These obviously are not the best of times for Aerocontractors which, by all intent and purposes, had been the flagship of the nation’s commercial flight operations.
This is because the airline had lately been having issues with its operations. It is either the airline is declaring emergency landings, due to technical matters related to its equipment, or delaying and cancelling flights without prior information of its customers. This had, in recent times, set the airline against some of its very loyal customers. Within the last six months, Aero had been involved in one kind of incident or another, but management of the airline had been quick to state that this was not symptomatic of any safety problem.
However, some close observers of the industry believe the airline might just be going through some challenges that are related to the issues it had with its bankers, Oceanic Bank Plc, which threatened to ground its operations some time ago over the $200 million (N30 billion) owed it. That move by the bank almost ground the airline’s operations, but for the intervention of Aviation Minister, Mrs. Fidelia Njeze.
Reacting to such insinuations in response to Vanguard’s recent enquiry, Aero management said: “We are Glad you are aware that Aero has never been involved in any avalanche of safety related issues, because the airline adheres strictly to safety.
“Aero has never and will never take safety for granted; Aero will never fly an aircraft that is not air worthy. The high service and safety level for which Aero is known will never be compromised.
“The immediate past air incident has nothing to do with Aero’s debt issue with Oceanic Bank. The loan has been restructured in a way that is suitable for both parties. That has allowed Aero to be in business by meeting its financial obligations and maintaining its equipment as at when due.
“The debt issue with Oceanic has not in anyway affected the airlines equipment maintenance and crew scheduled training. Our aircraft still undergo periodic checks, while our crew undergo their regular scheduled training programmes.
“The age of the aircraft is not the issue; Aero will never compromise aircraft airworthiness and safety standard,. The airline’s foundation is built on a proven safe, reliable and on_time transportation while delivering to customers the highest standard of professional and efficient services.
“Aero has steadily built its fleet and holds an international reputation for having high safety standard.”
But even with these assurances, the airline’s customers seem to have a different opinion about what had become the lot of the airline. A major stakeholder in the industry who carved anonymity, has expressed concern that Bellview Airlines’ problems started this – getting involved in regular incidents, delaying and canceling flights and getting in the bad book of its passengers, which ultimately culminated in the crash that claimed 117 passengers on October 22, 2005.
Bellview’s problem at the time, was tied down to debts, which made its difficult, if not impossible for it to address critical safety issues that dogged its domestic, regional and international operations.
On customer service, Aero appears to have lost it, considering the welter of complaints by aggrieved passengers. No passes without this reporter being inundated with calls for one intervention or the other concerning alleged shabby treatment meted by the airline to its customers. The latest of such calls was one by an official of Anambra State Government House (names withheld), who, while sorting out his baggage with security screening, missed his flight and was asked to pay N5,000 to be checked into the next flight to Owerri. Such complaints are legion.
More often than not, the airline’s passengers have had to create a scene in the departure hall of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, MMA2, for being dropped off their flight due to over-booking by the airline, even though they had their tickets, boarding passes and were at the airport right on schedule for their flights.
These are some of the reactions posted against the airline as at November 4, 2010: “Aero go and sit down! Your service sucks. I got the text and there must be some truth. When a business believes they are doing the public a favour, there comes the end. Rubbish.”
Yet another reaction said: “Aero takes is passengers for granted. No customer service, no good public
image. They should remember Okada Airline ruled at some point in time and is now only synonymous with commercial motorbikes!”
Another of the airline’s passenger said “When Aero announced its decision some months ago to start black_listing passengers, you knew the end had come. Expect more incidents like this,” while another stated that “typical of arrogant Shylock Aero, I was to fly them from Kano to Lagos last Saturday (October 30, 2010). The 10.30am flight was first postponed till 3.30pm and then canceled when we were already at the airport after checking out of hotel. Why all this if not aircraft problems. Hope regulators are not being compromised.” Some of the airline’s passengers have vowed not to have anything to do with it unless it reviewed its operations.
Although the airline management said that all was well with its operations, it had become very imperative for the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, to conduct an extensive economic audit into the airline’s operations, at least, to ascertain that its servicing of the debt owed Oceanic Bank Plc is not eroding its capacity to maintain its aircraft when due, send its pilots on simulation training and address issues of staff welfare which, not in place, could comprise safety.
Whatever the situation with Aero at the moment is just a reflection of challenges faced by Nigerian airlines, which are confronted daily by high operational cost, resulting from cut-throat price of aviation fuel or JET-A1, high ground rents and multiple navigational charges, amongst others.