Abdullahi: Low-cost Airlines will Boost Domestic Travel

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Director of Consumer Protection, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Adamu Abdullahi said fares must be affordable for more Nigerians to travel by air. He also proffered solutions to the menace of the Harmattan season on flight operations. Chinedu Eze presents the excerpts:

Could you please explain why air fares on international flights in Nigeria are relatively higher than other countries in West and Central Africa, including Ghana?

We took this up at a stage to the extent that the NCAA sponsored people to go to Ghana, buy tickets, find out the cost and come back and compare with what is obtainable here. Now ticket prices are deregulated, it is demand that determines cost.  In the immediate past administration in 2015, there were times when our first class and business class tickets on British Airways cost about double what it cost in Accra, which is the same distance to London. But the ticket cost at least for those classes of tickets (business and first class), the aircraft from Ghana will leave both classes of seats empty while here we have over booking on those same seats and most of them paid for by government.

So it is still a question of demand and supply. The airline explained to us that ticket fares are on the high side because the demand for them is very high and we went through their records and found out that it was what actually determines their prices. So, like I said earlier, ticket prices have been deregulated; we don’t tell them how much to sell their tickets.

 

You will notice that the cost of tickets by Nigerian airlines that operate international destinations are usually less which means that if more Nigerian airlines operate international services Nigerians will pay less?

Airline business is a very funny business; you see preferences of passengers are really something that sometimes if you look at it, it doesn’t make sense. A passenger will be willing to pay, maybe, double what he would have paid on Medview to go on BA. It is a class thing. They will announce, oh I travelled on BA instead of Medview, that is exactly what is happening. But all the same, I am positive that if we are able to take these things out seriously on Bilateral Air Service Agreements (BASA) that we have signed with these countries and we insist on reciprocity clause so that our own airlines fly to their own countries; just the same way that they fly to our country, it will be a much better deal for us. This will now make international airlines even go into code-share agreement and interlining arrangements with the domestic airlines. And that will grow our own domestic airlines and make them quality wise better than they are today.

 

Compared to last year, would you say there is improvement in passenger movement; that more Nigerians are traveling in 2017?

In both cases I would say yes, as the International Air Transport Association (IATA) itself pointed out in its outlook for the year2017, first, second quarters, we have seen certain jump in passenger traffic in Nigeria. You know we faced recession in 2016, which started easing this year; so there is the general believe that we are out of recession.

So we have seen improved traffic because even the airlines that have reverted to the use of smaller aircraft are now reverting back to their original aircraft sizes. And we have seen Emirates getting ready now to operate out of Abuja and their two flights, frequencies into Lagos daily, is also about to commence, which means that there is going to be serious improvement in number of people travelling. But more importantly, when it comes to passenger handling we don’t normally have any issues with international airlines. It has been like that over the years.

The area that we are having small hiccups are areas of baggage handling and the ones that really touched our hearts are the ones that involved passengers with induced mobility who had their wheelchairs damaged by the airlines especially Turkish Airlines, we have had issues with that; even though one of the issues have just been resolved. The passenger and the airline have agreed. The airline has agreed to pay N1.3 million as damages to the passenger to go and repair the wheelchair, because it is not beyond repair; if it were, we would have insisted on full compensation for the cost of the wheelchair. But the passenger agreed that the chair is repairable, so N1.3 million has been agreed. And within this week that would have been sorted out.

We still have two other issues we are looking at. I believe that what actually happened is due is security reasons. You see when wheelchairs are carried in the belly of the aircraft by the time they arrive, security agents become worried at the number of wheelchairs passengers are coming along with and in scrutinisng the wheelchair they reduce them to pieces to make sure there are no drugs hidden in them. In the long run nothing was found in this case and the airline, of course, being the one that received and tagged the wheelchairs are those who are liable for any damages that have been done to the wheelchairs. So we are getting to the root of it and we are making progress.

I would say by and large these are the major issues that we have contended with this year; otherwise, the airlines have been behaving well even the ones that they didn’t when we call their attention to them they would behave well. In the case of the 22 students of Glisten International College, Abuja, for instance, in which some students were left unattended in Turkey, that has been resolved and the airline offered each and every aggrieved child return trip to any destination that the airline goes to and so far four members of the family but one have collected that compensation. So these are the only major issues otherwise the airlines have really been behaving well.

 

Over time our airports have not been able to put facilities on ground for easy movement of people with reduced mobility. Who should be blamed for this: the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), the airport managers or NCAA, the regulator?

We have oversight over FAAN, so whatever observations we make the onus is on us to draw the attention of the management of FAAN to its short comings in the airport. This is something that we have noted and we have raised it in one or two of our meetings. It is going to be a very difficult thing but it is doable. This is because once you ensure that the lifts and escalators work; that means wheelchair passengers can have access to these lifts and escalators.

But then there are places where you need slopes as opposed to staircases so that wheelchair passengers can be wheeled in those spaces. Lagos and Abuja have platforms. Platforms are the equipment used to raise wheelchair passengers to the door of the aircraft so that they can be pushed into the aircraft. The airlines who now handle these passengers with this mobility have to pay for that service, so rather than expect that FAAN would give them the service free of charge, FAAN concession that service to the concessionaire. So they are to collect the cost for the platform.

What are the things you think will be needed to make more Nigerians travel by air?

First and foremost, cost. People still believe that the cost of air travel is on the high side. What would have reduced it is the introduction of low cost carriers; that is what has happened in Europe and in the Americas that people now use the opportunity to fly. Even at that; when Air Peace came to the market and started flying to Akure recently and introduced N10, 000 tickets, people felt they cannot afford it and have continued to go by road.

By the time our railways are fully developed it will be even much more competitive with air transport. Now that the roads are even bad with all kinds of challenges, people still prefer to go by road because it is much cheaper than air. But what will determine lower cost of tickets is when we have these low cost carriers and then also the right sizing of our aircraft. This is because it is fool headed for one to use Boeing B73 to operate short distance, like Akure-Lagos. For instance, if you are going to Akure then you take 164- seater aircraft; of course you know that you are not going to fill that aircraft.

Secondly, the cost of fuelling for that aircraft, you can’t even get the cost back.  And you are not playing a political game, this is not Father Christmas, it is business and you go into to business to make money. That is why state government goes into agreements with airlines to come to their airports and they offset some of these costs so that the airlines will come. The same thing happened in Gombe, Dutse, but as you can see, as money became less and less available, all the agreements have now been falling by the wayside. No flights go to Bauchi now; Gombe is essentially commercial and sometimes you pay up to N25, 000 or N30, 000 to get to Gombe. I would say the introduction of low cost carriers is going to be the way out and the right sizing of aircraft.

 

Would you say the industry is looking up generally both domestic and international operations?

I would say yes because the way our economy is improving, the latest news is that 70 percent of pilgrims that went on hajj from Kebbi and Sokoto state are farmers. For the last two years if you are a farmer, the economy has improved, especially the rice farming that brought about the arrangement between Kebbi and Lagos and they were selling the Lake Rice. It was a very good arrangement and many of the farmers were smiling to the bank to the extent that they could afford to go on Hajj. So I would say the better the economy, the more the people will travel.

Now that we are looking into other aspects of our economy as opposed to only one, by the time mining comes on, agriculture is also there, you will see that a lot of things will happen. And we are getting value added industries into the system, it is not just farming rice that is the issue, it is parboiling it, polishing it and bagging it. In the case of mining also by the time you go into it you will find out that in the areas where you are positive you are going to get gold, you are going to mine silver and all the other minerals that we have in commercial quantities all over the country. I am positive that it will improve the quality of life of our people.

During Harmattan which part of the country are usually adversely affected and what is the impact on air transport in Nigeria?

It is really very bad and what surprises everybody is the fact that we know that theses thing happen and we know that every year by December, January, February we face that same issue yet we don’t address it. You find out that airlines themselves don’t plan against it, they react against it. So we will expect that airlines for instance will now reschedule their flights. It is the same way you have summer schedule, winter schedule, you will now have Harmattan schedule so that they know that visibility improves only during early hours of the day and late hours in the night. And it will take a lot of the hassle off you and off the passengers because the passenger will not have to come and stay in the airport throughout the day, knowing fully well that you cannot fly until night. So airlines have their own fault but then on our own side as government we have our own fault. This is because if Heathrow had zero visibility landing in the 1950s, I don’t see any reason why no Nigerian airport at the moment has zero visibility landing. I have been to fora where airline operators even complained that the standard is too high, that why do we insist on point 800 meters visibility minima; that it is too high, that we should come down to maybe 400 or even 600. But the CAA insist that it has to be that 800 for the mean time because it is safety first.

This zero visibility thing is an issue that has to do with both the ILS on the ground and the systems on the aircraft. Most of the aircraft that are operated by our airlines today may not have corresponding systems on the ground. So even if you do it on the ground it means you now have to look at the aircraft and make sure newer aircraft come into the system. I don’t see anything wrong with doing that because newer aircraft means that you have safer skies and you can’t lose by getting safer skies and safer landings; you can only win. Therefore the earlier we start on that the better. We can give out time line and say each airline from now given maybe two years, two months, 24 months to upgrade it on their aircraft and any one that does not have the equipment you phase it out and bring in newer aircraft and it can go on like that. So I don’t see anything wrong with that, it is a policy issue.

 

The airlines said that NCAA charges them for every service, including aircraft inspection and that is part of the reasons why the fares are high?

You see the 5 percent ticket sales charge that we collect is not from the airlines, this is added on the ticket price. If your ticket is N100 and you sell it for N105 and give NCAA the N5 will you say you are paying NCAA? And it is not the decision of NCAA or Nigeria alone, it is a worldwide thing. This is because the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) has to be funded by other means and not by government directly in order to maintain their independence. By the time government funds you directly, government dictates, and there is a saying that says he who pays the piper dictates the tune. Therefore that is what the CAAs are running away from, that is why it is the passengers really that are paying that 5 percent and not the airlines.

Secondly airlines don’t expect that the NCAA will now fund a trip for engineers to go and inspect an aircraft before it comes into the country. You want to buy an aircraft, the regulation says before that aircraft can come into Nigeria; the NCAA has to go and inspect it and make sure it is airworthy, look at its records, make sure everything is intact before it comes into this country.  So who will fund that trip? How much will that cost add to the cost of a whole aircraft? I mean, we are talking of peanuts here. They are talking of landing and parking fees, so you want to use the airport and won’t pay? It is not right. If you enter an aircraft without paying will the airline operate like that? Of course it will not operate.

So whether the airport belongs to the airport authority, FAAN, or belong to private individuals like MMA2; the services have to be paid for. The investor ho deployed his hard earned money and put it in an airport is also into commercial venture and he will like to make some profit out of whatever he has invested there. And then there is replacement for all these things, runways have life spans, taxi ways have life spans, the lights have to be maintained, all the ILS (Instrument Landing Systems) have to be maintained and have to be upgraded from time to time. So that cost has to be borne by somebody and that somebody cannot be government. It has to be the airlines, as they do their business they pay for the service rendered to them.

 

How regularly does your directorate meet with the airlines to ensure that passengers are not exploited?

We are supposed to hold a quarterly meeting; that is, once every three months, but then we are also free to invite them whenever we have any issue and we are also free to visit them whenever we feel the need to do so. Over the past one or two years, I would say that jaw-jawing has come down because the money is just not there to call all these meetings as it is stipulated. But all the same we do it at least twice a year, and we don’t call only airlines we call all the stakeholders, Immigration, Customs, all the other security agencies in the airport, handling companies, fuel marketers, everybody is invited. We will now sit down and jaw-jaw and find out where the areas of need are and try to address them.

As an example, the day we came back through Arik at the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) of the Lagos airport here, to find out that our bags would take at least 45 minutes to be on the conveyor belt; this is way below the international standard. And that is when our eyes really opened to the fact that bags are being delayed on arrival of passengers. So we now asked for a meeting with Arik and the handling company which is Nahco, the airport operator which is FAAN and then our good selves. The thing we found out were mind boggling. First and foremost, the GAT terminal here was built without baggage in mind, the baggage was an after-thought, so when they realised that the folly had been done, quickly a small room was created for baggage.

When Arik was operating over 150 flights a day every morning at 6:30 and 7:00 am, that place is a mad house. The fact that they could even sort out the bags is a miracle. Then to add insult to injury, all the floor flooded during the rains to the extent that baggage handlers stand inside pools of water before they could offload bags from the cart onto the conveyor belt and only one cart at a time can be offloaded.  And they had only one screening machine there. And Arik used to have one very peculiar arrangement; they have one engineer that has to be at the foot of the aircraft before the baggage room can be opened.

So if you arrive and unfortunately for you that engineer has gone on lunch break or has gone to answer the call of nature, then you are on your own. You have to wait for him to come back before that baggage compartment will be opened. So that meeting opened our eyes and brought everything to the fore. We went on inspection, instructed FAAN to see what they can do about that place, increase the baggage screening machine to two machines.

The baggage hall itself was expanded from half its size to a third more and the flooring where they used to offload the baggage was done. Nahco itself was told that they have to improve on the number of personnel they have there, so when it comes to offloading the baggage they should have more people there. The baggage handling equipment is inadequate. That singular opportunity threw up all these problems and we had them addressed and things really improved. That is why we always want passengers to complain to us, tell us what is happening, what is going on, because if you don’t put it in writing and tell us what is happening we won’t know.  Passengers get disillusioned to the extent that you tell them to fill form they say they will not fill the form; complain officially they will not complain, they are used to taking the abuse and exploitation.

 

What is the frequency of complaints to your directorate these days?

Complaints used to be in 1000s now they are in 100s. Yes there is serious improvement in services and most of the complaints usually were from Arik and we have seen now that there is a new improved Arik.  Things have changed and those areas of complaints are no longer there because the scheduling of that airline has come down drastically to the extent that they can now manage their schedules. And you see that the complaints have really come down because they don’t lose bags anymore, on time departure and on-time arrival and even their staff have really improved, they now interface with the public in a more jovial manner. The pressure was really telling on them before now it is no longer there. In addition, the education, the more they become educated on the fact that there is a regulation and this is what the regulation says they tend to obey as opposed to formerly when they didn’t even know that regulation existed or pretended not to know. Now with the ease of doing business policy introduced by the federal government, there is serious improvement; therefore the complaints have really drastically come down.

 

The National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA) has been complaining that there are some illegal travel agents that will collect money from passengers, block the booking system, but they won’t issue ticket to the passengers rather they will take the money. And they said they want to work with NCAA to forestall such situation. Have you received such complaints?

It will not come here it will go to the DATR (Directorate of Air Transport Regulations) of NCAA. They are the ones who have ticketing and reservation department and NANTA is more or less an extension of that; therefore, all such complaints, I am sure, will be there and once they have already told you that they are partnering with us be rest assured that it will be sorted out and with good result. We have had such an issue with Azman Air. Some crooks went and opened another website and opened a website,  Azman Air but Azman’s website is Air Azman. So if by any chance you go into Azman Air website you will find yourself with those crooks and then you go ahead and make payment into their account only to find out that you are not on any flight.

So we called Azman, told them that they have to warn people, which they did; they bought pages on newspapers and warned people that their own website is Air Azman not Azman Air. And then make serious efforts to block that website which we have done successfully. So if there are such issues, please the general public should let us know and we will take it up. The Azman story is a success story and any other one that comes up like that will also be a success.

Is it possible for NCAA to insist, as a regulator, that any airport that doesn’t have working airfield lighting should not operate by FAAN?

It is not really a FAAN thing, it is an NCAA thing, categorisation of airport has to be endorsed by CAA, and if you have noticed now we have gone into certification of the airports and Lagos has been certified, Abuja is coming on stream before the end of this year and Kano, Port Harcourt and the others will follow suit. So once you have certified an airport, you have now set a standard, so you can now hold somebody liable, whenever the standards fall, we move in and bring down the categorisation.

You see, airports have categorisation based on the airfield lightings, fire cover, security cover, so if you are an international airport you must have Customs and Immigration presence, if you don’t, you are not there. And if you are a 24-hour operations airport of course you will have ILS system, airfield lighting, fire cover in such airport is different from an airport that operates only daylight. So the regulations are very specific; they tell you what the category of the airport is and that is what goes into the books and that is what pilots work with whenever they fly into that airport. So any pilot going into an airport files a flight plan, once that flight plan is filed they look at all these categorisations and they can only give permit for you to land into such airport based on the regulation.