COVID-19 and aviation industry
Distinguished Nigerians, let me wish you happy Independence celebration, though I know as a fact that you are hardly celebrating in the true sense of the word. Like the street urchins always put it, “igboro o re rin o”, meaning, the society and, by extension, the people are not smiling. And, as the chief priest always says after unveiling any misfortune through his oracle, “all is well”. Let me now progress into our discussion today. For over four months, I have ceased to write anything about the COVID-19 pandemic as I rightly or wrongly believe that the subject has become monotonous. Too many literatures exist on the subject that are not only, at times, contradictory, but confusing. This has gone to the extent that people generally, particularly Nigerians, have chosen to approach the pandemic from whatever angle they deem fit. Nigerians apply antidotes that they believe in, regardless of pronouncements by any appropriate authority on the issue to the contrary. I blame them not.
Strangely, it has not been bad for the country as the survivor-to-death ratio is great, pretending and assuming that the data being used is credible. Be that as it may, my concern in this write-up is the evaluation of the relationship between the operations of local airlines and the pandemic, particularly in terms of compliance with COVID-19 protocol. Although Nigerians, prior to the pandemic, were used to the irresponsibility of most of the airlines in the country in terms of meeting up with time scheduling, I am sure that Nigerians do not expect the continuity of such laxity during this COVID-19 period. Gone, we believe, were the days when the lounge area would be over-stretched without any implication, but not now. The least expectation under the COVID-19 protocols globally is social and physical distancing. This presupposes the organisation and use of the lounge area in this context in a manner that does not engender over-population. In furtherance of that objective, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) did a beautiful job by earmarking areas of occupation with necessary distance in terms of standing and sitting. Clear demarcations with necessary inscriptions all over were put in place by FAAN. Consequent upon the above, and in the determination of the capacity of the lounge areas, the FAAN indicated the capacity their lounges should accommodate and the number of passengers the authority could process at any point in time.
For instance, I understand that in-bound airlines into Nigeria are not expected to board more than 200 passengers. Pursuant to the above position, the Nigeria Civil Aviation authority (NCAA) is expected to program the airlines accordingly so that at all relevant times the facility provided by FAAN is not overwhelmed. Expectedly, this possibly must have been agreed to by the various aviation agencies, except where there is no synergy in the industry. If the release by the Honourable Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, is something to go by on the international routes, then it can be safely presumed that the same requirement must have been agreed to, and expected to be implemented at the local level. The import of the above, recognizing the capacities of the lounges, is that the airlines are meant to largely comply with the time schedules assigned to them; and where, assuming there is exigency necessitating deviation, it must be within reasonable time.
My recent experience at the Abuja domestic airport on September 10, 2020, when I was scheduled to depart on Dana Airlines at 5pm negates the above philosophical foundation of the efforts put in place by all the relevant authorities addressing the pandemic in Nigeria. As my flight was scheduled for 5pm, in line with the prescription of the Presidential Task Force as released by the Aviation Minister through the FAAN, that passengers must be at the airport three hours before boarding, I got to the airport a few minutes past the hour of 2pm and, following the necessary protocol, I finished checking in around 3.30pm. I got into the lounge area at 3.50pm, waiting to be boarded any time before 5pm.
Alas, as at 5.30pm, there was no announcement or indication of what was going on, nor the probable time of take-off. It was not until about 6.30pm when passengers started agitating for information that announcement was made that the flight was re-scheduled to 7.30pm. Again, this never happened, as the plane never arrived much less take off; and it was not until past 9pm eventually that the plane ultimately arrived with us departing around 9.30pm. Meanwhile, because of over five hours’ wait by the passengers on that flight, the lounge had become over-populated, with physical distancing practically impossible in all areas. The airport area thus became a potential breeding ground for the virus. Since the emergence of the virus, I had not been that exposed to the danger. The anxiety and the psychological trauma I suffered could better be imagined. In fact, it was not until I took the COVID-19 test again and came out negative that my mind could be at rest. The amazing thing again was that, upon boarding, the routine excuse was given, “It was due to the late arrival of the operating aircraft.” The aircraft came late, more than four hours after it was scheduled to arrive. Whose fault was it? Was it the aircraft, simpliciter, or the management of the airline?
Well, your guess is as good as mine; the fact remains that the management must be held accountable and sanctioned. My observation, from the population that boarded the aircraft, suggests to me that the flight was deliberately delayed in order to have a full flight. At boarding, it was clear that no distancing was maintained in sitting arrangement of the passengers in the plane. Passengers must sit in the fashion of the old normal in which no space was left in-between one passenger and another. Profit took the centre stage. It is a known fact that, since the pandemic, air passenger travels have dropped significantly globally, Nigeria being no exception. What rational airlines do with the development is to allow enough spacing in their scheduling to attract sufficient number of passengers for take-off, and not to raise the expectations of passengers in terms of departure time. I believe, therefore, that I must have been a victim of scramble or solicitation for passengers. My well-being and plan were sacrificed for the economic gains of the airline.
The interesting thing in all this is that I managed to put a call to the director-general of the NCAA, laying my complaint and informing him of the danger inherent in this practice, particularly in view of the efforts to tame the spread of the pandemic. His short response was simply that I should reduce the complaint to writing the next day. This I did with the receipt stamp of his office. Interestingly, as at the time of this piece, three weeks after, I am yet to be notified of the outcome of investigation (if any) or any sanction imposed on the airline in any form.
Let me, however, register the fact that I received acknowledgment of the mail on September 24, 2020, 13 days after sending in the letter in the usual traditional civil service language, “complaint is under investigation”. For this, I am grateful in the characteristic of a true-natured Nigerian while hoping that the investigation will not be perennial. Again, I searched every nook and cranny of the airport lounge area for any NCAA complaint number either by way of a box or flex advertising complaint numbers, none in existence at that airport. I must confess that I used to see same at the airport before, maybe at the international section alone, not sure! This is the nightmare passengers are daily subjected to by the local airlines with impunity, exempting Ibom Air for now.
If that was being cordoned pre-COVID-19, it cannot be and must not be tolerated during the COVID-19 period. If individual interests compromised in the circumstances can be overlooked, we cannot afford to endanger the collective interests of the nation like this. Little complacencies like this aggravate the spread of the virus.
Another area that needs to be addressed by the aviation authorities is the embarkation point. Here again, the gain of the row-by-row boarding introduced are often lost at this point. There seems to be no monitoring by the authority of this final aspect of flight protocols. Physical distance is hardly complied with at this stage. Passengers violate the two-metre rule without any form of caution. This may be another catalyst of the spread of the virus.
Lastly in this discourse is the issue of clearing of luggage after check-in. One would have thought that, due to the pandemic, the number of steps required in terms of activities at the airport should be reducing. This is not so. Of interest is the request to follow your luggage at Abuja airport to a passage for screening and clearing.
This increases the circumambulation within the airport, particularly in that segment for screening and clearance. Practically at all times, passengers must bump into each other as they enter the arena and while exiting it. This I believe is not good for the efforts at curbing the spread of the pandemic. I, therefore, implore the relevant authorities to review this step towards improvement, or develop alternatives to it. The passenger circulation in the area is certainly poor and falls short of enhancing the efforts at curbing the spread of the virus. The aviation industry, therefore, needs to buckle up in the fight against the pandemic. By extension, there is a need for greater oversight and interference in the operation of the airlines by the PTF during this pandemic, otherwise all the worthy efforts of the task force will be neutralised by these unpatriotic attitudes of the airlines. A stich in time, saves nine.