Emeka bade Anthony good-bye at the final boarding call for the Ethiopian Airlines (ET) Lagos-Addis Ababa flight. About 40 minutes later, the ET flight was airborne. Emeka, now at the local wing of the Lagos airport, also secured a seat on an Abuja bound flight, scheduled to depart in the next 30 minutes.
Forty-five minutes rolled by without a word from the airlines. Another 10 minutes, the Public Address System cracked to life. The flight has been delayed for another 30 minutes, came the announcement. The filled terminal kept its cool, except for some murmurs here and there. Another one-hour rolled by, no show.
Unknown to the passengers, the operating aircraft was already running two hours behind schedule! Coupled with the heavy downpour, the departure was further delayed for another one hour. This time, all hell had broken loose in the departure lounge, with scores of passengers already seeking immediate refund.
Emeka looked at his phone in utter shock. It was Anthony’s call shortly after arrival at Bole International Airport, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “This is less than an hour flight that has been delayed for five hours and you are telling me to take it easy,” Emeka fired at the airline’s official, who was explaining the delay. “Would you believe that my friend (Anthony) whom I accompanied here even got to Ethiopia while I am still here battling to return to Abuja? What manner of service is this?”
Another passenger said: “That was exactly how they started last week till they cancelled the flights six hours later. Last week’s ticket is still with them, this is another one. I think I have had enough, please refund my money,” she charged at a cashier. Indeed, delayed flights and even cancellations are not unusual in air travel sector. But when they are daily occurrence, without regard for peak and off peak periods, then there should be serious cause for worry.
A recent visit to the General Aviation Terminal was quite revealing, and tells the story of how airlines setup for routine delay. Except for the more orderly manner in which they filed, the scene could easily have been mistaken for rush hour at the popular Oyingbo market in Lagos. Both young and old all crammed the terminal to buy tickets and shove their way out of town. Time check: 6:45am.
While queues at dispensing counters easily absorbed newcomers, the ticket holders all funneled into the boarding exit corner. At the head is a screening machine, manned by half a dozen Aviation Security operatives. Each passenger took at least five minutes to complete the security rounds.
Abuja, Benin, Enugu, Owerri, Kano flights still boarding”, an official hurriedly called from the half empty departure hall ahead. On the airside, actually, are at least five aircraft revving preparatory for the first takeoff. Given the low profit margin and higher break even point in the local industry, airlines rarely sacrifice free seats for on-time departure, not especially when there are passengers around the corner itching to break through the bottleneck.
So, when the Enugu bound aircraft eventually closed doors, the pilot-in-command apologised for the slight delay of their 0705 flight. Time check: 7:30 a.m. What the pilot didn’t say or envisage is the disruption that awaits the entire day’s route plan and cost on the airline.
Punctuality The Soul Of Aviation Business
Time is of essence in global aviation business. Just a minute delay, according to experts, is enough to ruin an entire operation and cost the airlines dearly.
In other airports around the world, the standard time for processing a passenger through the checkpoint screening is about 15/20 seconds. That is three or four passenger per minute or 180 to 240 passengers per hour. Some best of the bunch airports process faster. Around here, it is less seamless and for many reasons. While screening bottleneck is the main constraint at Air Peace’s General Aviation Terminal (GAT), Lagos, there are other factors ranging from the chain reaction of such morning delays, low capacity to execute schedule, aviation fuel shortage and technical issues, among others under the umbrella of “operational issues” often given as excuses for flight delays.
An average aircraft is daily scheduled for six routes a day. Air Peace, which commands about 30 per cent share of the passenger traffic, is a typical example. With about 25 minutes delay in Lagos enroute Enugu, it means the Enugu-Abuja leg is already delayed by at least 25 minutes.
All things being equal, the Enugu flight gets to Abuja at 1000hrs when, according to schedule, it should be departing for Abuja-Enugu-Lagos return journey. The delayed passengers, sometimes in protest and due to poor communication, do take the law into their hands; pick on airlines officials and even disrupt other routes, whose aircraft had arrived on schedule.
Spokesperson of Air Peace, Chris Iwarah said, “It is a chain that is also complicated in nature. Some passengers just don’t understand, therefore, causing needless clashes with airlines officials. This is what we see on daily basis”. By the time the dust settles and frail nerves calmed, all outbound flights are further delayed while some are even cancelled.
A frequent flyer, Olayemi Ogunlokun, told The Guardian that when it comes to Nigerian airlines, anything is just possible.
“For me, the best bet is to travel with the first or second flight. You can be assured of arriving on schedule. For the rest, there is no guarantee. Sometimes, a 6pm. flight may just be ready for boarding at 10pm. That is for airports like Lagos and Abuja. And at airports with no airfield lighting for night operations, the flights are cancelled. What type of customer service is that?” Ogunlokun queried.
Three Out Of Every Four Flights Are Delayed
Fact sheet of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) showed an average of three out of every four flights was delayed in 2017. That is, out of the 48,319 flights operated by eight airlines, 30,214 were late, while 872 were cancelled. The breakdown shows that Aero Contractors has 66.5 per cent delay rate; Arik Air, 61.8 per cent; Azman Air, 66.4 per cent; Dana Air 64.2 per cent; Med-View Airlines PLC 71 per cent; Overland 70.1 per cent; First Nation 35.8 per cent; and Air Peace 58.2 per cent.
For the first quarter of this year, the NCAA recorded 8,825 cases of flight delay across the eight airlines. Statistics released by the Consumer Protection Department of the NCAA shows that 14,633 flights were operated by airlines during the period under review, while 208 flights were cancelled for various reasons.
In the first six months alone, no fewer than 19,323 delays were recorded by NCAA. According to data released recently in Lagos, domestic airlines posted 16,880 delays while their foreign counterparts accounted for 2,443 issues during the period under review. In local operations alone, it means over 90 flights delayed per day.
Heavy Cost Of Delays
Retired pilot and former Managing Director of the defunct Virgin Nigeria, Captain Dapo Olumide, said there are several issues that cause airlines’ failure in Nigeria and one of them is the poor utilization of capacity. This is either because the aircraft are old and inefficient or because of multiple delays.
Olumide said the operating airlines really don’t understand the full implication of aircraft maintenance, which is why a lot of them park the airplanes when it is time to do C-checks. He explains: “A Boeing 737 aircraft, the stable aircraft in the industry right now, has a flights cycle flights hour ratio (which is, how many hours you fly it in relation to when you start the engine and switched it off at the other end) of 1.5 hours. Which means if you fly your aircraft for one and a half hours, your maintenance reserve cost, when C-check is due, is about $500 per hour. But when your flights cycle flights hour ratio drops to 0.6 or 40 minutes flight, your maintenance reserve cost goes up from $500 to almost $1000 per hour. So your cost has doubled.
“So, while we fly 737 on 50 minutes routes or delaying them most times, we are not utilizing them properly and your maintenance cost is doubled compare to what your competitors are paying.” Olumide added that the figures from NCAA were quite disturbing and suggested that the sector is not rendering services. He added that it was high time the regulator had adopted severe sanction to make the operators more responsive to the plight of Nigerian consumers.
“There are consumer rights that are not exercised here. In European Union for example, if you delay between one to two hours, you serve refreshments. If two to three hours of delay, you pay ₦53, 000. And for three to four hours, it is ₦105, 000 compensation per person.
“Let us say that a delayed flight coming from Abuja to Lagos has a 100 seats and the flight delayed for two hours. It means that the airlines, if the passengers exercise their rights, would pay compensation of about ₦5.3 million. If the delay is up to four hours, they (passengers) would collectively claim ₦10.5 million. That will bankrupt an airline in a week and next week, they will start going on time.
“Why don’t they go on time? They have all the wrong reasons: over ambitious time schedule, delay by the fuel marketers and so on. Okay. But if it takes an aircraft one hour to get fuelled, then why not put the turnaround time at 1:20 minutes? Don’t put it at 30 minutes because you are going to be late, it is basic.”
Spokesperson of the NCAA, Sam Adurogboye, said the agency had lately been inundated with complaints from passengers over disregard for good customers’ experience.
Adurogboye said that the industry values its customers and had warned all airlines to always adhere to the Nigeria Civil Aviation Regulations (Nig.CARs 2015) and Passengers Bill of Rights in their dealings. He said passengers must get value for their money, hence, the NCAA would not restrain from applying sanctions where airlines either delay or cancel flights without genuine reasons.
He, however, added that there is little the regulatory body or the operators could do when the “operational reasons” bother on bad weather that is typical of this season.
“The airlines always give excuses when they are summoned and often the reasons are genuine. If it is weather, that is verifiable and there is no alternative to that. We are in a season where the weather keeps changing and the flights, in this case, have to be delayed,” Adurogboye said.
On appropriate compensation, he reiterated that the operations of domestic and foreign flights are different. He said: “It is not all compensation that monetized in cases of delay or cancellation. Because even an appeal is also a form of compensation. If they have to buy food and refund at every point in time, the airlines will run out of business.”
Sanction With Actions
Aviation Security expert, Group Captain John Ojikutu (rtd), reiterated that there are more factors to flight delays, and “they are generally beyond the control of the airlines.” The factors include: passenger access control, passenger and carry-on a baggage checkpoint screening, hold baggage screening and sorting, number of boarding gates and the boarding screening.
All these are not within the control of the airlines as they often delay passenger facilitation and flight departure time especially at Single Terminal Airport, with a Single Passenger Screening, Check Points and Single Boarding Gate, Ojikutu said.
“For instance, at Lagos Airports where there are two domestic terminals: Murtala Muhammed Airport (MM2) and GAT, there is only one screening point and one boarding gate at the GAT where Air Peace and Arik with more flights operate from. Whereas, the MM2, most times, has about two Passenger Screening Check Points and about six Boarding Gates.”
“What the stakeholders and the NCAA should consider more to assist flight operation, are the efficiency of the process of passenger checkpoint screening facilitation and the screening machines. There is need to ensure that there are sufficient skilled manpower at these screening points and that there is regular power supply to the screening machines such that deficiency or breakdown of manpower or machine does not result to manual screening in aviation security defence layer.”
Ojikutu added that beyond reading a riot act to the airlines, the NCAA also needed to look inwards and intensify its regulatory activities, including calling the airport managers to order.
Iwarah of Air Peace said further that the relevant authorities should take a step further to light up all sunset airports like Enugu, Owerri, Benin and Calabar among others. He said so doing would avail longer operating hours for ‘better be late than never’, which is just more economic alternative to cancellations that often cost the airlines more and passengers alike.
Travelers Call for Establishment of More Airlines
Air travellers at the Margaret Ekpo International Airport in Calabar have suggested the establishment of more airlines to compete and end irregularities in the aviation sector. They said this would address the issue of incompetence among airlines operating locally.
A businessman, Mr. Christian Nwadike while narrating his recent ordeal, said disciplinary measures should be taken by Federal Air Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to address reports of poor customer’s services. According to him, “Two weeks ago, I was in Lagos, I had a 6pm meeting in Abuja and I booked for 6:30pm flight but added more money so I could change it to 4:50pm flight instead to be able to meet up with the meeting. But I was disappointed when Air peace delayed us till 6pm despite the fact that I paid more to leave early. It really was a bad experience. Nigeria airlines are not consistent with what they charge, they are not consistent with their service generally and this is bad for business. This is bad for the image of our country.
“If we can have many more airlines than what is on ground, I think the others will sit up in providing the best because there will be competition. You know, when Air Peace came on board, so many people abandoned Arik and other airlines because Air Peace was affordable and they usually give you the best but now they have joined the line of airlines that don’t keep to their words. “Secondly, disciplinary measures must be taken to address reports of poor customer’s service by FAAN.”
Nwadike added, “the price isn’t stable. If you book ahead, for instance, a week to your travel date, it’s around ₦21,000 to ₦25,000. But if you book on the counter on the day of departure is ₦45,000. Sometimes, when you even book before your departure day, they still charge you double the amount, this is too much.” He lamented.
Another traveler, Mrs. Lucy Abey, a consultant with Chevron who said her flight cancellation by the airline almost cost her, her job noting that such practice would only discourage foreign partners from doing business or investing in Nigeria. According to her, “because of the nature of my job, I patronize the flight system one too many times and on several occasions, my flight has been delayed and even cancelled and for some reasons I got used to the system. I remember once, I had an important meeting with some investors in Lagos by 4pm. My flight which was scheduled for 1pm, at 2:30 when the flight was not available at the shifted time, it was cancelled. I was devastated. I couldn’t contain my anger. I tried explaining to my boss over the phone but he did not buy it and my excuse was invalid according to them. I missed that meeting and it cost my company the investors. I was given a three-month suspension, which affected my source of income.
“In my candid suggestion, I think Airports should have at least more than one flight to encourage easy movement. I cannot pay more money for travelling and still undergo a very bad service. Situations like this, discourage foreign organisations from investing in Nigeria. If proper service cannot be done on time then delay is inevitable.”
In the same vain, Miss Stephen Janet, a business lady, said, “because of the nature of my business I travel on monthly basis from Calabar to Abuja. I buy goods like attachment and weave and sell in Abuja and buy materials from Abuja and sell in Calabar. On several occasions, flight delay has made me lose profit because I could not deliver to my customers on time.
“I suggest that the management should service their aircraft always to avoid breakdown and as well improve their customer’s service,” she said.
Air Travellers Share Sad Experiences
Speaking to The Guardian, a Kano-based businesswoman, Miss Abiola Oluwatoyin, said her evening flight (Lagos-Kano) with Arik airline was cancelled without prior notification. “I was forced to sleep over in Lagos even when I didn’t plan for such. The management of the airline later disclosed that the flight was cancelled for operational reasons. I have to appeal to a family friend to assist me in picking my bills for the night, because I have expended my money. I narrowly escaped being swindled by one of the airport touts, who offered to help me get a cheap hotel around the airport,” she said.To Miss Ayo Omotola Oni, a make-up artist, the experience was not different. Her afternoon flight from Lagos- Abuja was shifted to late evening.
According to her, ‘I had to keep calling the people I was going to meet to explain reason for my delay and I slept on the airport chairs for hours while waiting for the flight to be announced. In fact, I slept and woke up severally before the delayed flight was announced for boarding. Eventually, we boarded alongside Sokoto passengers and we didn’t sit according to our seat numbers.”
Sharing his experience, a Security Personnel, Mr Abimbola Sunday said that his Lagos – Kano flight was delayed for four hours without any previous notification.