The Director of Consumer Protection, Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Adamu Abdullahi, has said airlines in the country will gain more by cooperating and maximising opportunities through interlining. Abdullahi, who said this in an interview, also said Nigeria may reciprocate the high charges levelled on Nigerian carriers by other African countries. He spoke to Chinedu Eze. Excerpts:
Let’s start with your evaluation of the airlines’ relationship with passengers, do you think it has improved?
It has improved tremendously. What is happening now is unprecedented. You have seen what happened to Medview Airline. It sent most of its aircraft on checks. At some stage, it didn’t have any aircraft on ground. But it continued to operate. It was operating because it entered into interlining arrangement with Dana Air, with Arik Air and so passengers that come to the airport, who had already bought tickets, as Medview did not envisage it would send out its aircraft, it assigned these passengers to other airlines. Most times, we say as long as the passengers do not complain, we don’t have any issues. And passengers did not really complain. It is only when passengers become choosy and say that I bought the ticket from this airline, why are you asking to use this other airline, that we explain to them that every aircraft flying in Nigeria is airworthy, as far as NCAA is concerned. If the airline you bought the ticket from endorses you to fly another airline you go ahead and take that flight.
I will say the situation is encouraging, in the same instance, when airlines lose aircraft without notice because you are dealing with machines and machines can fail at any moment.
A particular airline has three AOGs (Aircraft on Ground) in one day, but all the same, it went ahead, merged flights; gave all the things to the passengers, according to the regulator; such as the refreshment that is needed after two hours of delay; they refunded those that want their tickets refunded and merged flights to ensure that passengers were taken from point A to point B. These are the things we have encouraged, and they are becoming norm and that is what we wanted to achieve all the while, as long as there is no issue between the passengers and the airline. We feel that we have done our job, as long as no one feels that he has been short-changed in any way. We are happy. Overtime we will reach the stage with the domestic airlines where we are with the foreign airlines. Whenever foreign airlines have issues we just see it as a report that airline A has AOG and passengers have been taken to a hotel, so another time has been fixed for the flight and passengers have been informed. The passengers who could not wait have been endorsed to other airlines. This is where we want domestic airlines to be in the near future.
This means that NCAA is strongly in support of the on-going plan for domestic airlines to interline?
This is something NCAA has always encouraged, and it was part of the meetings NCAA has held with all airlines, stakeholders in which we encouraged them to go into this interlining arrangement. Come to think of it, it does not make sense for three airlines to leave at the same time to the same destination with each aircraft having few passengers. Rather than that; why not put all the passengers in one aircraft and have a full load? In that way you maximise your profit. Once you have a flight form you will know who flies who, where the money goes to and this is cleared at the clearing house that will be established.
We have always encouraged airlines to be part of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Billings and Settlement Plan (BSP). If domestic airlines will do that, we will be most glad. They are now in the process of doing that. I know they are holding discussions among themselves and IATA is spearheading it and let’s see if it will work out; if it does, it will be very good for the airlines themselves as well as passengers. This is because this issue of passengers getting stranded and all the flight delays and cancellations will be a thing of the past. This is possible because at any given time you will have one of the airlines going to one of the three major destinations of Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt. So, we are looking forward to the interlining.
Recently there were text messages being sent to people, warning them not to fly some airlines because if they do they might be involved in accidents. One of the messages was attributed to a well-known pastor. What was NCAA’s reaction when it saw the message?
It was a desperate de-marketing strategy, caused by this intense competition among the airlines. We believe that it is the airlines that were fighting each other to the extent that they went ahead to damage each other’s name. They were even posts on social medium, Whatsapp by pilots, telling you not to fly an airline they just left; that they left the services of that airline because they don’t maintain their aircraft. But that is not true because all the pilots and crew of the accused airline would have left if there is any of such danger. This is because no one would want to go and commit suicide if by any chance the aircraft is not maintained, and they go and have an accident. People should think twice about all these fake news that go on air. NCAA has given assurances that any aircraft you see in Nigeria’s airspace is safe and airworthy.
We have warned all the airlines and we are warning them again to desist from such practices and as I said earlier, this interlining arrangement will encourage them to be collaborating with each other rather than be on each other’s neck. So I suggest and I strongly recommend that people should not worry about such postings because our airspace is safe and our aircraft are safe to fly.
Nigerian airlines are complaining that some countries in the West Coast use high charges to discourage them from flying to those destinations, while they are not charged as much when airlines from those countries come to Nigeria. What do you think the domestic airlines should do?
Most of these complaints have to do with ASECNA, and ASECNA is the body that has solid control over the airspace of these French speaking countries in West and Central Africa. Our own carriers keep complaining that their charges are too high and that they are discriminatory in what they charge airlines from English speaking countries and French speaking countries. While they charge the former highly; they charge the later low. This is really out of my purview but a complaint from airline operator that comes to me certainly will be investigated because consumer protection does not begin and end with passenger. It covers everybody that uses the service of aviation. The airlines can lay their complaints if they have. This issue is currently under discussion. The Director-General of the Civil Aviation Authority of these countries met, and the matter has been raised by the Director General of NCAA. This matter has been discussed and that is why our airlines are getting a better deal now. That explains why our airlines are now operating to some of those destinations, especially the West Coast countries. This means that things are looking up. We have the highest number of air passengers in West and Central Africa, so it is high time we reciprocated all the Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) we have with these countries. What is good for the goose, is good for the gander. If we don’t overcharge them here, they should not over charge us, but if they do, we are free to also charge.
What is your view about fares charged on domestic flights?
Civil aviation authorities also act as consultants to airlines. Low cost carriers have been success stories all over the world because there is less cost associated with their flights. Low cost carriers cut off refreshments. It is no frills flights. You just take your light bags and jump onto the flights. No air hostess to serve you refreshments on the flight. Nigeria can adopt this and because most of the domestic flights are one hour, passengers can manage. So, if Nigerian airlines can change their business plan and start thinking in those terms of low cost flights, they would spend less on cost of flights. But come to think of it, the average cost for one-hour flight worldwide is $100 and that is about N36, 000. Most flights in Nigeria are about one hour and if you check well, you will see that the cost of ticket is around that amount, unless you booked your flights in time. So, what this is telling us is to book our flights on time so that we can pay less. The less the ticket cost the more people that will fly, but the fact remains that we don’t have enough aircraft in our airspace. We have many aircraft that have gone for checks and the average age of our aircraft makes maintenance a major issue.
If we can get new aircraft in our fleet, airlines will save more money on maintenance and make more money. Maintenance is a no go area. There is no way you can cut corners on that and the older the aircraft the more maintenance that you do. So, we keep advising the airlines as their consultants, on how they can operate at lower rate and then make more revenue out of their operation.
VIP movement makes airlines lose fuel, cause flight delays and also make passengers anxious. Is there any way such delays can be curtailed, or the airlines be compensated, as it is done in some countries?
This issue has been raised during Consumer Protection Directorate, airlines and airport service providers. VIP movement has been identified as major cause of delays in flight operations. Such delay that can sometime be as high as 40 minutes affect the operations of that aircraft for the rest of the day because each aircraft is scheduled for services and any delay in one flight affect the schedule of other flights operated by that aircraft. During the meeting, we agreed that the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) Director of Airport Operations and NCAA’s Director of Aerodromes and Airspace Standards should take up this issue with their respective heads to that we can get a shorter span of time for VIP movements.
Better still, on the long term; we have spoken severally about having a separate airport for the Air Force as it is with Saint Andrews in Washington, so that civil aviation can be separated from military flight operations.