"The whole experience has left me feeling violated. I do not intend to fly Arik Air anywhere outside Nigeria."
When Elizabeth Nwafor booked an Arik Air ticket from Lagos to Johannesburg, South Africa, the last thing on her mind was being robbed en route her destination.
Ms. Nwafor went on a short vacation to Johannesburg on October 24, 2013. She boarded the Abuja- Lagos-Johannesburg flight with the airline using its Boeing 737-800 plane for the W3103 international flight.
Immediately she arrived Johannesburg and retrieved her briefcase from the luggage section, she noticed its lock had been broken.
On noticing the broken lock, Ms. Nwafor said she approached the Arik Air desk in Johannesburg to inquire if there was security check on her bag.
"When I picked up my luggage, I noticed that the padlock of my briefcase had been broken. So I went to the Arik desk in Johannesburg to file a complaint and find out what had happened; probably they must have broken it for security check although I did not see any sticker to indicate that," Ms. Nwafor said.
To her surprise, the man on the desk informed her that there was no security check on her bag as such checks were not done by the airline in Johannesburg, and any such checks would have been done in Lagos.
However, he gave her a complaint form to fill; should she "discover any items missing from my suitcase."
Ms. Nwafor told PREMIUM TIMES she decided to keep mum on the incident as she had no time to check through and be sure there were missing items in the bag.
"I wasn't going to say anything about it," she said. "But when we arrived in Lagos on our return flight, I boarded the shuttle bus with a number of people; about 20 of them and it turned out that nine had had the same experience and things were actually stolen from them."
While Ms. Nwafor was lucky nothing was stolen from her bag, several other passengers on a similar flight three days later had worse experience.
A team of victims
Prince Sajere, who led a nine-member contingent, including the Miss Ambassador for Peace 2013, on a trip to Johannesburg said the flight was a very sad experience for his team.
He explained that having had his bag broken into and property stolen on a previous Arik flight, he only felt bad for the young women he travelled with as most of them were on that route for the first time.
"It was a sad experience. I led a team of beauty pageants from Lagos to Johannesburg on the October 27; the flight was by 10:45pm.
"Before we boarded the flight that very day, they called the attention of one of us that her bag was torn, immediately I saw it I knew it was Arik that tampered with it because one time I travelled with my family on Arik (Lagos to Johannesburg), they stole my iPad device.
Mr. Sajere said he asked the lady to check for any missing item in the bag. She didn't because of her eagerness for the trip and because people had started boarding the plane.
The situation, however, worsened upon arrival in Johannesburg.
"Immediately we arrived, a particular girl started complaining that her iPad was gone from her bag. The girl that her bag was torn then realized that her clothes and jewelry were stolen; my perfume and shoes were also stolen from my bag. Every one of us had one or two things missing from our bags," Mr. Sajere said.
Just like Ms. Nwafor, Mr. Sajere and his team complained to the airline's desk in Johannesburg, but were referred to Arik Air's headquarters in Lagos.
Mr. Sajere told PREMIUM TIMES that Arik Air officials in Johannesburg blamed their Lagos colleagues for the theft. They also told him that they had received many such complaints from Lagos passengers.
"We complained at Arik office in Jo'burg and they said we have to get back to Lagos to make a complaint, that it must be the Arik people from Lagos. They also said that a lot of complaints have been coming from their direction," he said.
Any hope that Mr. Sajere and his team would get a redress at the Lagos office of the airline was dashed a few days later.
"Immediately I got to Lagos with the team, we went to the Lagos Arik office on November 1 (2013). I was speaking with the station Manager; a Yoruba guy, I can't recall his name. He was nonchalant over our complaint and later two guys came as if we were in a court asking us what happened, when and how it happened and so on. Then they said we should go online to fill a form which can easily be denied and meanwhile there was no form online to be filled out," he said.
When the team boarded the transit bus from the international terminal of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport to the local terminal, they realised they were not the only victims of the theft on the Arik flights, they met Ms. Nwafor and other passengers who suffered similar fate. All had returned on the same flight to Lagos from Johannesburg and shared their experiences.
"Immediately we boarded a transit bus in Lagos international airport to local, I was just trying to talk to the lady beside me about what happened," Mr. Sajere said. "Immediately everybody started complaining about the same issues. It's a pity that this happens here often, where our litigation doesn't work, nobody cares."
One of the members of Mr. Nwafor's team, Queen Irene, was too angered by the loss of her white mini-iPad that she declined to speak further on the matter.
Another passenger on the same flight, Etim Emoh, told PREMIUM TIMES that two pairs of shoes were stolen from his bag on another flight to Johannesburg.
Aviation officials react
Several Arik officials spoken to at the Lagos airport by the victims and PREMIUM TIMES reporter blamed aviation officials who manage luggage handling for the theft.
But the spokesperson for the aviation agencies, Yakubu Datti, told PREMIUM TIMES that it was totally irresponsible for any airline operative to blame the aviation agencies for its inadequacy.
"We don't get involved in their searches and they should be able to own up," Mr. Datti said. "It's a lazy argument for anybody to blame other people for their ineptitude. We create a plane ground for all users of aviation services and if one out of 10 airlines are blaming us for their inadequacy; it's a rather lazy argument.
"We believe that any airline not only Arik should sit up to their responsibilities to the passengers because whoever pays to expect some services by these are airlines have the Passengers Bill of Rights protection."
He noted that all Nigerian air travellers' right must be respected as contained in the Passenger's Bill of Rights.
"The Nigerian passenger's right must be respected as it is done internationally, that is why we do not condone any action in form of disrespect to any passenger flying Nigerian airlines.
"The Passenger Bill clearly states the sanctions and in every airport there is the Consumer Protection Commission, [CPC] desk headed by a Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, staff, where passengers can lodge their complaints," he said.
He also said there are telephone numbers available for air passengers to call and lay their complaints, saying it is only when such complaints are laid that the agencies undertake investigations.
Furthermore, he encouraged passengers to lodge their complaints or displeasure from any operative to the CPC/NCAA desk.
Despite the complaints by the passengers, however, Arik absolved itself of any wrongdoing.
Arik Air responds
The Public Relations Officer of Arik, Ola Adebanji, replying to a PREMIUM TIMES enquiry, said while Arik Air is not justifying damage or loss of items by passengers, such cases are global problems not peculiar to the Nigerian airline.
"It is important to state that issues bordering around missing, lost or damaged luggage is a worldwide problem in the air travel industry and not peculiar to any airline," he said. "For instance, in 2012 alone, nearly 1.8 million pieces of luggage were lost, stolen or damaged by major U.S. airlines- and this is just on domestic flights."
He also said that Arik Air does not condone stealing by its employees and that most of the thefts are not perpetrated by Arik staff.
"In as much as one is not justifying lost or missing luggage on Arik Air flights, I would like to say that most, if not all of the incidents on Arik Air's flight were not perpetrated by the airline's staff.
"Quite a lot of activities are involved in flight operations especially handling of passengers' luggage. Though the passenger has a contract with Arik Air, other parties are involved in ensuring the contract is discharged," he said.
Mr. Adebanji explained that the airline has "intensified efforts to ensure that our security staff monitors our passengers' luggage from the point of check-in to loading."
He advised all passengers to keep their valuables in their hand luggage and to also notify Arik's check-in staff of any luggage that contains fragile items to ensure accurate tagging and handling.
The spokesperson said the airline's recruitment process is usually thorough and applicants tested for integrity. He also said any staff proven guilty of such act would be appropriately dealt with, and passengers compensated in line with aviation industry practice.
Although none of the theft victims of the Lagos-Johannesburg flights got or plan to seek compensation, their frustration has helped them make a decision on the airline.
"The whole experience has left me feeling violated," Ms. Nwafor said. "I do not intend to fly Arik Air anywhere outside Nigeria based on the number of people that were robbed on a single flight. It suggests to me that whatever is going on is well organized and involves more than two people at any given time to pull it off time and time again."