MD, Arik Air, Chris Ndulue
Chinedu Eze reports that Arik Air last week held the Federal Government and air passengers hostage when it decided to stop operations after it was picketed by aviation unions
Air passengers were for three days at the mercy of Arik Air -Nigeria’s biggest airline- when the airline which services 65 per cent of the air transport domestic market suspended its operation in protest against the actions of aviation workers that abruptly stopped its flights from taking due to the alleged refusal of the airline to pay its debts to the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN).
The workers under the aegis of the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE) and the Air Transport Service Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (ATSSSAN) in the morning of Thursday last week swooped on Arik’s operations and barred the staff from carrying on its duties and locked the boarding gate at the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) of the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos.
The workers, who appeared aggrieved, barred hundreds of passengers from gaining access to the aircraft as early as 6.40 am, an action that almost led to fisticuffs as Arik Air officials tried to get the passengers whom the airline call guests, to the airside for boarding.
Leaders of the two unions alleged that management of Arik Air owed all the parastatals in the aviation industry about N18 billion, adding that the airline had not shown any willingness to settle the debt.
President of ATSSSAN, Benjamin Okewu, told THISDAY that the decision to shut down the operations of Arik airline was to safeguard the aviation industry, which he said was on the verge of collapse.
He explained that Arik Air owed over 70 per cent of the debt to aviation parastatals, remarking that management of the agencies in the sector were considering laying off workers in a bid to cut cost.
But the management of Arik Air led by its Managing Director and Vice-President, Chris Ndulue, countered the workers’ position, denying that the airline owed that much to the agencies, adding that the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria had been collecting charges in advance in the last 18 months.
The management at the press conference announced the suspension of all domestic operations till further notice and alleged that the persistent hostility of the aviation ministry and FAAN bordered on personal interest and not payment of debts it owed the agency.
Ndulue reiterated that there had been several attempts and threats to disrupt the operations of the airline and create the impression that the airline owed the agencies.
The managing director, who stated that Arik did not owe FAAN as being alleged by the agency, said the unions were been used by the agency and other vested groups to punish the airline and tarnish its image.
“This is only a calculated attempt to punish the airline and tarnish its image. They are witnesses to the reputation of Arik Air as a young and upwardly mobile airline. For the records, Arik Air does not owe FAAN as is being alleged by the agency. We want to state that FAAN has been collecting its charges over the last 18 months when it introduced the pay-as-you-go regime.
“This year alone, we have paid over N2 billion to FAAN. 35 per cent of total airline revenues in Nigeria are paid back to government agencies. Several figures are currently being bandied by FAAN as Arik Air’s indebtedness to government agencies,” he said.
The suspension of Arik Air flights subjected passengers to harrowing experience. Those who had already booked on the flight to travel to various destinations on the domestic routes were disappointed when they arrived the airport and realised to their shock that they could not travel as planned.
By that Thursday, Aero Contractors, another major carrier, which is known for its advanced online booking had most of its flight booked full and could only take a fragment of the hundreds that were literally jilted by Arik Air.
By Friday, Aero announced by 11 am that its flights for the day and that of the following day were already filled and immediately mapped a strategy to adhere to the surging passengers, but it did not have the capacity to airlift up to 30 per cent of the passengers left behind by Arik.
Although most of the passengers came back to the Arik Air for refund, industry experts put the money lost on the three days of the strike to over N4 billion by passengers who failed to get to their destinations due to the suspension of operations and therefore could not transact their business.
Hope was resuscitated by 4.00 pm on Friday when the heads of aviation agencies met at FAAN headquarters in Lagos for a press conference after over three hours meeting with the union leaders.
Present at the press conference were the Director General of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Dr Harold Demuren, the Managing Director of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, George Uriesi and the Managing Director of the Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), Nnamdi Udoh.
Demuren announced that the unions had called off their picketing action against Arik Air and expressed hope that the airline would resume operation immediately.
But Arik was defiant: it said that it would not resume services until certain conditions were met, including an apology.
The agency heads said that the issue leading to the disruption of the airline’s operation by the unions related to the huge debts owed to the agencies by Arik Air, which the FAAN managing director put at over N7.7 billion, but the airline had earlier denied owing such huge amount to the agency.
“In the months and years past, all three agencies have made continuous efforts to recover these debts owed by the airline to varying degrees of success, even as the debt continued to accumulate on a daily basis,” the aviation parastatal leaders said.
George Uriesi said that the action taken by the workers was outside what the FAAN management was doing to resolve the debt issue with Arik and described the workers’ action as “a little bit of distraction in the sense that we now have to deal with the crisis whereas we were progressing along a path towards a resolution as management.”
He noted that the workers’ action brought the matter to public attention and caused inconveniences to air travellers and the general public; “so what we are telling you now is that the problem of yesterday and today (Thursday and Friday’s strike action) is resolved; not the problem of the debt of Arik to either FAAN or any of the agencies.”
Arik Air did not resume flights as expected, but in the night of Friday, THISDAY learnt that the airline and FAAN were summoned by the Presidency and in a meeting presided over by the Secretary to the Federal Government, Senate Anyim Pius Anyim, a settlement was reached.
According to a statement issued after the meeting, all contentious issued were resolved.
“All issues in contention were discussed and resolved; a road map for the smooth working together of both parties was also agreed upon; we use this opportunity to appeal to both parties to eschew every provocation that may have arisen as a result of this unfortunate misunderstanding. Accordingly, all the exchange of accusations and allegations are vitiated and so of no consequence,” the statement said.
The presidency apologised to all travellers “for the inconveniencies this unfortunate misunderstanding may have caused them.”
Briefing newsmen after the meeting in Lagos, Arik Air announced that it would resume operations the following day, which was Sunday and admitted that all matters, had been resolved, disclosing that another meeting was slated two weeks from last Saturday, when the first meeting was held.
Ndulue at the briefing said: “We have been able to resolve all the issues and we are happy to announce we are resuming operations tomorrow (Sunday)”.
Ndulue said there was no discussion on the payment of the debts the airline owe FAAN.
“We did not discuss any payment plan. It was agreed that there was no real problem between the airline and FAAN. We are happy to put what happened behind us. The agencies have pledged to control their workers. The meeting was all about reconciliation. What happened is part of the sacrifices we have to make for pioneering this kind of operation. It stunts growth but we know that to get where we are going takes time and endurance. We suffered disruption of our operations; we suffered losses.”
Ndule also denied the allegation in the social media that Arik alleged that the Minister of Aviation, Mrs. Stella Oduah requested and was denied five per cent stake in the airline and that was why she allegedly incited the workers to picket the airline.
Already, the minister was reported to have threatened to take the airline to court before the denial and in the spirit of amicable resolution by the meeting presided over by Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, the minister was said to have put hold her intention to go to court.
But Arik Air seemed not to have been calmed by the meeting because on Tuesday a document bearing its logo appeared where it blacklisted some prospective passengers that would not be allowed on its flight on security reasons and other misdemeanours, the managing director of FAAN name was in the list and the airline explained that the reason his name was there was due to “management decision.”
Some industry critics who spoke to THISDAY described Arik Air’s action as blackmail, remarking that the airline took the action of suspending its operations because it was aware that there was low capacity as many other airlines were not operating; so it held the Federal Government by the jugular, which subtly begged it to go back to service.
Others criticised the workers, saying that they hard ulterior motive, as it became evident that FAAN was not privy to their plan to picket the airline’s operation.
“FAAN has not stopped paying its workers because of the money owed to it by Arik, so why take such uncalled for action at this time that many airlines are not operating?” one industry observer asked.