is done, the evidence would be sent to the ministry so that they would see it.
We are limiting the disbursement to only financial and NCAA certified members of the association because if we give to all registered members which is over 3,000, may be each person would get N20,000.
Revenue from flight ticket sales in Nigeria was a total of $151.09 million in the first four months of 2020, a 45 per cent drop compared to $282.36 million generated in the same quarter of 2019. The drop was as a result of the flight restrictions and shutting of airports across the country in a bid to contain the spread of COVID-19. In 2019, travel agencies recorded $57.79 million in January, $51.52 million in February, $80.55 million in March and $92.59 million in April, bringing it to a total of $282.36million.
In 2020, they recorded ticket sales of $70.03m in January, $59.16 million in February, $23.26 million in March, and a negative of $1.36 million in April, making it $151.09 million. The second and third quarter of 2020 saw no revenue but by the fourth quarter, there was a gradual increase in revenue following the lifting of flight restrictions.