Stranded Arik air passengers

Chinedu Eze

Passengers were stranded wednesday when Nigeria’s largest airline, Arik Air, suspended flights owing to the picketing of its operations by the aviation workers’ union.

The union early yesterday morning stopped the take off of the airline’s flights from its operational hub, the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, over its indebtedness to the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), which the union put at N12.5 billion.

A statement from Arik signed by its spokesman, Adebanji Ola confirmed that the FAAN workers’ union had stopped the operations of the airline at GAT, thereby leaving hundreds of passengers stranded, adding that the suspension of operations would continue until the agency and the airline resolved the debt issue.

“Workers of the airline were prevented from gaining access to their duty posts, thereby disrupting the day’s operations. The action by the workers’ union is connected with the long-standing and unsubstantiated claim by FAAN alleging spurious indebtedness of the airline to the agency, which is now a matter before a Federal High Court in Lagos at the instance of FAAN.
“For several months, the managements of Arik Air and FAAN have been meeting to reconcile the accounts between the two institutions. The reconciliation process is still ongoing until the latest actions by the union,” he said.

He said this was not the first time the FAAN workers’ union had taken the law into their hands by disrupting the operations of Arik Air.

“The current situation is deeply out of control of Arik Air and the management of the airline has been compelled to suspend all domestic operations for today. This will remain in force until such a time that the unfortunate situation is resolved.

“Arik Air sincerely apologises for the inconveniences the FAAN workers’ union’s action may have caused its esteemed passengers. We live to serve the needs of the people of the great nation, Nigeria.

“We look forward to working collaboratively with FAAN and other aviation agencies to resolve the impasse and return to our core purpose of providing essential world class services to the people of Nigeria,” the airline said.

But the union’s leadership countered Arik’s explanation for the suspension of its operations, stating that it resorted to shutting down Arik after a year long negotiation was crippled by the airline, which feigned ignorance of its debt as well as refused to pay its outstanding liabilities.

Realising that they might not travel as scheduled, hundreds of passengers became angry and confused at GAT. While some went and requested for a refund of their ticket fares, others rushed out of the terminal to book other flights to their destinations.

A passenger affected by the flight disruption said: “I have a meeting in Abuja and I have been here since 6 am for my flight and I’m still here. I’m devastated and I don’t know what next to do and even my boss thinks I’m back in Abuja. This is not about the refund because I will sue Arik if I lose my job,” the passenger said.

The General Secretary of the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE) Mr. Olayinka Abioye, in a statement said: “We are engaged in the picketing exercise against Arik Air over its indebtedness to FAAN in the sum of N12.5 billion.”

However, a top official of Arik deplored the method FAAN was using to recover the money owed it.
“Is it now the responsibility of the union to seek payment of money owed aviation agencies? By doing that, the union has gone beyond its mandate. This is getting to lawlessness.

“Even if Arik owes FAAN, there is an official process through which the money can be collected. Unions do not have any right, according to the laws of the country, to disrupt the operations of a company because of debt. There is a proper channel through which such issues are resolved.
“We have a letter from FAAN, which acknowledges that we have paid N11. 4 billion. This illegality cannot continue. We have to stop it. It is not the responsibility of the union to challenge Arik over its debt to FAAN,” the official said.