The era of indiscriminate flight delays, cancellations and other rights violations may be coming to an end as the new consumer rights protection act has put in place stiffer sanctions in excess of N200 million.
The Act, otherwise known as the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Act (FCCPA) 2019, repeals the Consumer Protection Council (CPC) Act, but with more stringent penalties for violations and non-compliance.
While the rules are not exclusive to the aviation sub-sector but to all goods and services' providers in the country, aviation stakeholders nevertheless have expressed concern on the application of some of the blanket provisions in a technical industry like air travel, which is already guided by specific regulations and international conventions.
President Muhammadu Buhari in February signed the new consumer bill into law. The law applies to all undertakings and all commercial activities within, or having effect within Nigeria. The provisions are binding on federal and state government corporations and parastatals as well as all commercial activities aimed at making profit.
The FCCPA establishes a Consumer Protection Tribunal to hear cases, and the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC) to promote and maintain competitive markets in the Nigerian economy and ensure the welfare of consumers by providing them with product choices at competitive prices. This is besides other functions that are ancillary and incidental to consumer protection and competition.
Specifically, Section 33 states that failure or refusal to respond to a summons of the FCCPC amounts to an offence and is liable upon conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years and a fine of not more than N200 million or both.
Section 51 empowers the tribunal to impose administrative penalties not exceeding 10 per cent of the undertaking's annual turnover in Nigeria and its exports from Nigeria during the preceding financial year.
Section 120(3) notes: "A supplier or service provider may not impose any cancellation fee in respect of a booking, reservation or order, if the consumer is unable to honour the booking, reservation or order because of the death or hospitalisation of the person from whom or for whose benefit the booking, reservation or order was made."
Consumer rights activist, Abayomi Oladipupo, said the act had been long-awaited and should be a big relief to consumers. He said with the repealed CPC Act, it was almost impossible to bring violators to book over basic rights.
"More often, companies simply disregarded summonses and continued to treat consumers with so much disdain. Look at our airlines; what they do around here is abomination in other countries.
"They delay and cancel services without any form of apology, yet the Consumer Protection Council could not challenge them. With the new act, all of these are over because they can now ignore us, the consumers, only to their own detriment," Oladipupo said.
Indeed, flight delays and cancellations, among others, are thorny issues in air travel. The fact sheet of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) shows that an average of three out of every five flights were delayed in 2018. That is, out of 59,818 flights operated by eight local airlines, 36,350 were delayed, and 544 cancelled.
According to an aviation lawyer in one of the regulatory agencies, the act strictly protects the rights of consumers in every industry in Nigeria. But the worry, according to him, is that the FCCPC has an unusually wide jurisdiction, covering every consumer issue in Nigeria, such that it brings industries with specific regulations under its fold.
"Having such in aviation will cause serious problems for the industry because it has always been a battle getting airlines to submit to the CPC after submitting to the NCAA. To do so will amount to double jeopardy. Yet, aviation conventions forbid aviation matters from being tried outside of the confines of aviation itself. Personally, I don't see the law taking effect without major conflicts in the industry," the lawyer said.
A managing partner at Starklegal law firm, Mojisola Olugbemi, noted that the law was akin to "a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of an irate consumer," strong enough to force airlines to withdraw from the country.
For Olugbemi, (based on Section 120 above) if any Tom, Dick and Harry feigns sickness and gets a medical report to have a rebook without extra cost, it would cost the airlines further losses.
The fears, notwithstanding, most aviation regulators and operators are not aware of the new provisions and the clause, which give primary agencies of regulated industries one year to visit the FCCPC to identify and streamline their jurisdiction and consumer protection issues.
While all the airlines, foreign and local, claim ignorance of the act, NCAA yesterday insisted they were aware of it but were still studying it and would take necessary action.
An aviation consultant, Chris Aligbe, expressed disappointment that the act did not exempt aviation, citing diverse conventions that guide and regulate the sector.
Aligbe observed that the NCAA, established by an act of parliament, already provided for consumer protection unit in Part 19 of the Act, coupled with other conventions of bodies like the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and International Air Transport Association (IATA), to which Nigeria is a signatory.
He disclosed that the National Assembly also considered a National Transport Commission, to regulate all modes of transportation. But following persuasion, the lawmakers temporarily stood down air transport because of its peculiarities.