Nigeria: Air Peace, Fares and Flight Operations

Fred Chukwuelobe argues that the airline is operating within the law.

Leading Nigerian airline, Air Peace, has come under intense scrutiny and what appears to be an orchestrated campaign of calumny from a cross section of its flying public regarding its operations. The bone of contention is centered on two fronts: fares and flight operations. The airline has been accused of frequent flight delays and in some instances outright cancellations as well as charging arbitrary fares between its South East and Northern routes. Some passengers accused the airline of using the excess fares from the South East to subsidize the lower fares paid by passengers on the Northern routes.

Recently, some uninformed passengers took to social media and posted videos containing allegations of inefficiency on the part of the company, which were false or borne out of ignorance or outright mischief. Yet, some have genuinely been offended by such situations and have rightly expressed their frustrations too.

Another set of passengers were seen on social media holding one of the flights, refusing to vacate the apron unless their flight operated. They accused the pilot of arrogance and poured broadsides unjustified invectives on the airline. Meanwhile, the pilot was forced to cancel the flight when an unruly passenger refused to leave the plane on the pilot's instruction. Other passengers were alleged to have joined the affected passenger in protest, the kind of scenario you encounter on our roads with passengers often siding a reckless driver.

In the case of the passenger who posted a video alleging all sorts, Air Peace airline departing Owerri, Imo State, had a bird strike and was forced, for safety reasons, to make an emergency landing in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. Few days after that, another flight, one of the newest aircraft in its fleet, had another bird strike in Asaba, Delta State, effectively grounding the aircraft and affecting all the routes that aircraft was to operate that day. Just as the airline was making history landing its first commercial flight into the new Anambra State International Cargo and Passenger Airport, another aircraft was grounded in Akure, Ondo State, by yet another bird strike, further compounding the airline's ability to meet its contractual agreement to its passengers. In the Asaba incident, passengers were alleged to have become unruly and beat up some Air Peace staff. Did they expect them to go to nearby Onitsha Main Market and hire or buy a replacement aircraft? Who is responsible for clearing the runway of birds?

It is important to point out that delayed or cancelled flights affect scheduled appointments and cause untold hardships on the travelling public. It is also important to note that, safety is the first concern of all airline operators and that flights may be delayed or cancelled under certain conditions, one of which is the bird strike cited above.

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However, Air Peace airline, concerned about the allegations of fare disparity, recently denied that it charges more for flights originating or terminating in the South East geo-political zone while those up North are charged less.

In explaining the so-called disparity, Air Peace stated that"we do not discriminate against South East. It is the same fare that is loaded for all the routes all over Nigeria. Our fares start from N23, 000. They progress from there to N60, 000 which is our highest economy class fare. For an aircraft that carries 136 passengers (12 business class and 124 economy) the fare is allocated as follows: N23,000, 10 seats; N27,500 – 20 seats; N30,000, 25 seats; N33,000- 15 seats; N35,000, 15 seats; N42,000, 10 seats; N47,000, 5 seats; N50,000, 5 seats, N55,000, 5 seats and N60,000, 14 seats.

"The above fares are loaded in the system for all the destinations – North, East, South and West. No discrimination. If the first 10 seats of N23, 000 fare are filled up, the system will automatically start showing the next fare which is N27, 500. If the allocated seats on this are exhausted, it will migrate to the next until it gets to the last 14 seats which is N60, 000.

"So, what happens is that as it is getting fuller, the higher fares will be showing up. Now, the Eastern routes, because of high traffic, gets sold out faster than some places, thereby showing higher fares faster, but the other destinations, though slower, will also pay the same higher fares as they get fuller."

The airline further explained that the fare of N95, 000 pointed out by a passenger is not our economy fare but our business class fare. "It is very mischievous for anyone to deliberately bring out our highest business class fare for Owerri and juxtapose it against a Kano economy class fare selling at that time, thereby making the unsuspecting reader to think that the Owerri passenger is paying N95, 000 for the same class of ticket the Kano person was paying N33, 000 for. Our fares are the cheapest in Nigeria for our type of aircraft," the airline concluded.

Customers of the airline have the right to air their grievances. In expressing these, such passengers ought to note that, travelling by air or using air transport services confers certain rights on them. But it also comes with some responsibilities. Among these are: One, the right to the full value for your money. Two, the right to compensation for flight cancellation, delays, damaged/loss baggage and denied boarding for reasons other than technical, weather conditions, air traffic control restrictions, security risks and industrial disputes that affect the operation of the flight. Three, the right to book and confirm tickets with an airline of your choice. Four, the right to the provision of a conducive airport environment before, during, and after flights.

Five, the right to seek redress for all irregularities during your flight. Six, the right to timely feedback in respect of matters/complaints lodged with service providers. Seven, the right to be fully informed about flight status. Eight, the right to be treated with respect and dignity irrespective of race or physical condition.

If the passengers who refused to leave the apron in protest with their unruly co-passenger knew what they were doing, they ought not to have done that public show of it and abused the airline. Yes, it is within their rights to protest delayed or cancelled flights, but holding the airline to ransom and refusing to leave the apron is criminal and they could be arrested and prosecuted. The regulators have provided avenues for seeking redress. Rather than hold down operations, passengers should seek redress through such avenues. It is criminal to disrupt services during pre-boarding or on-board the flight. The Nigerian civil aviation rules demand that all passengers cooperate with the crew by refraining from use of cell phone, other communication gadgets during flights, refraining from aggressive or abusive behaviours, be a responsible passenger and encourage others to behave responsibly too; obeying the rules, and avoiding all rude attitudes.

In asserting these rights, any aggrieved passenger should make his or her complaints courteously and seek redress where possible.

All airport and airline staff deserve to be treated with respect and courtesy. An airline reserves the right to deny boarding/ deboard a passenger for unruly behaviour. I witnessed this on an Ibom Air flight departing Enugu to Lagos. It cost us 22 minutes delay, but we didn't mind.

Passengers interfering with flight crew and aircraft attendants, guilty of offensive, disorderly conduct such as physical assault, verbal abuse or sexual harassment of any airline or service provider staff attract severe punishment in addition to fines or jail term.

Airline operators in Nigeria have many challenges running that business in a harsh environment like ours. The regulatory agencies have a responsibility to provide the enabling environment for the operators to thrive and make profit which is badly needed if they were to offer the sort of services passengers demand and deserve. But we know this is far from the reality. So, we ought to be patient with Air Peace as it struggles to overcome these challenges.

Air Peace is a private concern, operating in a strictly regulated industry. Its fares are subject to scrutiny by the regulatory agencies. If they are not approved, they cannot charge them.

For every fare you pay, it is shared among the many agencies. What comes to the airline is not the N95, 000 or N60, 000 that a passenger cited in one of the trending complaints which Air Peace addressed.

If anybody feels very strongly about their fares, I think there are alternatives: Ibom Air, United Nigeria, Dana, Max, Arik, Aero, etc. I will rather protest by patronizing other airlines to bashing the airline/the owner repeatedly as has been the case of late.

Frankly, the best way to protest their high fares or frequent cancellations of flights is to seek alternatives. We can as well travel by road.

We should bear in mind that Air Peace is not a publicly-quoted company where we, as shareholders, can intervene and determine how our company is run. The airline spent several millions of USD to buy a replacement engine to repair the one in Port Harcourt, which was damaged by bird strike. It will spend more for the aircraft grounded in Asaba and Akure.

Many airlines have come and gone. It is an industry that is capital-intensive and domiciled in USD. You may wish to ask me if other airlines operate in different industries and use Naira. Fact is, it is a private concern and operates in a regulated system. If anybody feels strongly opposed to what they charge or angry, and rightly so, for delayed or cancelled flights, l guess it may serve us better to petition the regulatory agencies rather than take laws into our hands and either disrupt operations or beat up the staff.

Even in filing complaints on delayed or canceled flights, passengers need to be reminded that under aviation rules, airlines are duty-bound to cancel or delay flights under certain conditions such as force majeure (unforeseeable conditions beyond the control of the airlines and which prevent them from fulfilling the terms of conditions of the contract between them and their passengers). These include: bad weather, run out of crew time, VIP movement, among others.

Having said that, let me also admit that airlines have been guilty in some instances of not regularly informing/updating passengers of these delays and/or cancellations. The guiltiest are those on the management cadre. They are known to have often disappeared from the scene when passengers protest, leaving middle-level staff, whose powers are limited, at the mercy of aggrieved passengers.

This is one area the management should continuously train and retrain their staff; to provide regular information on flight schedules and to do their best to calm frayed nerves.

Air Peace may as well scale down on its routes and operate those their fleet can effectively cover. I know the decision to operate many routes may have been informed by business as well as political considerations. I also know the airline places highest premium on safety and hence the delays or cancellations. Even at that, the interest and complaints of the traveling public should be of paramount concern to the management and if courteously and adequately addressed and compensations made where necessary, that will lessen the superficial war being waged by a cross-section of the travelling public.

Chukwuelobe is a media consultant and public affairs analyst

Artmotion S.Africa

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