Hundreds of local passengers were stranded at the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos on Thursday as the country’s largest commercial carrier, Arik Air, decided to suspend its domestic flights after aviation unions disrupted activities at the airport.
The President, Air Transport Services Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, Mr. Benjamin Okewu, told journalists on Thursday that the unions decided to ground the operations of Arik over alleged failure to pay service charges it owed government agencies such as the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria; Nigerian Airspace Management Agency; and the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority.
However, a statement by the airline quoted the Managing Director, Mr. Chris Ndulue, as denying the allegations.
The statement by the airline read, “Due to persistent hostility of the Ministry of Aviation and the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, which has culminated in the use of FAAN staff to stop Arik Air operations and lock in checked-in passengers in Lagos this morning, Arik Air has no option than to suspend all domestic operations until further notice.
“This issue bears on personal interests and not payment of bills; since FAAN has been collecting its charges in advance since 18 months now. Arik Air regrets the inconveniences this disruption by FAAN would cause our guests.
Before now, there have been several attempts and threats to disrupt our operations and sell the usual impression that Arik Air owes the agencies. After these attempts failed, today, they resorted to using some FAAN staff.
“We are aware that some knowledgeable staff refused to join this illegal and unwarranted action. They locked the boarding gate and prevented passengers from getting to the aircraft and were making false announcement of unimaginable sums of money they claimed Arik owed. Obviously, from their records no other airline owes anything.”
It added, “This is only a calculated attempt to punish the airline and tarnish its image. They are witnesses to the reputation of Arik Air as a young and upwardly mobile airline. They saw it in their road shows and many visits to airlines and aircraft manufacturers. Ordinarily, they should be happy, but they are not
“For the records, Arik Air does not owe FAAN as is being alleged by the agency. We want to state that FAAN has been collecting its charges over the last 18 months when it introduced the pay-as-you-go regime. In this year alone, we have paid over N2bn to FAAN (breakdown by month and types is attached). Thirty five per cent of total airline revenues in Nigeria are paid back to government agencies.”
The airline described as fictitious and baseless several figures allegedly being bandied about by FAAN as Arik Air’s indebtedness to the agency.
Meanwhile, the management of FAAN has distanced itself from the action of the unions, describing it as counter-productive to business operations.
A statement signed by the General Manager, Public Affairs, FAAN, Mr. Akin Olukunle, stated that the management was taken aback by the action of the unions and described it as counter-productive.
The statement read in part, “Earlier today, Thursday September 20, 2012, it was brought to the attention of the management of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria that members of the industrial unions in the aviation industry carried out an industrial action, which entailed the disruption of Arik Airlines’ flights, allegedly to recover debts owed by the airline to various agencies in the industry.
“The management wishes to inform the public that it was not aware of any plan by the unions to embark on the said industrial action as the management considered it to be counter-productive to the current efforts being made by management to recover debts owed FAAN by Arik Airlines and other customers.
Olukunle added, “The management wishes to assure the public, particularly air passengers and all other airport users, that we are doing everything possible to address the issue that informed the industrial action by the unions without recourse to violence.”