21st September, 2012
Hundreds of passengers struggled to board planes in Nigeria on Friday, as the country’s largest airline, Arik Air, remained grounded for a second day.
Flight operations were disrupted again by aviation workers who took over the General Aviation Terminal in Ikeja, Lagos, Southwest Nigeria, alleging that Arik Air owes aviation agencies over N18 billion debt and has refused to pay.
“Due to heavy indebtedness of Arik Air to government agencies, we had to ground all Arik Air flights till further notice,” said Comrade Olayinka Abioye, Deputy General Secretary, Air Transport Services Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, ATSSSAN.
“Please bear with us. You can board IRS or other flights,” Abioye added through a loud speaker, adding more pains to already weary passengers.
Passengers who had wanted to fly on Arik sat helplessly at the terminal building not sure where to go.
“It’s affecting me generally. It’s affecting my business, my wellbeing, my entire being,” said Gabriel Ogbu, who described himself as a businessman.
“I had to catch up with some business partners in Abuja at 10 a.m. but Arik is not flying. I was told that they have some scores to settle with FAAN,” he said about 9.30 a.m. Friday.
The union members said they would not stop the protests until the debt is paid.
“The situation is that we are still continuing the shutting down of the operations of Arik Air. We have invited the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria to come and join us,” said Comrade Ajagbe Femi Adebayo, ATSSSAN Assistant General Secretary Organising Committee.
“Arik went on television to say that we are being used by FAAN but that’s untrue. They are owing everybody. They owe NCAA, FAAN, NAMA and SAHCOL. They must just pay. They are not untouchable,” Adebayo said.
The General Aviation Terminal, GAT, where Arik operates from, was vastly deserted today as many passengers stormed the Murtala Muhammed Airport 2 to board Aero Contractors airline, now Nigeria’s second largest airline.
“I prefer to fly with Arik because their planes are fairly new but they are not flying and I must be in Abuja today,” said Rita.
As passengers moved away from GAT, business activities in the vicinity were affected.
“It’s affecting us. Since yesterday, there have been no jobs for us,” said Samuel Fagbile, a cab driver and member of Airport Car Hire Association of Nigeria.
“We have been sitting here since yesterday and since people are not travelling who do we carry?” he queried.
Yetunde, who sells snacks at GAT said she made some sales yesterday because many passengers were stranded but business nose dived on Friday.
“It’s affecting us today. There were many stranded passengers yesterday who needed drinks and snacks. We made some sales yesterday but there is no one around today to buy anything,” Yetunde said.
Arik Air Managing Director, Mr. Chris Ndulue, said yesterday that the airline will not resume until all issues are resolved.
He said Arik Air is being witch-hunted by the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN and the Ministry of Aviation because of personal interests.
Arik Air flies about 100 flights a day, Ndulue said, while Aero Contractors flies about 50 flights a day.
Air Nigeria suspended operations since 10 September and Dana Air is yet to resume after its licence was restored on 5 September. Nigeria now has only one major flight in its skies – Aero Contractors.
Meanwhile, the Murtala Muhammed Airport 2, where Nigeria’s second largest airline, Aero Contractors, operates, was filled to capacity on Thursday as Arik Air, the country’s largest airline, was grounded by a union protest.
Aero Contractors was over booked with passengers standing in long queues for hours and staff struggling to cope with the influx of weary air travellers.
“I hope I get a seat. I had wanted to travel with Arik Air. But they are not flying today. I am going back to Abuja and I don’t have a choice,” a passenger told P.M.NEWS on Thursday without disclosing her identity.
Aero Contractors is likely to enjoy more patronage in the days ahead, if Arik Air stands by its words that it will not resume operations until all issues are settled with authorities.
Dr. Harold Demuren, Director General of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, was quoted by the Agence France Presse, AFP, as saying the dispute between Arik Air and striking union workers bordered on landing charges.
He said he would try to intervene for a peaceful resolution of the dispute.
Arik Air operates about a hundred flights a day, Chris Ndulue, its Managing Director, disclosed, adding that it will lose a lot of money due as its flights remain grounded.
Aero Contractors’ Managing Director, Captain Akin George, said that his airline operates about 50 flights a day.
The Ministry of Aviation on Thursday dismissed allegations by Arik Air that it is witch-hunting it, saying Arik Air must live up to its responsibility.
The Special Assistant to the Ministry of Aviation, Mr. Joe Obi, said Arik’s allegations of witch-hunting are “absolutely false”
It said it is a means of blackmail.
“Arik should be advised to live up to its responsibility as a good corporate citizen and accordingly discharge its obligations to its clients.
“The airline should face reality and stop chasing shadows and bandying spurious allegations about as a means of blackmail,” Obi said.
Obi said the Aviation Ministry will not be blackmailed “into taking decisions that are not in the interest of the Nigerian public and the aviation sector.”