Fola Akinkuotu is the Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA. In this interview, He speaks on the imminent dispensation under the Passenger Bill of Rights in the aviation sector. Excerpts:
Passengers have complained persistently of abuse by airlines. How does the new Bill of Right for Passengers address this exploitation?
I always demand for value for my money; maybe because I come from a humble background and I believe that, in my entire career, as far as aviation is concerned, it is something to be happy about. The passenger should be given a good experience from the moment he boards a flight to the moment he disembarks. A good experience naturally makes one to desire another experience, so if you have a good experience in flying, the tendency is that you would want to come back.
One of the very first things that became obvious to me when I joined the aviation industry was that profit in aviation is made in pennies; so for you to have a profitable venture, you have to collect a lot of pennies. How are you going to collect a lot of pennies if you don’t make the consumer happy? We started by allowing over booking. If you are allowed to over book, that means you are hedging your bet that I have a 200-seater aeroplane, I am going to sell 226 tickets in the hope that some people may not show up. The airlines devised that as a way of hedging their business; hedging their bet; so shouldn’t somebody also think about the consumer?
This is a concept that could be described as, what is good for the airlines should also be extended to the consumer. This essentially informs why the consumer should have right. It didn’t start from here. It is a global thing. The issue of delay of flights and the benefits goes back to 2005. If airlines are allowed to overbook and nobody is saying they can’t, in the same extension, if I have paid you and you have taken my money and I show up before the flight for what I perceive is a contractual deal and we cannot consummate it because you have decided to over book, shouldn’t I as a passenger get some benefit? If for some reason I, looking at it in a holistic manner, I want to go to Abuja to meet my friend and he said, when can you come and I say I will be in Abuja 12 o’clock.
It is one-hour flight, so I say there is a flight a 11 o’clock. I have planned the totality of my travel. I have conditioned myself and I will buy a ticket before I get to the airport. Let’s say I planned these two days before and I told my friend we will have a business launch by 2 o’clock and I asked somebody to buy me a ticket that leaves here at 11 and I will be in Abuja at 12 and it will take me one hour to get to town. But I get to the airport and the flight is delayed and nobody thinks that I have the right to ask questions. Do you think that is fair? This bill take into cognisance the rights of the operators, the rights of the airlines.
This bill is intended to checkmate some abuses of rights of the passenger. What is the sanction regime going to be like? What is the plan to sensitise passengers to know their rights ahead of the time?
Everything is supposed to be process-driven. Ideally, we will prefer that the airlines are self-policed. Let us say that today we have people who are gathering refuse and there is a law that says anybody who dumps refuse on the street will be fined. As the head of the household, I can be self-regulating. I can tell my kids, don’t throw refuse on the street. The essence is to make it easier for us if we are all self-regulating. So the first step is that the NCAA will want each airline to have a customer service unit that looks into customers’ complaints.
So it is not just a question of we just want to throw the laws out and we are going to wield the big stick at the airlines. We want them to be self-policing to start with. It is when that fails that you will have a right of redress; you can have the right to complain. You can complain to the NCAA and we are setting up a portal that will handle complaints on the net. So you can make your complaints either in textual form or you complain to us in writing or by filling of form online.
There have been efforts in the past to check the exploitation of the passengers by airlines, but it never worked. There has always been a romance between the airlines and NCAA which seems to shut the passengers out. Why has customer protection failed to work in the past?
First of all, I will like to say the alleged romance is an assumption. Consumer protection was made a directorate in 2010 and the bill was presented to the airlines last year. I don’t accept that there has been a romance between the NCAA and the airlines. I recall that, as somebody who came from the industry, in 2010 or 2011, NCAA called us and highlighted this issue and wanted the airlines to do something. I was in an airline at that time. So the NCAA has always made efforts. The question sometimes is, having put these laws in place expecting that the airlines will be self-regulating, but since they refused to be self-regulating, somebody has to tell them a law is there.
From experience, we know that some airlines are protected by some highly placed individuals and we fear that these airlines may not comply with the law. So, how you are going to enforce it is important and that is what we want to know. The National Assembly last year directed some international airlines to bring down their exorbitant fares. The airlines have not complied with that directive; so we also want to know NCAA relationship with the National Assembly to ensure that the foreign airlines do not want to have any escape route this time around?
The NCAA is a regulator. Laws come into being based on what we see and or what we are advised and approved by the legislature. The NCAA is supposed to work hand in hand with the legislature and I intend to do just that. I will like to give the benefit to the legislature that they have the best interest of this country at heart. I am not going to start by disbelieving for one moment that the legislature is not on our side. Lobbying is practised all over the world. There are people with different interests, so the airlines will have their interest; the passengers will have their interest. Any time you want to make a law in America, lobbyists will come up, each group trying to protect an interest. We will always see things from different perspectives. We have to accept that.
The issue of fare disparity is not something government has put to bed. About two weeks ago, the Minister was trying to make sure that the issue is addressed to the level that will be acceptable. The airlines are business people, so I expect that they would want to keep their fares as they like, but we also have a responsibility to highlight what we believe is unfair to the Nigerian air travellers. The legislators are our representatives, so they can see NCAA’s point of view, they can see the media point of view and they can see other people’s point of view.
Enforcement is always an issue in this country and I believe NCAA has put in place an internal mechanism to enforce this bill. I wish to emphasise on time frame. There is a saying that justice delayed is justice denied. What mechanism has NCAA out in place to ensure that passengers’ complaints are addressed promptly?
Quite often, we advise people to be short on promises and long in delivery. I am not going to quote any time frame. But there is no point in trying to do what we have planned to do if we are not going to actualise our set objectives. We are going to use the internet to quicken the process; so we are going to adopt the e-platform. We are going to ensure that when a complaint is made, we respond quickly to it. The consumer department has a whole lot of staff at the airports that are unseen. We will make sure that they are seen very soon. When these officials get any complaint, it will be flagged off immediately. We know that some of the complaints might not have merit.
I suppose that if a passenger loses his luggage or got his luggage torn, he will first complain to the airline. If he does not get the response he expects, he will complain to NCAA. If the passenger fills a form online, we see it immediately. The supervisor sees it and transfers and if it does not have merit , it is either approved or disproved.
If you file a complaint, the NCAA is a custodian of the law, it will look at it. If it has to do with landing; that the flight was supposed to land in Benin but landed in Asaba, we will talk to the airline to explain to us why they did not land and we confirm from FAAN why they did not land.
If it is weather related and they could not land at the designated airport, we will sympathise with the passenger but there is nothing NCAA can do on that. However, if your complaint has merit, then the internal mechanism of NCAA will start looking at it. Of course, we will look at the airline in order to get the issue resolved. We are going to be online and it will have a reference so that there will be, ‘no, I lost your paper; I lost your complaint’. We are interested in a robust monitoring of our aviation industry to see how we are doing.
There is performance factor in the industry. If we are not losing baggage; if we increase consumer confidence and happiness in our flights, don’t you think it will bring more joy to us?
This policy is intended to be holistic. I wish to look at the issue of baggage damage you talked about, and baggage; often times, for both domestic and international carriers, it has become a major issue and the passengers involved often complain that they did not get the redress that they sought. How do we ensure the inclusion of all stakeholders and passengers so that no one feels excluded from this process?
The portal that NCAA has established has all stakeholders name on it; it is a big platform, from airlines to baggage handlers, including the aviation agencies and Customs, Immigration and others. Now, the NCAA is the regulator; this means it has the right to go to anybody. The job NCAA does is difficult, but the fact that it has enormous task ahead of it in terms of this Passenger Bill of Rights will not weigh it down because the Authority has decided to take it. I have challenged my people to take it on.
All we need to do is not to believe that problems will not have solutions. I once travelled with XYZ airline and when my baggage arrived it was ripped open. And I complained to XYZ airline that my baggage was ripped open. I did not need to complain to the baggage handler because I did not give my baggage to the baggage handler. The airline is the one that contracted the handling company, so it has to go to the company it contracted to handle its services. The airline gave me redress; it also can go to the handling company to seek redress and this is where NCAA can come in. When it comes to us, we investigate. At any time, we have to know where to put the fault and where to seek redress.
The passenger may not see the behind-the-scene efforts. Many years ago, there was a big problem at the airport where virtually every baggage that came into this country was ripped open and I was a victim. I remember when Nintendo first came out; I bought it in the US for my son and put it in my box. When I got home, I carried
the bag, I was coming from New York and my son was waiting for me. He did not go to school. I told him I bought the Nintendo for him; he said where is it? I, full of confidence, opened the box, and lo and behold the Nintendo was not there.
In this same airport, there was a time when there were thieves everywhere. That is why when long haul aircraft is leaving the airport to the runway, there is a truck that follows it to ensure that nobody gets near the aircraft. These are measures that have come up in response to the challenges at different points at the airport. So there will always be efforts in trying to redress these issues. The passenger’s problems will be addressed. We make sure that he is fairly treated and that he is protected.