Flight delays, cancellations cripple local travels amid traffic surge

• Frustration as Nigerian embassy slows down Sallah travel
• Hajj pilgrims to start returning August 17, says presidency

Flight delays and cancellations in local air transport have worsened, much to the discomfort of passengers travelling for either summer or Muslim festivities.

The development, despite an increase in traffic demand at major airports across the country, has forced many travellers to either shelve their trip or resort to risky roads.

The Guardian learnt yesterday that the situation is not unconnected with the limited capacity of local airlines coupled with the poor management of routine schedules.

A visit to the Murtala Muhammed Airport (MMA) in Ikeja – the main hub of all local airlines – showed flight delays across board, ranging from one to four hours, with many passengers left stranded. The delays cut across Kano, Port Harcourt, Calabar, Owerri, Benin, Kaduna, Asaba, Ilorin and Enugu routes.

A travel agent at the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) of the Lagos Airport, Gabriel Akinsanya, said the delays gradually started at the outset of the summer holidays but hit an unbearable peak last week.

“Passengers are not the problem because we have them in volume this time. Our problem is the airline to put them because we no longer can trust any to takeoff in good time. It used to be 15 or 30 minutes delay. Now, you would be lucky to be delayed for only three hours.

“Last Thursday, I processed tickets for 11 passengers on different routes. Before I left the terminal, all of them had sought a refund. Their delays were so frustrating; some later cancelled their flight. I know a family of five that eventually travelled to Asaba by road after two days of delays and cancellations by their airline,” Akinsanya said.

An official at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja, also confirmed the situation, blaming the airlines for habitually merging two or three schedules on one flight.

“I think the major problem is that of capacity. Our airlines don’t have planes, so they keep blaming it on operational challenges and bad weather,” he said.

Industry statistics from the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) show that a total of 19,323 delays were recorded in the first half of 2018. Local airlines posted 16,880 delays while their foreign counterparts accounted for 2,443 during the period.

A further breakdown shows that an average of three out of four flights were delayed in 2017, indicating that of the 48,319 tally by eight airlines, 30,214 were late and 872 cancelled.

The President of the National Association of Travel Agencies (NANTA), Bernard Bankole, said foreign airlines are the beneficiaries of the current traffic upsurge – on account of having Sallah and summer holidays coinciding. “The unusual period” implies huge traffic, but “our airlines are never ready to make the most of such opportunities,” he said.

He continued: “I am not surprised at the spate of delays. They are bound to happen around here. We don’t have sufficient capacity. Even the most active of the airlines does not have good managers that such business requires. The owner means well for the industry but the level of inefficiency and ineptitude among his workers are so shocking. That is why I’m not surprised.”

But according to a sales manager of one of the carriers, it is improper to blame the airlines for everything that goes wrong in the industry. Though airlines have their shortcomings, he said, the problems would continue until the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) attends to infrastructure gaps at most of the airports.

He explained that while weather-related delays are inevitable, more airports with longer hours of operations and night services will help the airlines operate more efficiently and on time.

Frustrated by the delays, the Ikeja branch of the National Association of Seadogs, also known as Pyrates Confraternity, called on the regulatory agencies to check the excesses of airline operators.

A spokesperson of the association, Iheanyi Okonkwo, urged FAAN, Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) to enforce sanctions on erring airlines with a view to sanitising the sector.

“Flight delays have become regular narratives at local airports across the country without explanations to passengers who might have incurred financial loss or undergone emotional stress.

“The nation’s leading local operator has become the major culprit as they flagrantly delay or cancel flight schedules. The truth should be told: if airlines are made to compensate passengers for flight delays or cancellations, they will sit up,” said Okonkwo.

“Within the spate of one week, passengers in the Kano, Port Harcourt, Calabar, Owerri, Benin, Asaba, Akure, Ilorin and Enugu airports have either experienced outright flight cancellation or delayed flight schedules for upward of four hours. This is quite disheartening,” he added.

Similarly, Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation (NIDO), Qatar chapter, said the lack of functional international passport production machine at the Nigerian embassy in that country is making travel for Sallah difficult.

NIDO-Qatar President Victor Ikoli disclosed this in an interview with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) in Abuja yesterday.

He said it has become important to have a functional passport machine at the embassy because Nigerians travel all the time, not only during Sallah.

According to him, the government of Qatar declared Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday public holidays.

NAN reports that Sunday is a working day in that country, while Friday and Saturday are weekends.

Ikoli said: “Sadly, as big as the Nigerian community in Qatar is, we rely on the Nigerian Immigration service in the United Arab Emirate (UAE) to come to our rescue in terms of passport renewal.

“We have a large community with 11,000 members. Although we have appealed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Nigerians in the Diaspora Commission to intervene, we are yet to get a response.

“We have 400 people wanting to do capturing for international passport and the UAE delegation just came to spend two and a half days to attend to us. Some people’s passports will expire and they will have to depart while other people’s job security is on the line due to expiration of international passports.

“So, Eid-al-Adha celebration for us in Qatar is hinged on the processing of passports. Most Nigerians here are Muslims and are supposed to be with their families to celebrate, but cannot.”

He said the period within which people are expected to process their passports is too short and that those who were captured in August will have to wait until October before they can get their ready-made passports.

He therefore urged the Federal Government to wade into the issue of renewal and procurement of international passports being faced by the NIDO-Qatar chapter to prevent a backlash from employers.

“When we explain, our employers cannot fathom why government has not looked into the matter, to help Nigerians in that country process passports and get them immediately.

“On our part, we contacted government and we will continue to do so until our request is granted. We believe that the relevant government officials will come to our rescue. It is difficult to stay in another country with expired passports or even wait for up till two months just to renew one.

“The fact that many Nigerians line up on streets for passport does not portray our country in good light. We hope government provides us a permanent functional international passport machine.”

He further said that although Nigeria is seen as the giant of Africa, its inability to handle issues such as renewal of passports often makes foreigners have little regard for its citizens living abroad.

Meanwhile, returning flights for Nigerian hajj pilgrims will commence August 17, 2019.

A board member of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), Alhaji Yahaya Shuaib, made the disclosure yesterday during a visit to the Kano State tent in Mina, Saudi Arabia.

NAHCON had successful completed the first phase of the airlift of 44,450 pilgrims to Saudi Arabia in 93 flights between July 10 and August 6, 2019.

Shuaib, who represented President Muhammadu Buhari, said: “This visit is a fact-finding mission to interact with pilgrims, address issues and assure them of the Federal Government’s commitment to making their stay successful.

“So far, we have not received any complaint against any pilgrim and we hope everybody will abide by the rules. We want to urge pilgrims to bear with the Hajj commission, to ensure successful operations.”

Shuaib urged the pilgrims to pray for a solution to security challenges in Nigeria. This was as the executive secretary of the Kano State Pilgrims Welfare Board, Alhaji Abba Mohammad Danbatta, hinted that Kano pilgrims were orderly and complied with Saudi regulations.