The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority recently warned travellers against patronising unregistered travel agencies. Chinedu Eze writes that while efforts are being made to reduce the number of fake agents in the system, the major challenge is how to identify them.
During the last World Cup in Russia, about 230 Nigerians were defrauded by travel agents. While they were given tickets that enabled them to travel to watch the world cup, the return leg of the trip was cancelled why they were still in Russia.
So, after the tournament, they became stranded until the federal government intervened and chartered Ethiopia Airlines flight to bring them back.
Industry operators said this incident came to the fore because many people were involved, and it happened to Nigerian fans that went to watch the world cup, stressing that such unfortunate incident happens every day to Nigerians that are usually told at the check-in counter that they cannot travel because they have fake tickets.
“Just imagine going to the airport with your luggage to travel and after saying goodbye to your relatives who wished you safe trip, they see you later with your luggage back home. The intending traveller had been defrauded by fake travel agency. We at the airport witness it every day,” said an official of passenger handling firm at the Lagos airport.
Last Sunday, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) advised all intending travellers to stop patronising unregistered travel agencies.
The authority said this is due to the recent increase in reports of fraudulent ticketing practices by unregistered travel agencies.
“The Nigeria Civil Aviation Regulations (Nig.CARs) 2015, Part 18.9.1 (111), prohibits the undertaking of the business of travel agency by any person in Nigeria, without a Certificate of Registration or Licence issued by the Authority, upon fulfillment of certain requirements, including, that an applicant submits evidence of membership of National Association of Nigeria Travel Agents (NANTA).
“In addition, Section 30 (4) of the Civil Aviation Act 2006 empowers the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority to regulate, supervise and monitor the activities of travel agents in Nigeria,” the regulatory authority said.
NCAA said in cognizance of the sharp practices by unregistered travel agencies, “the Authority has therefore directed all duly registered travel agencies to display their certificates of registration or licences in all their outlets.”
“There are 150 of travel agencies on the register of NCAA. However, there are guidelines for registration with the Authority. The applicant must fulfil both the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and NCAA requirements to be registered.
The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) therefore reiterated that prospective passengers should do business only with travel agencies registered with the Regulatory Authority,” the agency said.
THISDAY spoke with the President of NANTA, Bankole Bernard who explained why NCAA issued the warning to illegal travel agencies and said that the regulatory authority and NANTA are working hand in hand to rid the downstream sector of the air travel industry fraudsters that masquerade as travel agencies.
“NCAA is to regulate the activities of travel agencies in Nigeria. It is under their 2006 Civil Aviation Act. But that aspect has not been managed very well by NCAA because the authority is saddled with other responsibilities that affect both foreign and domestic airlines.
“They have not really focused on us in the downstream of the aviation sector and that is why we came up with Nigeria Travel Practitioners Identification Card (NTPIC) so that we will be able to know who the genuine travel agencies are.
“We brought the idea to NCAA and they accepted it and we decided to work on it together. That made NCAA to realise that we need to give NANTA a lot of support. What reinforced this need was the incident in Russia during the World Cup when some Nigerian fans became stranded because of issues concerning their return ticket,” Bernard said.
He said that when that incident in Russia happened the government wanted to know the travel agencies that cancelled the second leg of the tickets of the Nigeria fans, forcing them to become stranded in Russia, but government was unable to identify the agencies because none of them was registered with NANTA.
“They (NCAA) couldn’t figure out the travel agencies that were responsible so they now have to come back to NANTA and said, if you are a travel agency and you are not registered with the association that we recognise, which is NANTA; you will be identified as illegal travel agency and we will move and clamp you down.
“That was why NCAA issues that release. So, what we, as pressure group, will do is to mount sensitisation campaign and inform everybody so that if you don’t comply we will clamp you down. So, all those travel agencies will either have to close shop or come and register with NANTA so that they can operate legally.
“This is important in case if anything goes wrong we know who to hold. So that was what led to the statement issued by NCAA. This is a good development to the industry and the country at large,” Bernard also said.
Industry observers are of the view that although the ID card option would be effective in checkmating the nefarious activities of the illegal travel agencies but some may outsmart it because many travellers who may want to buy flight tickets from different parts of the country may not be abreast of the new regulatory conditions.
They posited that in areas outside Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano, many people strut around as travel agents and intending traveller may be beguiled into parting with his money if one or more people come around to say they bought their tickets from that agent.
The Executive Director, Zenith Travels, Olu Ohunayo, urged NANTA to publish names of all registered members in the national dailies and a hotline created so that the public can call and cross-check whether the agent is genuine or not.
“NANTA should publish names of all registered NANTA members in the national dailies. A hotline can also be created where the public can call to check and confirm whether the agent is genuine or not.
“They will also be able to check online. Like all other professions, quacks cannot be fully eliminated but can be reduced to the nearest minimum. Once the public are sensitised they will be more cautious and there will be fewer victims,” Ohunayo said.
He also noted that modern technology has made it easy for people to parade around as travels agents because with your computer you can stay in your bedroom and work as an agent. Ohunayo also noted that unregistered agents usually go through the registered ones when dealing with major international airlines.
“With the advent of online sales every IT savvy person has become an agent which is an area NANTA needs to look into.
“Also, often time the unregistered agents usually go through a registered agent when dealing with major international airlines whereby commission are spilt while the registered agency shore up its sales to that airline; which is more important to them than the risk of having an unregistered as go between,” he said.
Ohunayo observed that a good number of unlicenced agents don’t have offices.
“The situation is very worrisome because they solicit for passengers even at the premises of the airlines with active connivance of airline staff. Go to international terminal of the Lagos airport, they are there.
“On a final note, integrity is key. A person that is dubious will always be dubious whether licenced or not,” he added.
Integrity and Goodwill
In an earlier interview with THISDAY, Bernard had observed that the downstream sector of the aviation industry “is so porous and there is no entry or exit barrier. So, it has become an all comers’ affair even for fraudsters.”
“We realised that some are even using travel agency to cover up for human trafficking and defrauding intending passengers, bastardising our names at the embassies because there is no record of the real practitioners. Till date, we are having incidences of fraudsters defrauding intending passengers to the tune of millions of naira.
“We went to the Presidency to solicit support for the new ID card initiative, and we were made to understand that even the office of Presidency was defrauded by a travel agent and they later caught the fellow in Benin,” he said.
Bernard said that NANTA has been moved a notch ahead as pressure group to fight policies and actions inimical to the interest of the downstream sector of the aviation industry.
He said this hard work would come to nothing if interlopers are allowed to erode the integrity that defines the multibillion naira sub-sector where trust and credibility are key to business.
“We have looked at the whole matter, telling ourselves that the great work we have done in making NANTA a pressure group, by ensuring that some of the policies of government are favourable to the industry, will be defeated when some of the members within the industry are not being checked. It is based on this that we have introduced an industry Identification Card,” he said.
On the plan to sensitise the public, Bernard said NANTA has a plan which it has kicked off in partnership with the media to create awareness to travellers.
“We have a master plan that we have started rolling out. We have already engaged the media in this direction to fill them in on what the plans are. After that, we are going into full scale publicity that will be on national radio, televisions and social media platforms for us to create awareness.
“The NCAA, Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Nigerian Police, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) are all carried along and the general public too, so that they can all know what to look out for.
“With the introduction of the ID card no intending passenger should buy ticket without first demanding for the ID card of the travel agent to verify that he or she is genuine. The ID card has a barcode that is connected to the holder’s Bank Verification Number (BVN). “That way, passengers can tell whether the agent is genuine or not. Once you scan the barcode on your mobile device, you will immediately receive a message that is in line with the card that you are holding. So, it is a bit difficult to duplicate,” the NANTA President explained.