Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Enforcing air passengers’ bill of rights

In the last one week or thereabout, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority has embarked on a media hype aimed at sensitising Nigeria air travellers to what it calls Passengers’ Bill of Rights.  This is a right step in the right direction, it must be stressed. It is actually long overdue.  Truth be told, the country’s aviation industry is undergoing a lot of innovation and face-lift. Many of the nation’s airport terminals such as those in Lagos, Benin, Enugu, and Kano have been remodelled while some are still under reconstruction.  To most observers, the aviation industry is well-regulated. Aside from the Federal Ministry of Aviation, there are six other parastatals or agencies under it. They are the Nigeria Meteorological Agency, Nigeria Airspace Management Agency, Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria, Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, Accident Investigation Bureau and Nigeria College of Aviation and Technology. There are 16 airports and 16 airlines licensed to operate domestic flights in the country.
However, the Air Passengers’ Bill of Rights could not have come at a better time given the very lackadaisical way local and international airlines operating in the country have carried out their business. Flights are delayed for “operational or technical reasons”, whatever that means. Passengers are not often told about this until much after they ought to have boarded. There are rampant cases of missing luggage. During the festive seasons, flights are overbooked with many passengers with valid tickets not being able to board. Sometimes, those at the ticketing sections create artificial scarcity of seats in order to make desperate passengers to pay above the normal fares. They sometime do this in cahoots with touts who serve as middlemen.
A colleague and I had experienced a situation where our flight from Abuja to Gombe took off earlier than scheduled without being informed about the flight re-scheduling even though the airline had our phone numbers. We had to buy the ticket of another airline before we could make the journey. Yet, there was no refund from the airline we originally booked. We were asked to use the ticket to fly on another day as it is valid for one year. Another colleague was taken to Yola instead of Gombe and he had to transport himself back to Gombe from there.  Recently, our plane had to first go to Lagos from Ibadan to refuel before heading for Abuja. We were only informed about this at the point of boarding. I had also experienced, on a number of occasions, landing delays due to airport closure because the President or a VIP was about to take off or land. This aimless roving in the air is very dangerous.
Not too long ago, at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja, several flights were delayed leading to congestion at the waiting lounge. Seats were at a premium. Some of us had to stand for some time until flights started taking off. As we were waiting, there was this stench from God knows where oozing into the waiting lounge. The air-conditioning systems, though working, were unable to offer much comfort. This same airport had also experienced long power outage on several occasions. This is unbecoming! I like travelling light hence always have my bag as hand luggage. I hate the frequent delays for retrieval of checked-in luggage. Sometimes, it takes 30 minutes or more to get one’s luggage. Occasionally, by the time the luggage arrives, the bag or suitcase may have been tampered with by those engaged to load and offload them. Sometimes, some of the contents may have been pilfered. There is so much tardiness from the airline operators and some airport staff.
In essence, it is heartwarming that NCAA has deemed it fit to have this air passengers’ bill of rights. According to the executive summary of the bill accessed from the NCAA website, there are 20 canons of this bill named “Your Flight Rights”. They are: If your flight will be re-routed or delayed, you must be notified at least  two hours in advance; if you have a ticket or print-out that shows a confirmed reservation for a specific flight and date, an agent cannot deny you boarding because you have no reservation in the computer; if you need to cancel a ticket purchased under a nonrefundable fare, you must be able to apply the fare you paid towards a future flight, minus any applicable charge or cancellation fees; you must be compensated if a flight departs before the ticketed time; if  your luggage is delayed or lost, you must be compensated within five business days; if your flight is delayed for over one hour, cancelled or you are denied boarding, you have a right to compensation; also, if airline staff or agents treat you discourteously, you must be compensated by the airline.
Others include: You have a right to refreshments in-flight and when there is a delay of more than one hour; the airline must provide decent lodging and feeding for you if your flight is delayed overnight; as a passenger with mobility or other special needs, you have a right to priority treatment; you have a right to sanitary restrooms in-flight; you have a right to best price information; and flexible/refundable tickets at cost; if too many people show up for your flight, the airline must ask for volunteers to give up their seats for rewards from the airline (such as vouchers for future travel, a hotel stay or even cash.) The rewards must be negotiated on an individual basis with the airline; if you are involuntarily denied boarding, the airline must explain your rights in a written document, which must state how the airline decides who gets to stay on an oversold flight. You may keep your ticket and use it on another flight. If you choose to make alternative arrangements, you can request an “involuntary refund” for the ticket; and lastly, you have a right to choose between quiet and entertainment in-flight
I must add, very quickly too, that the bill is not all rights for passengers. There are a number of duties highlighted in the bill for airline customers to fulfil. These are: All adults are required to present photo identification upon check-in and at boarding; passengers have a duty to be courteous to staff and agents of airline operators; if you do not check your luggage in sufficient time for it to be loaded on your flight, the airline will not be responsible for any delay in the delivery of your luggage to your destination; you have a duty to arrive before the time on your ticket; finally, even if you have already checked in for your flight, an airline can cancel your reservation if you are not at the departure gate on time.
Does the NCAA have the requisite capacity to enforce these rights and duties? Time will tell. However, the rot in the aviation sector goes beyond the airlines. Also culpable are some members of staff of the regulatory agencies. For instance, some employees of the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria at the screening points are in the habit of doing “fine bara”, that is diplomatic begging from passengers. You’ll hear them solicit something for “the weekend”. This is untoward and very unprofessional. All forms of touting and hawking at the perimeter area of the airport should also be banned. In the unlikely event of plane crash, prompt settlements of insurance claims to the crash victims’ families must be ensured. NCAA will do well to adequately sensitise air travellers to this very important regulation.  We must end impunity of the airline operators in Nigeria NOW!