BY KENNETH EHIGIATOR
Director-General of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, Mr. Fola Akinkuotu, in this interview said the NCAA would ensure that air travellers would no longer be short-changed by airlines by enforcing to the letter, the Passenger Bill of Rights. He also said that the government had not given up on the problem of fare disparity. Excerpts:
On how the new Passengers’ Bill of Rights will address airlines’ exploitation of passengers
This bill contains aspects that take into cognisance the rights of the operators, the rights of the airlines and the rights of passengers. One of the first things that I learnt when I joined the aviation industry was the fact that profit is made in pennies. How are you going to collect a lot of pennies if you don’t make the customer, the consumer, happy? We started by allowing over booking. If you are allowed to over book that means that 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; so shouldn’t somebody also think about the consumer? This essentially informs why the consumer should have right. It didn’t start from here. It is a global thing.
What is the sanction regime going to be like?
Everything is supposed to be process-driven. Ideally, we will prefer that the airlines will be self-policed. 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 that looks into the complaints and addresses the consumer’s complaint. So it is not just a question of we just want to throw the laws out and we are going to wield a big stick on the airlines. We want them to be self-policing to start with. It is when that fails that you will have a right of complaint and 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 Internet. So you can make your complaints either in textual form or you complain to us in writing or by filling of form online.
On comments that customer protection failed to work in the past because the NCAA and airlines conspired
Consumer protection was made 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 doubt that. I recall that, as somebody who came from the industry that in 2010 or 2011 NCAA called us and highlighted this issue and wanted the airlines to do something. I was in the airline at that time. So the NCAA has always made efforts.
The issue is, having put these laws in place expecting that the airlines will be self-regulating, if they refused to be self-regulating, somebody has to tell them, look, the law is there.
On fears that some airlines protected by some highly placed individuals may not comply with the law and may not be sanctioned
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. Enforcement is always an issue in this country. The NCAA has put in place an internal mechanism to enforce this Bill. Particularly, I wish to emphasise time frame; there is a saying that justice delayed is justice denied.
On fair disparity
The issue of fare disparity is not something that 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 will expect that they would want to keep their fares as as high as they like, but we also have a responsibility to highlight what we believe is unfair situation to the average Nigerian. 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.
On mechanism to ensure that passenger complaints are addressed promptly
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. We are going to create visibility for them. When these officials get these complaints 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 has not or 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 will do on that. However, if your complaint has merit then the internal mechanism in NCAA will start looking at it.