The crisis in Nigeria’s aviation sector is taking a toll on passengers. Increasingly, passengers are being maltreated by domestic and international airlines and very little is being done by the regulators to protect them. Recent moves by the Consumer Protection Council to align the domestic passenger practices with international standards are steps in the right direction. Other regulators should quickly wake up to their responsibilities.
More and more, local and foreign commentators are reminding Nigeria’s inept leaders that the protection of life and property and promotion of the welfare of citizens are the primary responsibilities of every government. This should necessarily include consumer protection rights in every sector. Nowhere else has the consumer been so abandoned as in the airline sector, where stories emerge everyday of maltreatment of passengers and unscrupulous practices by carriers that would not be tolerated anywhere else.
Flights are delayed interminably without any explanation from airlines. Passengers are left stranded at the departure halls and sometimes on the tarmac or under sweltering heat inside aircraft. When Aero Contractors allegedly abandoned 39 Lagos-bound passengers at the Abuja airport in November last year, it provided neither accommodation, meals, refreshments nor transportation as enshrined in Civil Aviation Consumer Protection Regulations of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Regulations 2012, according to the CPC.
Aero was at it again last month when it reportedly lifted Lagos-bound passengers from Kano at around 11 pm for a flight that had been scheduled to depart four hours earlier. Recently, a video showing passengers sweating profusely on a Nigerian international flight after a long delay by an airline went viral on social media. Often, scheduled flights, for which passengers have paid the fare, are cancelled without adequate explanations or compensation.
“Bumping” – where passengers are rescheduled for later flights as a result of over-booked seats for a particular flight – is also rife. There are consumer complaints of poor in-flight services, damaged aircraft seats, faulty air cooling and pressure and resale of pre-assigned seats.
Though aviation experts say laws need to be reviewed, the problems persist primarily because of weak enforcement of existing ordinances. This was reiterated by Dupe Atoki, Director-General of the CPC, who said that airlines simply flout the law with impunity. In the Aero case, for instance, she said under the rules, a carrier which left passengers stranded at the airport between 6 pm and 9 am the following day ought to have paid each passenger N5,000 after two hours of delay; N1,000 each for phone calls, SMS or email, and N10,000 each for transportation to and from a hotel in the city. In addition, it should pay N25, 000 for a night’s accommodation. NCAA has since said it had already sanctioned Aero even before CPC intervened.
Government officials should not continue to advertise Nigeria as a failing state. A country that loudly and repeatedly proclaims its ambition to be a global economic power and an investment magnet must instil order into its aviation sector. For too long, the sector has been mired in corruption, ineptitude and policy flip-flops.
The government has failed to implement its own Nigerian Civil Aviation Master plan developed in collaboration with the International Civil Aviation Organisation in 2005. The plan called for massive investment in infrastructure and creative use of our network of airports.
But successive Aviation Ministers since 1999, none of whom had any prior knowledge or relationship with the industry, have often opted to devise pet projects involving mainly the award of failed contracts to entrench state control and enrich themselves. Today, only about 12 private passenger airlines are fully active, serving a population of 167 million people and virtually all have serious financial challenges.
Our aviation sector managers need to imbibe professionalism and new thinking. The first challenge is to break the iron grip of corruption that has rendered the regulators – the ministry, NCAA and the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency – ineffective. Samuel Ortom, the minister currently overseeing the sector, should ensure that the NCAA meets the 120-day deadline given it last week by America’s Federal Aviation Administration to produce an action plan to correct deficiencies that may make Nigeria lose its Category One certification obtained only in 2010 and facilitates direct flights from Nigerian airports to US destinations. The next step is to privatise and concession the airports to allow investors run them efficiently as business concerns.
Urgent steps should be taken to compel airlines operating within our airspace to conform to the rules and raise passenger protection practices to global standards. The NCAA and CPC should insist on strict enforcement of existing rules as codified in the Passenger Bill of Rights, the CPC Act and NCAR. The US Department of Transportation enforces its own robust rules, including new ones introduced by Barack Obama, which have virtually ended lengthy tarmac delays, prohibited US carriers from scheduling chronically delayed flights and raised compensation for bumped flights, among others. Europe-wide regulations that, according to ICAO, in instances, exceed US requirements, provide ample compensation and comfort for passengers.
To complement its work, the CPC and NCAA should support the formation of consumer groups such as America’s Federal Association of Airline Passengers and similar bodies in Europe to continually press for consumer rights.