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Opinion: Saving Nigerians from their airlines

Last Wednesday, I left Abuja city for the airport, to catch a scheduled 7pm Arik Air flight to Lagos. I got to the airport at 6pm, got my boarding pass, and waited for the boarding announcement. I expected we would depart sometime between 7pm and 8pm. At 7pm, an announcement came that our flight was going to be delayed by two hours. (The 4.40pm flight to Port Harcourt, we learnt, hadn’t left, and this was already well after 7pm; boarding for this didn’t eventually start until about 8pm).

At 9pm, another announcement came. Another delay, this time to 10.45pm.

Hands went up onto heads, in that classic Nigerian gesture of alarm tinged with resignation. At that point, a number of people approached the airline counter, to complain. One of them was a young woman, who said she had a flight to New York, from Lagos (also on Arik Air; more on that flight later), later that night. A 10.45pm departure meant she would not be making the flight.

I accompanied the young woman to the Arik office within the building, to complain. As expected, the airline attendant on duty, beyond offering excuses (mostly to do with how there was a scarcity of aviation fuel; and how they had supplies in Port Harcourt but not in Lagos or Abuja), were not in a position to do anything. It was from them I heard that the plane that was coming to pick us to Lagos had just left Port Harcourt, en route to Abuja. I made quick calculations. This was 10.40pm. Port Harcourt to Abuja was 45 minutes. So, it’d have landed in Abuja at about 11.30pm. And then, taken off for Lagos at midnight, allowing 30 minutes for disembarking and boarding. We would therefore be landing in Lagos at 1am!

At that point, I decided I was not going to fly out of Abuja at midnight. I was going to return – at my own expense, of course – to Abuja, and try again the next morning. (The flight did eventually leave that night; I have no idea how passengers made their way home from the airport at such ungodly hour of 1am.)

I returned to the airport the next morning at 7am, and was allocated a seat on the 9am flight. When I heard an Arik official announce that it was the 7am flight to Lagos that was expected to come back to run the 9am flight (and this after first getting fuel in Lagos), I gave up, and immediately went to buy a Dana ticket. I’ve still got my unused Arik ticket with me.

In the days since then, I have heard – mostly on Twitter – several horror stories involving Arik. Flights cancelled or delayed for several hours, all because of “operational reasons”.

The Wednesday night flight from Lagos to New York didn’t take off until Thursday morning; 10 hours after the scheduled departure time. Passengers were kept waiting overnight at the airport. No compensation was offered to those who had missed their connecting flights in the United States.

The 6pm Abuja to Uyo flight on Friday night took off sometime between 10pm and 11pm, and then, to the dismay of passengers (one of them live-tweeted this) first went north to Kano; eventually landing in Uyo at 2am on Saturday.

There’s a photo that blogger Linda Ikeji posted on that same Friday, reportedly taken same day at the Abuja airport, of an Arik plane. There’s a crowd at the foot of the plane; departing passengers jostling to board while those arriving were still disembarking. It looked like something out of those stories from the worst days of Nigeria Airways.

And according to another frustrated passenger, when the lone flight to Enugu on Saturday landed, many passengers found out that their luggage had been left behind in Lagos.

I’m publicly challenging Arik to deny any of these accounts.

I’ve lost count of the horror stories (many faithfully archived by Google); Arik is, to speak without euphemism, “doing anyhow”. It seems that we are at the mercy of an airline with a mission to repeatedly stress and frustrate its passengers; emphasis on “repeatedly” because these incidents have long since left the realm of sporadic glitch and appear to now be expressions of company culture.

I think it should henceforth have the following “small print” on all its tickets: “Possession of this ticket merely signifies an intention to fly from Point A to B. Arik Air reserves the right to decide whether or not to actually fly, and if it does, what route to take, and whether or not to bring your luggage along. The airline also reserves the right to withhold all exigent information on the basis of operational reasons. Thank you.”

Yet, this same airline that is so tardy with customer service suddenly becomes super-efficient when it comes to penalising you for missing a flight, or to issuing a passenger blacklist. Last September, the airline released a list of blacklisted passengers, which included the Managing Director of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, as well as blogger Japheth Omojuwa, who was waging an online battle with it over a misplaced iPad. (It quickly rescinded the laughable decision)

The airline’s nonchalance is louder than its plane engines; no apologies or compensations are considered necessary once a “State of Operational Reasons” – Arik’s equivalent of a State of Emergency – has been invoked.

It’s a disgraceful conduct from an airline that wants to conquer the world’s skies for Nigeria. I’ve heard that it plans to start direct flights from Lagos to Brazil, later this year. My sympathies in advance to those who will not arrive until after the FIFA 2014 World Cup has ended, because of “operational reasons.”

In Arik’s defence, you might say it is not alone in these despicable attitudes to customers. It’s a Nigerian thing; comes with the territory. Not a tenable excuse, I’m afraid. Lest we forget, it is by far the biggest airline in Nigeria – with pretensions to the “National Carrier” throne. With that status, I think comes a certain responsibility; to set, for the rest of the industry, basic standards of efficient operation. Allowing the biggest and most powerful airline in the country to get away with unacceptable levels of conduct automatically invalidates the Minister of Aviation’s much-touted “transformation” agenda.

And all this raises questions about regulation and customer protection in Nigeria. Arik knows that it can continue to sell tickets and play chess with its flight schedules – even when it has no guarantees on the availability of fuel (if the fuel excuse is to be believed) – because in Nigeria there is no limit to how long an airline can delay its passengers, no penalty for doing so as often as you please, and no obligation to offer any compensation.

According to the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, however, that state of lawlessness is about to change. While waiting for that midnight flight last week, I borrowed a newspaper from another stranded passenger, and came across the news of a new “Passengers’ Bill of Rights” (spot the irony!), prepared by the NCAA, and due to launch on Friday, July 26.

I’ve since then found a draft copy of the document on the NCAA website, dated March 2012. (I would like the NCAA to make available, as soon as possible, the final version). It’s a comprehensive document, covering everything from procedures for denial of boarding to flight delays and cancellations, compensation rights, reimbursements, and even “misleading advertising”. It mandates airlines to establish “consumer protection desks” at every airport at which they have operations, and to display, at their check-in counters, a “passenger rights statement.” It also prescribes sanctions (ranging from fines to criminal prosecution) for airlines that violate its terms.

My fear, knowing our country, is that our airlines will pour their energies into resisting any attempt to make them behave responsibly. (I’m already expecting at least one airline to go in search of a judge willing to grant a “perpetual injunction” restraining the NCAA from subjecting it to the new guidelines.)

I’m hoping that the Consumer Protection Council will step in urgently, to support the NCAA and help ensure the implementation and enforcement of these guidelines.

One person got in touch with me on Twitter to say he’d taken a Nigerian airline to court in the aftermath of a bitter experience. That’s commendable. The truth is that we can’t keep swapping/tweeting our stories of woe and saying, “This is Nigeria.” Customer-disrespecting organisations will continue in an ever-increasing state of bad behaviour unless and until they’re checked by firm and consistent backlash from customers and regulators.

For now, the social media provides a platform for connecting frustrated customers and amplifying their voices. It’s a start, but Nigeria needs more than that.

Meanwhile, I’m sitting here awaiting Arik’s updated blacklist. Maybe, this time, everyone who agrees with this article will be included. See you on it!

Short URL: http://newnigerianpolitics.com/?p=31534

Posted by on Jul 29 2013. Filed under Aviation, Headlines. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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