The plight of air passengers in the country worsened yesterday as Arik Air, the largest airline in West Africa, was shut down by protesting workers.
The workers, led by the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE), the Air Transport Senior Staff Services Association of Nigeria (ATSSSAN) and the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), among others, embarked on the industrial action in protest against alleged seven-month unpaid salaries and other anti-labour issues.
The crisis in the country's aviation sector will mount pressure on the already troubled road transport system and increase costs with serious implication on prices of goods and services during the yuletide.
Disrupted services in the air transport business will also cut into the revenue of government and regulatory agencies, which depend on operational charges to sustain oversight functions.
A retired pilot, John Ojikutu said irrespective of the cost on operators and regulators, airlines were overdue for economic auditing, to put them in check and save the country's airspace.
The passengers that have been battling with the effects of the aviation fuel scarcity in the last one week, had their woes compounded as available aircraft were further reduced by 50 per cent due to the closure of Arik.
While other airlines like Air Peace, First Nation, Med-View, Dana Air, Overland and Azman could not take the spillover from Arik due to low capacity, about 100 per cent hike in ticket fares was noticed by Tuesday afternoon.
At the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) and Murtala Muhammed Airport II terminal, both in Lagos, for instance, an economic class ticket to Abuja that on Monday sold for between N27,500 and N32,000 was yesterday offered for N54,000. The business class equivalent of the ticket was given at N75, 800 to N80,000.
At most of the counters, however, the same flights were declared "fully booked," with a backlog of passengers waiting due to delays which airlines blamed on "operational reasons."
The Guardian learnt that the situation was not any different at the major airport terminals in Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano as passengers waited endlessly for flights to arrive from Lagos.
It would be recalled that Arik Air and labour unions had been at loggerheads over alleged non-observance of industrial rules in the organisation, with threats to ground the airline to force compliance.
As early as 6:00 a.m. yesterday, Arik Air workers and others in solidarity, embarked on strike, shutting operations nationwide to demand the payment of outstanding salaries and observance of labour laws bordering on the welfare of workers.
At the Arik headquarters in Lagos, the unions, in company of officials of the Nigerian Lagos Congress (NLC) and the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE), barricaded the main entrance, preventing access and causing traffic snarl on both ends of the airport's access road.
On their placards are inscriptions like "Imagine! Arik is owing seven months salaries. What a wicked organisation!" and "Poor staff welfare. No promotion in Arik Airline."
Addressing the protesters, General Secretary of NUATE, Olayinka Abioye, said the unions decided to ground Arik Air for safety reasons that could no longer be overlooked.
Abioye said: "Arik Air has refused to pay workers salaries for seven months and we know that a disgruntled worker is an accident waiting to happen. The airline has been defaulting in taxes and other statutory deductions from workers' remunerations.
"Besides, the management has refused to allow total unionisation of its employees in compliance with extant labour laws and with respect to the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. All of these we are here to enforce."
The protesters also demanded the immediate reinstatement of five of the airline's employees who were allegedly sacked for their involvement in union activities.
Abioye further alleged that Arik Air was owing about N13 billion and N6 billion to the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA).
According to him, the airline is also indebted to its aviation fuel suppliers and ground handlers and therefore "should be declared insolvent by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA)."
Arik Air is the largest of the seven domestic airlines operating in the country, with no fewer than 28 aircraft running over 100 flights per day. The airline accounted for over 40 per cent of domestic operations in September 2016, according to NCAA figures.
The General Secretary of ATSSSAN, Francis Akinjole, said the unions were prepared to embark on the strike for as long as possible, saying "it cannot be business as usual for Arik."
"A pilot who is disgruntled can crash an aircraft deliberately. An engineer who is being owed salaries can sabotage the aircraft. So we need to ground Arik Air until the management shows that they are responsible," Akinjole said.
The Spokesman for Arik Air, Banji Ola, in his response to the allegations said the organisation was "disappointed" by the actions of the unions to "ambush and disrupt the operations of the airline.
Ola said while Arik apologised to its affected passengers, both domestic and international, the airline called on the minister of state for aviation, regulators and security operatives to intervene in the situation.
"The union's leadership had earlier written a letter to the management of Arik Air on their grievances and a meeting had been scheduled between the two parties for today (Wednesday, December 21, 2016).
"The unions, however, did not wait for the scheduled meeting or the outcome of the meeting before embarking on such disruptive and strong-arm tactics against the airline.
"The unions have demonstrated total disregard for the laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria by interfering in the operations of the airline and preventing its staff from carrying on with their duties of handling the passengers booked for today's flights.
"The decision not to join the aviation unions is that of the generality of Arik Air and the management of the airline is not involved in any manner and neither can it influence such individual decisions in any form since unionism is a free will and not a matter of compulsion.
"Arik Air is appealing to all the security agencies, the Minister of Aviation, NCAA, FAAN, NAMA and all the other stakeholders in the industry to prevail on these aviation unions to allow operations to commence immediately since this unjustifiable disruption by the unions has already inconvenienced the travel plans of thousands of passengers today (Tuesday)," Ola said.