BY Okechukwu Nnodim and Maureen Ihua-Maduenyi
Scores of passengers of Nigeria’s largest commercial carrier, Arik Air, were stopped from flying on Tuesday as a result of protests by aviation unions against the management of the airline.
At the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, and the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, hundreds of travellers could not embark on their trips as the carrier’s operations were disrupted by the unionists, who were protesting the non-payment of seven months’ outstanding salaries to employees of Arik, among other issues.
Senior officials at the Abuja airport told one of our correspondents that the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority had to summon the airline to a meeting in a bid to resolve the issues.
The officials also revealed that the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria had to increase security at airports across the country, particularly as Nigerians had begun travelling in large numbers to celebrate the Christmas and New Year in different parts of the nation.
The National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers, National Union of Air Transport Employees and Air Transport Services Senior Staff Association of Nigeria had on Monday directed workers of Arik Air to commence an indefinite strike action from Tuesday over the non-payment of seven months’ salaries in addition to other issues.
It was observed that activities at the airline’s ticketing and reservation counters at the NAIA were disrupted and passengers could not carry out transactions at the carrier’s stands.
As a result of the strike action, most of the other domestic airlines capitalised on the development on Tuesday by increasing their fares.
Our correspondents found that First Nation’s ticket from Lagos to Abuja, which sold for N34,800 on Monday, had been increased to N40,000 barely 24 hours after. It was the same for the airline’s Lagos to Port Harcourt fare; while Air Peace, which shares the same terminal with Arik Air, raised fares on all its routes from N19,117 and N21,803 to N34,548, except for late evening flights.
Some passengers, who patronised agents around the Lagos airport, paid as much as N45,000 for First Nation’s flights to Lagos-Abuja and Lagos-Port Harcourt.
A ticketing officer, who spoke with one of our correspondents, said all the domestic airlines had also suspended promo fares for both the economy and business classes.
“It has become a standard practice; once an airline is down, others automatically remove lesser fares from their systems,” he said.
A stranded passenger said that despite the rise in the other airlines’ fares, he was unable to get a ticket.
Another passenger who was on his way to Port Harcourt; said he did not hear about the strike until he got to the airport.
“I’m already discouraged by the queue at the ticket and check-in counters of other airlines; I will just go home and think of what next to do,” he said.
The spokesperson for Arik Air, Mr. Adebanji Ola, urged the government and its agencies in the sector to intervene, stressing that it was illegal for the unions to shut down the carrier’s operations nationwide.
In a statement on the development, the airline said, “Arik Air is appealing to all the security agencies, the Minister of Aviation, the NCAA, FAAN, Nigeria Airspace Management Agency and all the other stakeholders in the industry to prevail on these aviation unions to allow for operations to commence immediately since this unjustifiable disruption by the unions has already inconvenienced the travel plans of thousands of passengers today (Tuesday).”
At its Lagos office, the carrier said officials of the unions ambushed and disrupted its operations from the early hours of Tuesday by occupying its head office premises and preventing members of staff from gaining access to their workplace.
It said the representatives of the protesting unions also prevented employees of the airline from gaining access to the General Aviation Terminal and the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, disabling the checking-in of passengers for both domestic and international flights.
It added that the union leadership had earlier written a letter to the management of Arik Air on their grievances and a meeting had been scheduled for Wednesday, December 21, 2016 (today).
The statement added, “The unions, however, did not wait for the scheduled meeting or the outcome of the meeting before embarking on such disruptive and strong-arm tactics against the airline.
“The unions have demonstrated total disregard for the laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria by interfering in the operations of the airline and preventing airline staff from carrying on with their duties of handling the passengers booked for today’s flights.”
The Acting General Manager, Corporate Affairs, FAAN, Mrs. Henrietta Yakubu, confirmed that the situation was being handled appropriately as the airline had a meeting with the NCAA on Tuesday on the matter.
In another development, Yakubu stated that the management of FAAN had alerted security agencies at airports to be on red alert as thousands of passengers would use the airports this season.
She said, “Apart from the statutory security and safety measures already in place at the airports, management has also charged all airport managers to employ measures to ensure that only those that meet requirements have access to all restricted areas at the landside, terminals and airside.
“Furthermore, the Bomb Detection Unit of the Nigerian Police Force has also been charged to be more alert at the airports to complement the effort of Aviation Security personnel at the security screening points.”