The rulebook on consumer protection requires airlines to refund 100% of fares after a three-hour delay, and the federal government is pushing for its implementation. But in an industry where regulators struggle to collect billions in accumulated debt, there is little hope for unprotected consumers to get a quick payback. Rather than come up with a solution, stakeholders say a more coordinated approach at all levels will help stem the festering mess in national operations. WOLE OYEBADE writes.
Local air operations can be chaotic and at times bizarre. The latter best describes a scene at Abuja airport a few days ago.
There were about three passengers at the gate of the Aero Contractors flight to Lagos. They had left the departure lounge to see the plane door close behind them. They got mad and all hell broke loose.
As the video clip shows, one of the travelers kicked the door, trying to force it to open. Another pounced on an official with heated arguments and discussions. None were aware of the risk of falling from elevated stairs! Inside the fully packed cabin, it was no better. It was chaotic everywhere.
The results later showed that the flight was delayed and overbooked. An eyewitness said the airline deployed a smaller plane running out of already checked-in passengers.
“The staff at the boarding gate did not explain to the registered passengers. They waited until the plane was full before giving the explanation.
“At that point, some passengers became disruptive. In fact, the boarding gate was closed by FAAN AVSEC, but the passengers, including the lady in the video, forced the doors open and rushed to the foot of the plane, ”said the informant.
Last Wednesday, Air Peace customers on the Lagos-Abuja flight had a similar experience. The flight initially booked at 10:20 has been rescheduled for nine hours. One of the passengers, Enitan Akinnifesi, did not see the postponement notice until he arrived at the airport.
“I arrived at the terminal just before 9 am, only to be told that my flight was moved to 7 pm. Just like that? They don’t even realize that people are traveling to meet their dates. I didn’t take it lightly with them.
“Then their supervisor came to explain that the 10:20 am flight had left much earlier and that the next departure was 4:00 pm and 7:00 pm. She apologized and agreed to get me on the 4:00 pm flight. “
The 4 pm flight did not take off on time. Two hours later (6 p.m.), checked-in passengers were served cookies and soft drinks. Another three hours later (8:55 p.m.) the 4 p.m. flight took off.
Businessman and frequent traveler Salihu Mohammed said it was disappointing that local carriers lost the essence of the on-time departure and customer service experience.
“I have been flying many parts of the world for a long time, but I’m sorry to say I haven’t seen any like our operators. They don’t care. Just when you expect them to get better, they get worse. Take Lagos for example, once you don’t fly between 6am and 9am, you have no time reliability. Is that how we do business?
Indeed, the airlines have their excuses which are sometimes cases of force majeure such as weather disturbances. It could be low traffic as in the case of Air Peace, given the Muslim festivities. Others are operational issues and capacity constraints like the case of Aero Contractors above.
But customers deserve a better deal in airline schedule planning than has been offered in recent times. It is on this basis that the Minister of Aviation recently read the anti-riot law according to which customers should be entitled to a 100 percent refund after a three-hour delay.
Beyond an iron-fisted approach, stakeholders say there is a need for a better understanding of customer rights, better intervention by the consumer protection agency and concerted efforts between companies. airlines, regulators and service providers for seamless services.
Silly season in civil aviation
In this era of a pandemic, the restart has been difficult and slow for commercial operators. However, of the 14,662 domestic flights operated in the country in the first quarter of this year, at least 7,554 were delayed. A total of 149 flights were canceled according to figures released by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA).
Oddly enough, only 47 customers complained to the authority. Five cases concerned a lack of courtesy on the part of local operators, 10 cases of overbooking and denied boarding. In total, the 41 complaints were resolved.
The numbers share parity with the pre-COVID-19 trend. In 2018, for example, the first quarter saw a total of 14,633 flights, of which 8,825 were delayed and 208 canceled.
In 2017, out of a total of 48,319 flights operated by eight local airlines, 30,214 were delayed, while 872 were canceled.
Seemingly troubled by the overwhelming numbers and the myriad of complaints, Aviation Minister Hadi Sirika recently said consumers were entitled to a 100% refund for flights delayed by more than three hours.
In the event of a delay between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., the carrier must provide hotel accommodation, refreshments, meals, two free calls, SMS, e-mail and round-trip airport transportation.
“On domestic flights delayed for more than an hour, the carrier must provide refreshments, and a phone call, or text, or email. They should text or e-mail you or call you and say, “I’m sorry, I’m delaying an hour.”
“For delays of two hours and beyond, the carrier will reimburse passengers for the full volume of their tickets. In the event of a delay between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., the carrier must provide hotel accommodation, refreshments, meals, two free calls, SMS, email, and round-trip airport transportation.
The minister, who said his ministry had started sanctioning some airlines that did not respect consumer rights, however urged passengers not to be unruly at airports.
NCAA chief executive Musa Nuhu noted that prior to the 2015 amendment to Nigeria’s civil aviation regulations, airlines were expected to pay 100% compensation to passengers after two hours of delay, but the regulatory agency amended it to three o’clock to accommodate complaints from native airlines and in an effort to ensure fair play for all.
Nuhu said, however, that in the event of a natural phenomenon, airlines would not be sanctioned by the agency, describing it as a case of force majeure.
He added that airlines receive Air Operator Certificates (AOCs) on the basis that they will comply with civil aviation regulations, saying that once one of the carriers fails, the agency would not hesitate to sanction such an airline accordingly.
Nuhu regretted that most passengers do not report to the regulatory agency when their rights are violated.
He said the NCAA will soon launch a campaign to educate the traveling public about their rights and available reporting channels.
“We will apply the new law to the letter, but if consumers aren’t complaining, how do we know? We need to educate passengers about their rights. All airlines have received AOCs on the basis that they will comply with the regulations. During our monitoring, if we find that they are not complying appropriately, we will sanction them. But, on the issue of force majeure, you cannot sanction them. It is an act of nature and even the law recognizes it.
Section 18.104.22.168 of the 2015 NCAR as amended stated that for domestic flights, where an operating air carrier reasonably expected a flight to be delayed beyond its scheduled departure time, it would provide passengers with the reason (s) for the delay within 30 minutes. after the scheduled departure time.
Concerted effort, no demagoguery
A leading operator confidently told The Guardian that the refund order would not solve the problem, but would cause more chaos and confusion in local travel.
He said flight delays are most often caused by factors other than airlines.
“I agree with you that on-time departures have decreased considerably. However, we all need to remember that we are in the rainy season where the weather changes more often and safety regulations prohibit airlines from taking risks. So who pays for this? When flights are delayed due to flight movements and emergencies, is it also the airline’s fault?
“As a regulator, I can’t question them if I want to stay in business. But let them know that by calling for a global reimbursement of airline tickets, they have again encouraged unruly passengers to attack airline officials, ”the operator said.
Aviation consultant Alex Nwuba explained that flight delays have been around since the beginning of time, there appears to be increased interest in delays “as if it were something deliberate and can be fully mitigated. “.
Nwuba said all discussions of 48-hour refunds seem to ignore the fact that aviation is a business where operators have cash flow management as part of their process.
“The money for the ticket you bought was not kept in the bank while you waited for you to travel. It was used to finance the numerous and often irrecoverable expenses of your trip, trips before and after. Those who have never run a business are trying to create an environment that will lead to more business failures or, at a minimum, difficulty in managing airlines. I have often said that talking is good but the 48 hour rule is unrealistic and perhaps unenforceable as there will be many ways to justify delay. Even in court, it may not be enforceable.
He warned against making unenforceable laws that would lead to worse situations.
“We must not get carried away by infrequent delays in normal repayments which are clearly also cash flow issues and in many cases airlines facing serious cash flow and business sustainability issues. We develop regulations for unusual matters, which interfere with even the usual cases which may be considered the norm of business.
“Policy and rule making requires solid consultation and careful thought; too often our policies are spontaneous and lack the sound thinking that is needed to grow things, businesses, economy, jobs and industries. If the soil looks dry and you water the plant and it is desert specific, you will surely kill the plant if overwatered. I think we have to face the real difficulties in the industry to grow, create and preserve jobs, while ensuring a pleasant experience for users, ”said Nwuba.