The rising repugnant passenger experience in Nigerian airports is threatening the growth of the country’s aviation sector, Funmi Fabunmi writes

The recent surge in clashes between passengers and operators at Nigerian airports has raised concerns about the friendliness of the country’s aviation industry. The growing number of incidents involving travellers and airlines has highlighted the urgent need for enhanced customer service and improved operational practices within Nigerian airports.

 One of the most recent of such cases was that of Mr Theophilus Akatugba, who posted a video accusing the managers of the Murtala Muhammed Airport 2, Bi-Courtney Aviation Services Limited, of clamping on his vehicle after he violated the ‘no pick-up rule’ that prohibits vehicles from picking  passengers from the drop-off zone.

Akatugba also accused the towing company, a concessionaire to BASL, of charging him N32,800 twice after the firm’s Point of Sales machine declined the payment made as penalty through his Automated Teller Machine card. According to him, he was forced to make another payment, after being debited for the initial payment he made.

 However, in its response to Akatugba’s claims, the Corporate Communications Department of BASL accused him of picking up a passenger from the said drop-off zone even though he was cautioned and warned not to do so, thus contravening regulations.

 A statement signed by Head of Aviation Security, MMA2 Bi-Courtney, Monica Oguta, stated in part, “If we allow passengers to be picked up at the drop-off zone, it will create serious traffic and probably stampede at the terminal. Our actions are in the best interest of the travelling public.

 “As admitted by the complainant, the implementation of the policy is ‘concessioned’ out to a company. If the PoS failed, it has to be determined where the error came from. Is it from the customer, the Bank, or the concessionaire? If it is from the concessionaire, then the concessionaire will make amends according to the law.”

Industry experts have argued that the surge in the number of clashes between passengers and airport operators was a pointer to a larger problem that needs immediate attention. A lack of investment in infrastructure, insufficient training of airport staff, and a dearth of customer-centric policies have been cited as contributing factors to the increasing unfriendliness in the country’s airports.

A dispute between FAAN and fuel marketers, leading to a 100% hike in apron pass charges, resulted in airline passengers being stranded at the Abuja airport in April 2023.

As a result, the airport manager refused fuel vendors access to the apron to fuel operators’ aircraft on arrival and departure.

Many stranded passengers could only vent their anger on social media.

Also, in May 2022, passengers protested at Abuja Airport over fear of flight suspension by Airline operators.

The Public Relations Officer to FAAN at the airport, Kayode Adeuluwa, said that passengers ‘were agitated at the airport over the fear of flight suspension by the Airline Operators of Nigeria.’

Due to that incident, many travellers were stranded at the airport and other missed important appointments.

Recently, Port Harcourt-bound passengers on an Air Peace flight from Abuja protested when their flight that was scheduled 9 a.m. was postponed 4:30 p.m.

The aggrieved passengers at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja caused a turbulent situation during departure by preventing passengers for a later Lagos-bound flight from boarding due to the delay they experienced.

It took the intervention of airport security operatives to bring the situation under control on that day.

According to the President of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association of Nigeria, Nigeria, Dr Alex Nwuba, is characterised by a multitude of unjust regulations and biased implementation.

He urged airport authorities to simplify their rules and make it unambiguous.

“A stranger from China who reads no English arrives to pick up his relative and sees a sign, no pickup. He obviously can’t read the sign but sees a space. Whose rule did he break? Wherever you build a toll, you must also build an alternate route. The pursuit of money should not lead to irrational policies.

“Are you aware that as part of the agreement, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria mandates all parking concessionaires that charge to provide free time? Do concessionaires abide by the agreement? If they don’t follow the rules, why must visitors to the airport? Ride-share services are not allowed to pick up, but gouging airport taxis are given preferential treatment. Why? To exploit consumers?”

According to him, irrational and selfish acts should not be encouraged in any form. “We need to as professionals inform and support the rights of the public. If the rules make no sense, we should not abide by it,” he maintained.

Meanwhile, the Chief Executive Officer of West Link Airlines, Capt. Ibrahim Mshelia, argued that though rules should be obeyed, when it violates common sense something has to be done about it.

He stated that the country’s airports were unfriendly. “It is not only our airports. It is our nature as a people and we are not only aggressive but self-destructive. That is why since 1999, leaders have been wasting our money travelling to attract foreign investors who are refusing to come.

“The problem at our airports is that there are too many cooks who spoil the broth! Lagos is congested and MM2 is strategically located along a traffic route. That pickup became necessary because people block the access to the international. Nigerians will naturally break every rule to show how rich or influential they are. I have seen people parked in the ‘No parking zone’ because they are waiting to pick a ‘big oga’.

“Just like the gentleman stated in his story, he came to pick a big party chieftain, who in a typical Nigerian attitude expected the law to be waived for him as a first offender. I have not passed the MM2 in a while now, but I can bet my lunch that there are signs there all over there.

“As for the double payment, if I were a judge, I would award the man some credit for the incompetence of MM2 to formulate a proper payment process and causing him such inconvenience to customers. When you employ cheap labour, you get such substandard products,” he reasoned.

Mshelia wondered why a concessionaire should outsource its responsibilities.

He added, “Bi-Courtney should use its own staff who would be well-trained and understand the rules of engagement and not concessionaires with aggressive and petty workers.

“We Nigerians need to up our game. If there was a master plan that perhaps would have created a smooth traffic flow, but Bi-Courtney has yet to finish all these years. Should the government not have applied the termination clause?

“As for the extortion, I made it a duty to be unkind at our airports. I decided that even if you help me with my bag, thank you very much and God bless you is the highest tip I give at the airports because it is becoming so embarrassing. From the moment you alight from your vehicle, the begging starts till you touch down and enter the next car. Certainly, the crew is not yet begging, but who knows tomorrow?”

He advised the airport authorities to make a rule that would forbid tipping in the country’s airports.

“Then, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority can enforce with a caveat to all public that observers of tipping should hold evidence and come forward and get rewarded. Where will the money come from? The fine the tipper in evidence pays will form part of the reward.

“In an extraordinary situation, you need extraordinary actions. But honestly, let me ask this, where are most of the horribly behaved people who work in Lagos airport from? Is the pit of hell situated in Nigeria? Some of them are shameless and bold in their nonsense without any remorse. Then, you wonder seeing their supervisors right there saying nothing.”

The founder of Walk For Love Africa, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes intra-Africa travel, tourism and trade, Toni Ukachukwu, declared that the Nigerian airports were not built with the customer in mind.

He said, “Airports are supposed to facilitate passengers’ movement seamlessly. If the airports were designed with the customer and or passenger in mind, our attitude will be different and we will not be having these sorts of issues. What is the use of an airport where the users are being extorted, being made to go through unfavourable conditions?

“The issue with MM2 is this. If all passengers must go and park, how about giving them a leeway, like letting a first time offender off the hook and making sure that people are not extorted?” he posited.

According to him, operators should have enough people to man the airport to ensure a free traffic flow.

“Even when one wants to park, the parking lot does not have enough space or capacity to take the number of vehicles that go there daily. I have once gone there for pickup, and after paying for parking, there was nowhere to park. I kept going around the parking lot but still, there was no space to park. I had to park somewhere where they collect tickets then someone came out to bang my bonnet saying, “You can’t park there”. I asked him to show me where to park.

“So, don’t make a draconic policy which you cannot enforce. Of course, if you have a large parking space. That is fine. I’m not saying this happens every day but on a good day, you can’t just go into the car park and park your car.

“Concession in Nigeria has a monstrous face. Once it is done and money collected upfront, the concessionaire employs monsters for a thuggish drive to make its money back with authority backing, hence, the lack of a human face. Our airports have become a place of extortion, unfriendliness, begging at all levels of the value chain.”

Airport authorities have a huge task of reversing the current trend of passengers-operators clashes. Government agencies have been urged by stakeholders to establish regulations that are equally beneficial to both airport operators and users. In addition, they emphasised the importance of operators enhancing their customer service to the standards seen in other international airports.

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