As the Nigerian and British Governments strive to resolve the air impasse that resulted in the reduction of British Airways slots to Lagos Airport, Nkem Osuagwu writes on the need to ensure that reciprocity is maintained in Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) with other countries.
The recent air row between Nigeria and the United Kingdom over the unwholesome treatment of Arik Air on the Abuja to London route has further brought to the fore some of the nation’s aviation policies that are inimical to the growth of indigenous airlines and the need to correct them.
For years, industry watchers have identified non reciprocity in Bilateral Air Services Agreement, non existence of a national airline, Multiple Designation of foreign airlines to routes in the country as some of the issues that need to be tackled in order to move the airline industry forward. Some critics are peeved that foreign airlines not only dominate the country’s airline market, they are further given access to several routes where ordinarily the indigenous airlines should have served better.
The Airline Industry
But a critical look at the nation’s airline industry really leaves much to be desired. This is because sometimes some of the indigenous airlines do not keep to their schedules and flights are sometimes delayed or cancelled without giving travellers enough warning to change their travel plans.
Also, the airlines lack the capacity to adequately connect various destinations in the country, which is why some aviation experts have called for cooperation among the airlines. These and more are some of the issues which industry analysts have tried to analyse as Nigeria and Britain dialogue on issues pertaining to utilising their Bilateral Air Services Agreement. However, it is important that policies should be formulated in a way to benefit the struggling airline industry.
The slash of British Airways slots to the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) Lagos from seven to three as a result of the current Air row has generated a lot of reactions. While some have shown their patriotism by supporting the government’s stand to protect indigenous airlines from anti-competition policies especially by countries with which Nigeria have such agreement, others have said that Arik Air was unfairly favoured in a competitive environment. Others have also urged the federal government to strive to understand that aviation is a global business with its politics. Some also feel that picking out British Airways for punishment in this air impasse between the governments of Nigeria and Britain is unfair, when two flag carriers from Britain are currently enjoying the provisions of the Bilateral Air Services Agreement between the two countries. Some of the questions many have raised include why only British Airways was singled out by the government in its plans to restructure its slot allocation to the Lagos Airport, and why it is important for the government to understand the issues pertaining to slot allocation in the global aviation market.
One individual whose views seem to answer some of such questions is the President and Chief Executive Officer, Sabre West Africa; Mr. Gabriel Olowo. He believed that British Airways was being unnecessarily penalised on issues bothering on slot allocation. He also believed that Nigerian travellers would suffer it the most especially during this coming holiday season.
“Why is BA being penalised for airport issues concerning slots. Slot acquisition and its management have no bearing with Bilateral Air Services Agreement and flight frequencies. Besides, two flag carriers or national carriers of Britain so to say utilise the Nigeria/Britain BASA. Why is one atoning for the diplomatic sin if at all any?
“Arik Air and our flag carriers need to understand the aero politics and workings of slots globally. Schedule reliability is key. I guess we’ve not been told the whole story. Harassing BA like we are doing is against business ethics and in the long run Nigerian travelling public will suffer higher tariffs arising from reduction in capacity which our airlines put together cannot provide during holiday season just approaching”, said Olowo
However, the Aviation ministry feels that some people lack proper understanding of the issue at hand and has come up with some clarifications to make for better understanding of the fracas between Nigeria and Britain on the issue of slot allocation. While many critics have concerned themselves with a surface understanding of the issue at hand, the ministry said it was concerned with the issue of reciprocity, and the future of the industry.
According to a statement by the Special Assistant to the Aviation Minister, Mr. Joe Obi, the issue at hand was not really about Arik Air’s maltreatment by British aviation authorities per se, but about the need to respect the spirit and letter of Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) which is predicated on the principles of equity, fairness and reciprocity.
The statement reads, “As the controversy surrounding the reduction of British Airway’s slots into the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) Lagos rages, it has become imperative to make certain clarifications as the issues are currently being muddled up for various inexplicable reasons, some certainly bordering on the selfish interest and agenda of those making the insinuations and nuanced interpretations. While the Honourable Minister of Aviation, Princess Stella Oduah maintains that Arik Air, a Nigerian Flag Carrier has not been fairly treated by the sudden denial of its slots from Abuja into London Heathrow, the main issue at stake here is not about Arik Air but about the need to respect the spirit and letter of Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) which is predicated on the principles of equity, fairness and reciprocity.
“Those who argue that the fate of Arik Air with regard to the loss of its slots into London Heathrow was a consequence of purely independent, commercial decisions by ACL which is in charge of slot allocation into Heathrow are missing the point, if not being entirely mischievous. The British authorities are under obligation as far as BASA is concerned to ensure that whatever ‘’independent’’ and ‘’commercial’’ decisions are taken by its corporate citizens do not infringe on bilateral agreements. Otherwise, business concerns in the UK, and indeed other countries around the world would, as has happened with ACL resort to unfair practices to edge out competition with its indigenous companies ostensibly on the excuse that they act independent of the authorities concerned.
“The point to emphasize is that the Ministry of Aviation, under the present dispensation will not stand idly by while Nigerian flag carriers are unfairly treated when BASA agreements clearly state otherwise. If this is allowed to happen, an undesirable precedent would have been set whereby the rights and privileges of Nigerian airlines would blatantly be violated by apparently independent business concerns in other countries other than the UK.
“Regret to note that the letter and spirit of BASA has not been respected as far as the treatment of Arik Air is concerned. But it is Arik Air today and it could as well be another Nigerian flag carrier tomorrow. Our position is that whether it is Arik Air or any other Nigerian airline, the reciprocal cornerstone of BASA must be maintained and the Nigerian government is not about to shirk its responsibility to protect its corporate citizens whose rights under BASA are surreptitiously being violated under different guises.
As stated earlier, discussions between the relevant Nigerian and British authorities are on-going with a view to resolving the present imbroglio in a mutually satisfactory manner. But the point must be made again and again that this is not about Arik Air. It is about the fair and equitable treatment of Nigerian Flag Carriers in line with BASA agreements.”
It is obvious that Nigerian airlines currently lack the capacity to compete with the strong foreign airlines that operate flights to Nigeria. It is also true that Nigerians especially the travelling public would suffer if the government fails to resolve the BASA issues before the Christmas holidays set in, however, it is better to get things right now so that such issues might not arise tomorrow. This is a test for those in authority and for the nation’s aviation industry. The nation’s policy formulators should not mortgage the future because Nigerian airlines currently lack the capacity to compete in the global aviation market.