When salt loses its taste, it becomes worthless. What then happens when an airline fails its passengers and almost makes caricature of them?
By Ngozi OBIOGBOLU
Additional reports by Chuks OLUIGBO
Air Nigeria, an indigenous airline owned by Nigerian-born business mogul, Jimoh Ibrahim, has recently been encountering series of operational problems, which have also affected the quality of its service delivery to its numerous customers across the country and beyond. On June 28, 2011, a popular evening paper in Lagos reported that on June 27, 2011, Air Nigeria ran out of fuel and was grounded for nine hours, leaving hundreds of aggrieved passengers stranded at airports nationwide for those nine hours as Air Nigeria flights were cancelled several times. The report fingered the financial crisis rocking the airline as the cause. As at 5p.m. on the said day, only two Air Nigeria flights had left Terminal 2 of the Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos, while on the airline’s busiest route, Abuja, only 6.05 am and 8.15 am flights had left Lagos airport. As a result, angry passengers fought officials and threatened to damage facilities at the airport. It only took the intervention of security officials to restore order.
Also on May 25, Air Nigeria could not airlift passengers for eight hours as it ran out of fuel as well. It is reported that oil marketers refuse to collect cheques from the airline and insist on cash.
On November 15, 2011, there were reports that commercial activities of Air Nigeria were on November 14 grounded following an industrial action embarked upon by the Aircraft Engineers working with the airline. The industrial action, which was sanctioned by the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers, NAAPE, the umbrella body of pilots and engineers in the aviation industry, led by Engr Isaac Balami, left the airline passengers stranded at the various airports across the country. The strike action was said to have been embarked upon for alleged interference by the airline’s management with the job of the head of maintenance, which has to do with safety issues and for putting pressure on the head of maintenance to operate unserviceable aircraft.
On the said day, passengers were seen at the Terminal 2 of Murtala Mohammed Airport, Lagos, queuing up to collect their refunds from the airline’s counter. Some the affected passengers lamented that they have paid their air fare only for officials of the airline to tell them that the flights have been cancelled because engineers on the employment of the airline are on strike.
Addressing journalists at MMA2, the NAAPE president, Balami, said that the management of Air Nigeria was toying with the safety of passengers, which was not acceptable in the aviation industry, noting that if safety was compromised, many lives could be lost as accident was bound to happen in such situation. His words: “They have 11 aircrafts in all but only 7 are air worthy but they want to fly 10 aircrafts to include 3 aircrafts that are not serviceable. So, the engineers were against it and because of that they fired the Head of Maintenance, Mr. James Erigba.”
On its part, Air Nigeria confirmed the disruptions to its flight operations, saying it was due to a trade dispute with some aircraft engineers in its employ. The airline’s media relations manager, Sam Ogbogoro, said the dispute came about as a result of a management change within the airline’s Maintenance department and assured that efforts were on course to resolve all grey areas.
Recently too, at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos, it was another story of woes in the hands of Air Nigeria for three foreigners on a visit to Nigeria, namely: Horst Braun from Germany, Geoff Peters from Australia, and Lorenzo Sechi from Switzerland, business representatives of Carlton Corporation and ODII who came to Nigeria for the annual Customers’ Forum of Sokka International, which was held in Asaba, Delta State, Nigeria.
At the end of the Forum in Nigeria, these men were given a terrible farewell package at the airport, which made them swear never to fly with Air Nigeria. It all started when they got to Murtala Mohammed International Airport on November 6, 2011 to board an Air Nigeria flight to Accra, Ghana, for the next phase of the Customers’ Forum scheduled for Kumasi, Ghana. The team left their hotel at 12.03 pm, accompanied by two other staff of Sokka International. They arrived at the airport at 1.30pm and by 2.10pm, they had completed all checking in processes. They looked at the time schedule display screen, and it indicated that the departure time for the flight was 17.10 hours. So, they decided to while away time in a nearby Coca-Cola restaurant inside the departure area. The waiting was long but they had no choice. But while they waited, their co-passengers began to board. At about 4.29 pm, the manager of Sokka International, Lagos branch, Mrs Ogechi Oguanobi, called to inform them that their flight was about to take off. It was only then that it dawned on them that the time display screen had given them wrong information. Not only were they deceived by the time display screen, the restaurant where they had been waiting was not connected to the speakers that announced arrival and departure.
Quickly, they rushed to the departure door only to be told that they were late, that their actual departure time was 4.05 pm. Even though the aircraft was still there, they were told that their books had been closed. Politely, Mr Lorenzo Sechi referred the flight agents to the time screen that showed departure time as 17.10 hours, but instead of apologizing, the staff of Air Nigeria shifted the blame on Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN. When the visitors threatened to sue them, they mocked and laughed at them. And while they watched, the plane took off, leaving them frustrated and humiliated as they lamented the ill-treatment and lack of proper information dissemination at the airport. Mr. Geoff Peters, one of the visitors, observed that Nigerians are not friendly to visitors and noted that this will have a negative effect on foreigners who may wish to invest in the country.
An air Nigeria staff later directed them to go back and book for the next flight. They did, and had to wait several hours again, plus the extra 40 minutes waiting just at the exit into the tarmac, in a small airtight room without fan or air conditioner. No explanation was given for keeping the passengers waiting in such an uncomfortable place for so long, nor was there any apology. It was with this feeling of disappointment that the team left Nigeria. As the director of Sokka International, Mrs. Nneka Ezeemo, later observed, such treatment to foreigners does not speak well of Nigeria’s image, especially to the international business community.
But the tales of woes were not yet over. When the team arrived Ghana, it was discovered that their luggage had been left behind in Nigeria. When they reported the issue to the Air Nigeria staff in Ghana, they were assured that another plane coming from Nigeria at 4.15 pm the following day would bring them. And so, everybody on the team, including the foreigners, was compelled to wear the same dress all through. When the evening of the following day came and they went to pick their luggage, it was discovered that Air Nigeria failed to bring the luggage yet again. It took the frantic efforts of Accra International Airport staff to ensure that a different airline brought them later. It was indeed a terrible experience.
Attempts to reach Air Nigeria to hear their own side of this sad story has not yielded any positive result as at press time. Though some observers have said that the passengers themselves should also share part of the blame, saying that since they had their tickets, they should have stuck to the departure time on their tickets, or they should have asked questions if they were confused, the truth is that the information on time display screens in any airport should supersede whatever is on the ticket. Knowing this, why then should an airline continue to display a screen which it very well knows contains outdated or wrong information which may mislead passengers?
In any case, there is an urgent need for the management of Air Nigeria, in the face of all these operational problems facing the airline, to really improve on their technical services, but especially their customer relations. Reason: whatever happens, it is not the image of Air Nigeria alone that is at stake but also the image of the nation as a whole.