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At the mercy of the local airlines (1)

Dateline Enugu. Akanu Ibiam International Airport. April 11, 2021. The flight was supposed to be for around 4:55 pm on that fateful Sunday. And my friends were checked in around 4:00 pm.

One of them had even left for the airport at a little before 2:00 pm, with the hope of watching an English Premiership football game at the airport lounge.

But that was his first mistake, the first in a series of disappointments of a long, better-forgotten day. The TV at the airport lounge was faulty. Nowhere to see the match – which his favourite club lost, anyway!

The rest of the travelling team joined him two hours later, and together, they began to wait for Godot.

And the delay announcements began dropping in intermittently. From 5 pm, it became 5:45 pm. Then, another 20 minutes delay ‘due to operational reasons’. Another one-hour delay ‘due to late arrival of operating aircraft’ etc. etc.

When it was almost 11:00 pm, the airline finally announced a cancellation of the flight.

Even with her security escorts, I gathered the officer who came to make the announcement barely made away with her life, as irate passengers made to tear her to pieces.

Now, delays, rescheduling and cancellation of flights are part and parcel of commercial flights the world, but regulatory authorities, having long accepted this fact, have laid out processes and procedures for such disruptions, including amelioratory steps to reduce the pains of affected passengers. Unfortunately, Nigerian airlines and aviation authorities observe all the rules in the breach, complying only in the face of a court action or real threat of withdrawal of operating licence.

And so it was in Enugu that Sunday night. Not a thought was spared for stranded passengers – no meals, no hotel accommodation. Not even for one young mother and her little kids who had come to Enugu from a nearby state, with no extra money and nowhere to sleep for the night. Men, women, children and luggage just littered the airport space like refugees.

Everyone was simply told to make sure they came back by 7:00 am, as the flight had been rescheduled for 7:30 am the following day. And by the following day, that flight still did not take off until well after 10:00 am.

The story was not much different for other members of the team whose Abuja flight, aboard another airline, the following day, was originally scheduled to depart Enugu at 2:20 pm.

By 4:00 pm, when yours sincerely, who decided to risk road travel, having failed to secure an airline seat, was having lunch in my hotel room in Abuja, my colleagues on that 2:20 pm flight were yet to take off from Enugu. So much for the swiftness of air travel!

Who will save the Nigerian flying public? That was one question that kept popping up in my mind as one ruminated over the unsavoury experiences of flying in and out of Enugu last week. Just two routes!

That is not saying anything about the nightmares faced by those on other routes like Yola, Bauchi, Kano, Calabar,  Sokoto, Port Harcourt, Owerri etc.

This was just Lagos-Enugu and Enugu-Abuja!

It actually began with getting a flight into the famous Coal City in the first instance.

Easter was on the horizon and it seemed to make a lot of sense that one should make an early booking. I thought one week was a long enough time for a domestic flight. So, for a trip scheduled for April 9, I had tried to book on March 30th. However, telecoms network issues, coupled with a host of other distractions, made it impossible. But when other members of my travelling party called to raise the alarm over the non-availability of flights on the route, and the exorbitant fares the few available ones were charging, I decided to devote more attention to the search. After nearly three hours of persistence, on April 1, I eventually got an Economy seat on the new United Nigeria airline. At about N46,000, the price seemed most reasonable. Other airlines which still had seats, were asking for as much as N83,000 for the same class ticket.

Of course, the return flight on the 11th of April was unavailable. Fully booked!

It creates the perfect environment for touts to flourish and for price gouging to become the new norm.

Clearly, the local aviation industry is in a mess. And nobody seems to be giving a hoot.

In fact, it is a classical case of ‘suffering and smiling’ for domestic air travellers in Nigeria today.

The airlines are giving flyers a raw deal, but all we can do is swear under our breaths, whine to each other and basically do nothing. You can almost count on the fingers of one hand, the number of people who have dared to take up the imperious airlines.

With the insecurity in the land making road travel a game of death, virtually everyone who has a choice has resorted to flying. But even flying has now become a pain in the wrong place.

My return to Lagos, from Abuja, on Thursday, was no less nightmarish. It was a little before 3:00 pm when I asked my travel agent to get me a ticket. She called back some 40 minutes later to say there were no tickets, except for one Economy seat on one airline for 8:00 pm and a Business Class ticket on another, for 9:00 pm.

While the Economy ticket was going for a little over N69,000, the business class ticket was for N84,000.

She advised I should go physically to the airport, that I might get ‘something’.

I took the chance, ready to fly whatever airline available.

Yes! Just any one of them! I no longer have any preferences. For I have been disappointed by virtually all the airlines. Except, probably Ibom Air, which I have flown only once – and didn’t even buy the ticket myself.

Time was when I flew Arik – largely due to my belief that they had many aircraft and their planes were new and, therefore, safer. But they soon became too arrogant with their pricing.

Luckily, there was Air Peace round the corner, which had everything Arik had, except outrageous ticket fares. I gradually shifted to Air Peace, also because my former colleague at The Sun newspaper, Chris Iwara (who we tragically lost not too long ago), was their image-maker.

It was those same sentiments that added to my initial attraction to Arik: My friends, Gbemiga Ogunleye and Banji Ola, were also with the airline.

But, I digress.

At the Abuja airport, I called at the ticketing counters of about five airlines, including the two that my agent said had 8 pm and 9 pm seats. None had any seats left for the day. When I ‘pleaded’ with them to crosscheck, I was told the Business Class was still available but was now going for N119,840. I told the ticketing officer I’d rather trek to Lagos than pay that much.

As I went from counter to counter, I noticed one uniformed ‘tout’ was following me and trying to market tickets to me.

He ended up getting me a ticket for the 6 pm flight on the same airline that said the tickets were sold out. It cost me N70,000. At about N48,000, the airline’s official online ticketing had declared that flight sold out more than three hours earlier.

No one should accuse me of patronizing a tout. Because touts have become a part of our system. It is in the Constitution. It is just that neither you, me, nor the best lawyers in the land can’t find it. But if you doubt that our system recognizes touts, try buying forex from the banks. They would tell you they have exhausted their allocation, but would happily phone their ‘Aboki’ to come to sell you dollars, right inside the banking hall.

Again, try buying any land under government acquisition in Lagos or Ogun State; it’s virtually impossible. But approach an ‘Omo onile” for the same piece of land, and it’s yours, at the right price. All you then have to do is go back to the same government office, which said no such land existed, and repurchase the same land Omo oniles sold to you. They call it revaluation.

The same touts exist in other forms in government offices. Some of them specialize in getting out contracts and reselling to those who now have the capacity and wherewithal to execute. Curiously, those with capacity can never get the contracts directly, unless they go through the ‘touts’. But, again, I digress.

That I had to pay N70,000 for a ticket I could have effortlessly bought online for 40-something thousand naira was not the most annoying part of the day. That part was reserved for right inside the plane, where the accompanying photograph of this article was taken.

After boarding was completed and the inflight crew completed the headcount, I noticed there were so many empty seats – including the one beside me, and two of the three seats on the adjacent row. At least, a quarter of the seats on that Boeing-737 aircraft were unoccupied.

We then had to wait another 20 or so minutes before another deluge of passengers came on board. My suspicion increased when they were asked to take any available seats – like in any other kabu-kabu.

Of course, that can sometimes happen when people are coming in from a connecting flight, but the lady who eventually took the seat beside me told me she wasn’t connecting from anywhere.

It was most likely another flight was merged with ours to ensure full load for the plane.

Now, my question is: if the airline hadn’t sold enough tickets, why create artificial scarcity and engage in price gouging? Are these ‘pranks’ played by ticketing staff alone or is it a much bigger racket? I suspect the latter. How complicit are the managements of the airlines? I find it hard to believe that some rascally employees would daily close ticket sales on the company’s official website, only to now be selling the tickets below the table, at marked-up rates. Where does the excess go?

Is this part of the reasons the airline business here is hardly ever profitable? Is this why they easily go under?

Annoyingly, when they have knowingly ruined their businesses and run everything aground, they, like the banks, are the first in line to receive a government bailout. By May last year, they were in line for a N500 billion bailout. Another $10.3 million came as Covid-19 relief.

Then, there was also another N50 billion, which they said was too meagre.

Money,  taxpayers’ money, keeps dropping in for the aviation industry. And the squandermania continues.

Incidentally, this bailout is never extended to the media. Yet the media, not the airlines, nor the banks, are the ones ironically expected to provide a social service.

A major grouse I had against one of the earliest domestic airlines to attract AMCON intervention was this practice of always forcing passengers to buy its overpriced Business Class tickets. Every time one made the mistake of wanting to buy a ticket at the counter, on the day of the flight, the standard response was always “we have only business class tickets left”.

I once bought the business class ticket only to board and discover that I was only not just the lone Business Class passenger, but the entire plane was less than half full. It was the same airline that told me, last Thursday, that its lone remaining ticket, a Business Class seat, was for N120,000. Meanwhile, my uniformed tout assured me he could get me on the same flight if I could pay N80,000 for an Economy seat.

We definitely can’t continue like this!