•177 passengers returned to Nigeria
Michael Olugbode in Abuja and Chinedu Eze in Lagos
The federal government yesterday, said it was investigating the cancellation by the Saudi Arabian Authorities of visas of all the 264 Air Peace passengers, who were airlifted to Jeddah from Lagos and Kano on Sunday.
Saudi Arabia has cancelled the visa of all the 264 passengers airlifted by Air Peace on arrival in Jeddah from Kano, insisting that the airline should return them back to Nigeria.
However, 87 passengers were later allowed entry into the country and the country’s airport officials insisted 177 should follow the Air Peace flight back to Nigeria.
The flight took off from the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos via the Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano on Sunday night and arrived Saudi Arabia’s major city, Jeddah yesterday morning without issues. But on landing, the Saudi Arabia authorities announced that all the passengers’ visas were cancelled.
Informed source told THISDAY that all the passengers and the airline personnel were shocked over the cancellation of the visas because during check in of the passengers, they went through Advanced Passengers Prescreening System (APPS), which were also monitored by the Saudi Arabia authorities before the flight left Nigeria.
The source wondered whether what happened was a strategy to discourage the airline from operating to the destination because since it started the operation it has been recording high load factor and even the flight expected to leave on Tuesday to Jeddah was already fully booked.
A statement yesterday, by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was investigating the matter to see if any consular or aviation rules were flouted.
The statement signed by the media aide to Ambassador Yusuf Tuggar, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alkasim Abdulkadir read:
“Nigeria has just participated in the Saudi-Africa Summit where bilateral discussions covering several sectors of the economy and mutually beneficial commitments were made.
“The Ministry will ensure such actions that impact the welfare of Nigerian citizens are mitigated in the future in line with the 4 Ds strategy of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu.”
THISDAY learnt that the Nigerian embassy waded into the matter, prompting Saudi authorities to reduce the number of passengers that would be returned to 177 from 264.
THISDAY also learnt that Saudi Air has been operating directly from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia and since Air Peace started flight service to the Middle East nation at relatively lower fares, it has been receiving high patronage and as a Nigerian carrier, it helps to conserve foreign exchange for the country.
A source at the Nigerian embassy in Jeddah disclosed that even the Saudi Immigrations personnel said they didn’t know who cancelled the visas but that the action was taken when the airline’s flight was already airborne to Jeddah.
The source said, “The airline was exonerated in all this as the Advanced Passenger Prescreening System which is live between both countries would have screened out any invalid visa and its passenger. The system accepted all affected passengers and passed them on.
“Those deported were 177 passengers and Air Peace has already left with them back to Nigeria.
“They are on their way to Nigeria now,” the source said.
When contacted, spokesman of Air Peace, Stanley Olisa confirmed the incident. He said the airline would issue a statement after getting full details of what happened.
Industry observers attributed this to aeropolitics, noting that it was a way to force the Nigerian operator out of the route. They urged Nigeria’s federal government to intervene and possibly adopt the principle of reciprocity.
In his reaction to the incident, industry expert and the CEO of Centurion Aviation Security and Safety Consult, Nigeria, Group Captain John Ojikutu attributed the action of the Saudis to aero politics and diplomacy and urged that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should step in immediately and intervene in the case.
He said what happened showed why it was important for the Nigerian government to stand strongly with any Nigerian carrier designated to operate international destinations.
Ojikutu, said Nigeria should designate Nigerian airlines approved to operate out of the country as flag carrier, noting that the United States has no national carrier but all the airlines are supported by the government and are designated as flag carriers.
“The action of the Saudi Authorities is shocking. There is aeropolitics there and there is also diplomacy. There is need for the Nigerian government to stand firmly with Nigerian carriers and also designate them as flag carriers; so that other countries will know that they represent Nigeria.
“Government must come out and intervene. Government must be behind Air Peace now to ensure that it is not denied its rights as contained in the Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) between the two countries. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs must not keep quiet. Nigeria must not keep quiet. Ideally, government is expected to stand behind any of the country’s airline that it designates to fly overseas,” Ojikutu said.