A passenger being screened before boarding an aircraft at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja.

By AYOOLA OLAOLUWA

The anticipated return of flight operations in Nigeria which commenced on July 8, 2020 has continued to be dogged by low turnout of passengers, Business Hallmark findings can reveal.

Our Correspondent who monitored resumption of the airlines at the Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos saw only few passengers boarding. It was also observed that all stores within the airport were under lock and did not open to customers.

It would be recalled that the Federal Government had announced the reopening of the airports on July 8 starting with the Murtala Muhammed Airport (MMA) Lagos and the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, Abuja. Kano, Port Harcourt, Owerri and Maiduguri airports are expected to resume operations on July 11, while domestic flights at other airports will resume on July 15.

After about four months of suspension of domestic and international flights because of COVID-19 pandemic, hitherto trapped travelers were expected to throng the airports in their thousands, but that was not the case as checks revealed that departure halls were largely devoid of activities. Many airport workers were seen loitering around with not much to do..

On July 8, four airlines, namely Arik Air, Air Peace, Max Air and Ibom Air, operated from the Murtala Mohammed Airport to Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja. However, the fifth airline approved to fly, Overland Airways, moved the start of operations to July 15.

At the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) popularly called MMA1 and Murtala Muhammed Terminal (MM2) operated by Bi-Courtney Aviation Services, counter agents were seen attending to passengers seeking boarding passes.

At around 6:25am, passengers on Arik Air Lagos to Abuja flight billed for take-off by 7:00am were instructed to commence boarding at the General Aviation Terminal. The passengers boarded under the supervision of officials of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA).

Forty-five minutes later, the flight, the first in almost four months took off, 15 minutes behind scheduled, with 78 passengers on board. About two hours and fifty-five minutes later, the second flight, Ibom Air, departed with 80 passengers on board, followed by Max Air which started boarding at 10.10am from MM2 but took off 11:am.

The fourth flight, an Air Peace flight PA47120, departed Lagos for Abuja with 103 passengers on board. The situation however improved a bit on Thursday and Friday with more passengers turning up at the airport and other airlines commencing operations.

Though airlines and airport officials expressed hope that passengers traffic will improve in coming days, BH findings revealed several factors that could have contributed to the low turnout. They include significant increase in airfares, fear of contracting Covid-19, security concerns, accommodation issues and many others.

Checks revealed that all the airlines raised their fares in all classes of tickets for one-hour flights from Lagos to Abuja. For example, Air Peace sold its Economy-Flexi Domestic plan for N33,001for a one way Lagos-Abuja trip, while the business class ticket was sold for N80,000.

Arik Air’s economy plan on the other hand was sold for N29,189, while the business class was N78,532 for a one-way Lagos to Abuja trip. While flights for Dana Air on Economy Discount sold for N33,000 for a one way Lagos to Abuja flight, the Business Flexible plan sold for N70,500. Azman had economy tickets sold for N33,000 while business class sold for N60,000 for the same 50minutes trip.

An official with one of the nation’s airlines who did not want his identity disclosed, admitted that pricing could also be responsible for the low turnout of passengers. According to him, a company which runs an account with his airline wrote to complain of the sudden hike in price.

“We have a retainership deal with a food and packaging company based in Lagos to fly their workers worth over N200million a year. But with the outbreak of Covid19 and its consequences, the same contract was reviewed to close to N400million, almost double.

“The company replied that it could not continue with the deal, and decided to cut cost by only flying management, senior and middle level staff. We are in the middle of restructuring the agreement. By flying fewer staff, that will be less revenue to the airline”, the official stated.

Another major factor contributing to the low turnout of passengers at airports is security concerns caused by FAAN’s order that all passengers must report at the airport three hours before their flights. BH reliably gathered that this singular policy is majorly responsible for driving away prospective passengers away from the airports.

A senior government official, who spoke to our Correspondent at the MMA1, lamented that he had to leave his Lekki residence around 3:00am with armed escorts to be able to meet the requirement.

“For me to be able to board the 7:00am flight, I factored in the one hour trip from Lekki to the airport and the three hours mandated by FAAN to be at the airport by leaving at 3:00am.

“We all know how bad the security situation in the country is. Thankfully, the DPO of my community assigned some of his men to see to our safety”, he said.

While security concerns could be blamed for pushing away passengers, the fear of getting infected with Covid19 is also wreaking havoc. Many prospective travelers, not sure of measures put in by hotels to check the spread, prefer to make the two-way trip in a day and would need to leave home for the airport as early as 2:00-3:00am.

A businessman, Mr. Festus Obiora, said since he did not want to risk staying in a hotel and getting infected, the journey must be a day trip.

“There have been stories of hotels being used as isolation centres for Covid19 victims. Why will I want to risk my life staying in a place I can’t I am not sure of? The only option left is to make use of early flights to reach Abuja. If I did not get a space on board, I would have rescheduled until they get me a seat”, Obiora stated.

It was also gathered that most of the passengers who boarded flights between Wednesday and Friday were those who were trapped in Lagos and Abuja as a result of the restriction, with only few of them going for business. The situation could get worse when international flights resume with the requirement that passengers must get to the airport at least 5 hours before departure in order to ensure that all protocols, including safety markings, social distancing, hand sanitizing, baggage decontamination, scanning of personal items and so on are complied with.

Speaking on the development, the Director of Maintenance and Engineering, Ibom Air, Engr. Lookman Animashaun, expressed optimism that more passengers would turn up in the coming days.

“It is normal that you record this kind of turnout on the first day after a long while but I can assure you that you will see improvement. Flying is still the safest and authorities have put everything in place for the safety and comfort of passengers and airport users.”

He said prospective passengers are concerned that a vaccine has not been developed yet for the COVID-19, which is increasing on a daily basis.

“What we realised is that most multinational companies, about 15 of them, the telecommunication companies, banks, among others have travel restrictions for their staff. Another factor is that we have not seen a vaccine for this virus and we are seeing daily increase”, he said.

The spokesperson for Air Peace, Stanley Olisa, said the flying public needed not worry but comply with all health protocols. He said the airline had thoroughly disinfected all its aircraft and the flight crew were current as well as COVID-19 conscious.

“If you’ve been following our social media platforms, you would have seen robust sensitisation content in the form of videos showing what is expected of our passengers in this COVID-19 dispensation”, Olisa said.