Lagos — With his hands firmly tucked in his side pockets and his faced squeezed in apparent fury, Okon, a young man in his 30s, leaned on the entrance door leading to the ticketing counter of the Arik Airline located at the local section of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Ikeja, Lagos. Okon looked like a wounded lion who wasn't ready to share his predicament with anyone. Just like any other passenger of the airline who had booked for a flight to Warri, Delta state, but has been disappointed with the sudden flight disruption, Okon felt he already has enough to deal with and granting a press interview was simply a waste of time.
"Are you not a Nigerian? Don't you know what is happening? What else do you want me to tell you about my losses to the sudden flight disruption? Do you have an alternate flight for me, now?" Okon fired rhetorically at the reporter who had sought to know what the situation was with him.
When further pressed on why he has not gone to collect a refund from the airline staff like other passengers were doing, he blurted, thus:
"Of what significance is the collection of a refund at a time I ought to be in Warri? Look, I came in here at about 6am, hoping to leave Lagos by 8 am and arrived at Warri by 9. But this is almost 12 O'clock and I'm still in Lagos. The appointment I had in Warri was meant to be at 10:30, I just received a call that the guys I was suppose to meet with have cancelled it and I'm not sure they will be willing to re-fix it. In fact, I dey fex (mad) with everyone," Okon said.
Asked to state specifically who he was angry with, Okon said he was mad with Arik Airline, Federal Aviation Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), the ministry of Aviation and everybody he considered to be part of his flight disruption.
"These people are treating us like animals in our own country. If they do not stop their madness, it will come to a point when we will also show them the animals in us and all of us will be animals!" Okon said with a note of finality as he walked past the reporter and managed to find a seat under the passengers' awaiting canopy.
Like Okon, like Seyi Martins. But unlike Okon who was hostile in sharing his plights with journalists, Martins and his younger brother who were on their way to Warri but have now been made to queue up for refund were willing to speak their minds. According to Matins, what seemed to be more painful to him was how he was deceived to buy the two tickets from the counter.
"When I came to buy the tickets for my brother and I, I had an inkling that all was not well with Arik because instead of paying directly at the counter I was taken to that corner (pointed at a direction) where a guy was sitting. When I approached the guy and demanded why I was being asked to pay to him and not at the usual place, he said there 'may be some hiccups in the flight'. He was however quick to allay my fear, saying whatever the case maybe, the airline will still fly.
"After payment N72,000 for my ticket and that of my brother, we were asked to be here by 6 am because the departure hour is 8 am but to our surprise we received text messages at about 3 am that our flights have been cancelled. Still not convinced, we brought along our luggage with the hope that we would be traveling today. But here I am. It is really unfortunate that an airline of Arik status can be so fraudulent in collecting ticket fares from people when it knew quite well, it won't be flying," Martins said.
Martin's choice of the word "fraudulent" was not borne out of co-incidence. The young man said some few weeks ago, his cousin who joined the airline on a direct flight to London from Lagos was made to cough out the sum of N82,000 being a fine for late coming to catch up with his flight. "They said he was late to catch up with a flight slated for 9 am when indeed they were the ones who locked up the gate by 7 am, so when I say they are fraudulent, I know what I'm saying," he added.
One other passenger, who was also not finding the whole scenario funny, was Michael Abiodun. Abiodun, a chartered Accountant said he had booked online with Arik for a direct flight from Lagos to Sokoto, four days earlier. But as it was, the sudden twist of fate has rendered his early booking, useless. He was quite devastated as he counted his losses with Sunday Trust.
Yet for Arik, the airline operator who was in the eyes of the storm, the civil action that grounded its operations for two days was not self-inflicted but one fostered on it by those it says, are hell-bent in crippling its existence. At a press briefing organized in the wake of the crisis, the airline Managing Director, Chris Ndulue insisted that even though the flight disruption exercise was carried out by union members working with aviation parastatals, yet the true culprits are the Ministry of Aviation and the Federal Aviation Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) whose officials are pursuing parochial interest.
According to Ndulue, trouble started for Arik due to the airline's inability to meet the personal demands of certain influential person(s) in the industry. The Managing Director further said all the primordial attacks were aimed at grinding the airline which he said its steady rise in the aviation industry has been the envy of others.
"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, they resorted to using some FAAN staff. 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," Ndulue said.
But while the head-butting between Arik airline and the union members lasted, other airlines operator within the airport quickly cashed in on the situation. When Sunday Trust visited the departure lounge of the airport, Aero Contractor appeared to be the biggest beneficiary of the sudden influx of air travellers. IRS airline was able to tap in too. Though, when enquiries were made at the counter as to the current airfare charges, nothing seemed to have changed from old rates yet the attendants would be quick to inform the passengers that all available flights have been booked.
Already, the two warring sides in the Arik/Union face-off had met at a round table and resolved their differences. But whether the airline operator will be able to pacify its aggrieved customers and still retain the same loyalty it once enjoyed among them is what to be seen in the days ahead.