Hundreds of Nigerians are denied flight seats every week by Aero Contractors, which devised a novel system of airlifting passengers one hour before its advertised take-off time, Chinedu Eze reports
One of Nigeria’s major carriers, Aero Contractors, has been leaving its numerous passengers behind.
These are passengers who are due to travel, who have met all the conditions to travel and who arrive at the departure hall as scheduled. Most of the passengers, who are left behind, according to THISDAY checks, are those who booked their flights online, checked in online and printed their boarding passes.
What Aero does is that when you check in online, you get your boarding pass that will give you your seat number, the time of the flight and the time you will arrive at the boarding gate. But one hour before the advertised time in the boarding pass the flight would leave.
THISDAY investigations and this reporter’s personal experience disclosed that a day before the flight date, Aero will send SMS message to some of the passengers that booked online and leave others. Those who get the message will arrive for boarding at the new time, while those who depend on the time on their boarding pass will miss the flight, because they will arrive at the time stated on their boarding pass.
The objective is that many people will book their flight online, pay for the flight and check in online but the capacity of the aircraft will not take in all those that booked online, so the airline uses such a strategy to drop some passengers after it has collected their fares.
Since 2009 when Aero Contractors, one of the most successful Nigerian airlines, discovered that it was in financial straits it introduced some marketing strategies to boost its finances. The airline introduced online booking and described itself as low cost, although its on-the-desk ticket purchase fare is always the highest among domestic airlines.
In June 2009 it introduced online check in and in a press statement released at the time the airline said, “Aero Contractors, Nigeria’s oldest aviation Company has launched online check in on all its domestic routes thereby allowing customers to head straight to the boarding gate, avoiding the stress of check-in desks.
“The destinations include Abuja, Lagos, Benin, Warri, Port Harcourt, Calabar, Enugu and Owerri. Customers can check in online on www.flyearo.com seven days to four hours ahead of scheduled time of their flights,” the airline added.
On September 20, 2012, this reporter booked a return ticket online from Lagos to Calabar and paid for it on September 21. The flight schedule was from Lagos to Calabar October 5 and from Calabar to Lagos October 7. On October 4 he checked in online, obtained his boarding pass which stated the time of the flight as 15:00, which is 3:00 pm Nigerian time and the flight number which was AJ 171.
Part of the information contained in the boarding pass includes, “Please note that you have already checked in. You must be present at the boarding gate in the departure lounge not later than 40 minutes before departure. The time shown on the flight coupon (boarding pass) is the departure time of the aircraft.”
With everything in place this reporter arrived at the domestic terminal by 1.55 pm and was making his way to the departure lounge when out of curiosity he stopped at the Aero check-in counter to ask whether the flight to Calabar, AJ 171 has started boarding. The Aero official looked at his watch and said that the flight had taken off.
This reporter noted that the plane was supposed to take off by 3:00 pm. However the official insisted that it had taken off and asked THISDAY to meet the checking desk supervisor. The official directed him to go up to departure that the flight might still be boarding.
He literally flew through the escalator to the security screening where he removed his shoes and after passing through screening doubled the stairs to the boarding gate to see the flight being towed to the taxiway of the runway by a push back truck. That was exactly one hour before the advertised time of the flight.
The Aero attendant at the boarding gate was unperturbed. From all indications what happened was not unusual. She told this reporter to go back to the check in counter to reschedule the flight.
At the counter the check in counter supervisor told THISDAY and about 12 others who were kept away from the flight that he would reschedule the flight to Saturday, October 6, but many of them did not want to listen to him. They were angry for being short changed; for being deceived; and for being exploited.
One of them, a young man lurched forward with rage towards the supervisor who quickly retreated behind the check in counter and began to explain that he could reschedule the flights. But the supervisor was being accused by the passengers that he sold those seats to passengers who bought tickets later on the cash desk and paid more for them.
The supervisor denied the allegation and brought out a paper to show one of the passengers, to convince him that his own seat was empty because he did not board the flight, but he did not have his way. Four angry passengers rushed him and he retreated back again behind the counter.
The passengers left behind were so angry. They said they were not interested in scheduling their flights and they were not interested in collecting back their money because they were apparently shortchanged.
One of the passengers told this reporter that he found out that after people bought tickets online and later check in online and obtain their boarding pass, Aero would resell the tickets at high fares to those who arrived few hours before the flight take off time and who were willing to pay the exorbitant fares over the counter.
So Aero would not send SMS to those who had obtained their tickets online but whose tickets had been resold by the airline. And that explains why the airline takes off one hour before the time it advertised on the boarding pass obtained online. But when this allegation was thrown at the supervisor he denied it.
One of the passengers, a young man showed THISDAY the drugs he came to Lagos from Calabar to buy for his mother who was critically ill and who needed the drugs urgently for her recuperation. He did not know what to do. He was almost in tears, calling his people in Calabar intermittently and explaining that Aero had disappointed him; that he would not be able to arrive in Calabar that Friday.
This reporter, who rebooked the flight for October 6, later found alternative means to Calabar and on his way he received SMS rescheduling the October 6 flight by one hour behind the initially advertised time.
With the assistance of the Aero Media Consultant, this writer was able to get the airport manager of Aero in Calabar who he contacted for the return ticket from Calabar to Lagos on October 7. The airport manager told him that the flight which was scheduled for 16:45 (4:45 Nigerian time) had been rescheduled to 15:45; that is one hour ahead.
THISDAY gathered that this is the way Nigerians are on daily basis shortchanged by Aero and every day at the Lagos domestic terminal passengers are always fighting with Aero officials, but the airline callously generates operational revenue from the hapless passengers and others.
In an interview few months ago, the Managing Director of Aero Contractors, Captain Akin George, told THISDAY when accused that his airline shortchange passengers through online booking that there was nothing like that; that the airline was highly reputed so it could not do such thing.
“We pride ourselves on being sincere and truthful to the Nigerian public. By and large if you look at the amount of complaints that we have in relation to people who are travelling by checking online, it is less than .3 per cent. But the fact is that it is those that it affects that will come and make the noise, but those that benefit from it and travel have no need to come and say anything. On daily basis we have about 6,000 passengers a day,” George explained.
Many Nigerians have reported similar issues about Aero Contractors. Last December after it cancelled its flight on December 22, 2011, on December 23 the airline wanted to abandon the passengers it cancelled their flight the previous day and wanted to airlift those scheduled to fly on that day.
Some of the passengers became violent and started destroying things at the check in counter. It was then that the supervisor called on the management and it provided another aircraft. The two aircraft boarded passengers at the same time after the airline was coerced to carry out its obligation.
When the Dana Air flight 0992 crashed on June 3, 2012 many commentators and industry operators alleged that the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) contributed to the tragic incident because it had allegedly compromised in its regulatory role. Although NCAA vehemently denied the allegation but not everyone was convinced.
The regulatory body has always been accused of over-protecting the airlines at the expense of the passengers and that explains why Aero continues to short-change people every day and it has not been stopped by NCAA.
NCAA cannot pretend not to know what has been going on because from various complaints from passengers, the regulatory body was aware of the antics of Aero Contractors but there has been no indication that NCAA had intervened on behalf of the customers.
Earlier this year the issue of over booking passengers by Aero and devising ways to deceive the passengers came up when THISDAY interviewed the Director General of NCAA, Dr Harold Demuren.
He explained, “Our consumer protection has been trying to see how to battle this. I cannot tell you how many times we had summoned Aero Contractors. We don’t say this on television. There is something we call no show and over booking. If you buy a ticket and you later change your mind we cancel you as no show. In that case there are no penalties.
“So because of that airlines are allowed to overbook. This is because when they sell tickets to the passengers it is expected that five per cent will not show up. So when they have capacity for about 100 people they sell 105 tickets because they know that five per cent will not show up. This has never gone wrong. It always worked.
“Sometimes they push it to 10 per cent. The danger of this to the airline is this: if all of them should show up, now you must compensate those ones you did not pick for the flight. That is the way airlines all over the world do. Aero has taken advantage of that and it is very wrong,” Demuren added.
Before the latest antic, what Aero was doing was to close check in counters sometimes one hour or earlier before the flight time and when a customer comes after that the officials would tell that person that they had closed the counter for that destination.
So an official of Aero who wanted to be pleasant would advise a passenger to come in as early as three hours before the flight if he wanted to board the flight. By adopting the latest strategy perhaps that system was not effective enough because frustrated passengers get angrier when you tell them to pay for no show when they arrived at the airport more than one hour before the flight time in domestic services.
An insider familiar with low cost ticket sales online said that in other parts of the world the airline would on each flight advertise a number of seats which it would sell online at cheap fares and once that number of seats have been booked, the system would indicate that seats were no more available.
In that way the airline would sell the number of seats both online and across the counter to the number of passengers that would fill the aircraft, also recognising, as Demuren observed, the five per cent extra sales in case of no show.