Arik Air said it is suspending its daily service between the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, and London Heathrow Terminal 4 effective from March 25. This follows the inability of the airline to secure slot allocation.
It is the availability of slots that empowers an airline to undertake flights at a particular time and land at a particular time. Arik Air has been battling with this issue since it commenced service from Abuja to London Heathrow Airport.
Nigeria and Britain had been renegotiating the Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) to ensure reciprocity on the route.
Arik Air said it was compelled to suspend its services on the route following the inability of the UK and Nigerian governments to come to agreeable terms on the BASA. Under the terms of the BASA, Arik Air was allocated seven frequencies per week in respect of the Lagos/ London, Heathrow service and seven per week for the Abuja/ London, Heathrow service. That is a total of 14 frequencies out of 21 available for Nigerian carriers under the BASA.
However, an anomaly exists between access to slots in the respective countries with the Nigerian government matching the allocation of slots with frequencies, thereby giving UK carriers unfettered access to its full complement of 21 slots at Abuja and Lagos airports.
However, this is not reciprocated in the UK with the authorities drawing a distinction between allocation of frequencies and access to slots, claiming that an application for landing slots at UK airports is a process separate from the BASA entitlement.
From the inception of the route in November 2009, Arik Air has been in a slot-lease agreement with a UK carrier, leasing arrival/departure slots on the Abuja-London route at Heathrow.
At the end of the summer schedule (October 2011), the UK carrier that Arik Air was in the slot-lease agreement with for this route advised the airline of its intention to sell the company and began to wind down its contractual arrangements with Arik Air. Without these commercially arranged slots Arik Air was forced to suspend operations at the start of the winter schedule.
Immediate discussions were held by the respective governments to resolve the long-existing and underlying anomaly in the BASA. As an abridgement, the UK authorities facilitated the temporary continuation of the commercial lease of these slots in support of Arik Air's Abuja-London, Heathrow operation. This interim solution was only available up until March 25, (2012).
Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of both governments, no solution has been found. The situation remains as it was at the end of October 2011 with Arik Air having no landing/arrival slots after March 2012, thus forcing it to suspend the route.
Dr. Michael Arumemi-Ikhide, group CEO/president of Arik Air, commented on the suspension of the Abuja-London route: "Whilst it is regrettable to have to suspend our services between Abuja and London, we simply could not continue with the route due to the restrictions placed upon us in accessing arrival/departure slots in to UK airports.
It is an unfortunate situation and one that we felt was being resolved at government level and we hoped that an agreement would have been reached before the start of the summer schedule. Due to the stalemate we are therefore forced to suspend this route.
"We support any dialogue that will take place in the future between the governments on this issue and we stand ready and waiting to commence when asked to and when we feel that the imbalance had been satisfactorily redressed. Our main priority is our passengers and it is disappointing to discontinue such a critical route and reduce capacity between the countries which gives less availability to the Nigerian traveller.
However, we would like to assure our customers that we are fully committed to the UK market and will continue as normal on the Lagos-London Heathrow route with our flagship A340.
When contacted, the SA, media, to the minister of aviation, Mr. Joe Obi, said that the ministry is studying the development and would issue a statement in due course.