After about 10 months of diplomatic row, the highly lucrative Nigeria-Dubai air route has been restored, paving the way for the resumption of direct flights between the two countries.
Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is a top holiday destination in the world. Little wonder that the passenger traffic on Lagos-Dubai-Lagos and Abuja-Dubai-Abuja is huge and highly profitable for airlines and Travel Management Companies (TMCs).
Hence the suspension of flights between the two countries came with huge losses for not only airlines, but the TMCs which make a huge profits from ticket sales on the route.
Daily Trust on Sunday reports that the crux of the matter was the COVID-19 pandemic which outbreak in 2020 changed the entire aviation landscape.
After months of lockdown and the grounding of aircraft globally as countries battled to contain the spread of the virus, many nations reopened with different protocols for inbound and outbound passengers.
The basic protocols adopted by most countries is the COVID-19 negative PCR test for travellers which was what the Nigerian government through the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19 chaired by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha, also adopted.
But trouble started in February when the federal government announced the suspension of Emirates Airline for introducing Rapid Antigen Test (RDT) in addition to the negative PCR test stipulated by the PTF.
The Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), therefore, announced the ban on Emirates' operations for violating COVID-19 protocols.
The Director General of NCAA, Capt Musa Nuhu, announced the ban in a letter to the airline dated February 4, 2021 and copied to the Chairman of the PTF, Ministers of Aviation and Health; National Coordinator of PTF, Director General of UAE, General Civil Aviation Authority, MD NAMA and MD FAAN.
NCAA said the ban was necessitated by the continued airlift of passengers from Nigeria using the RDT conducted by laboratories that were "neither approved nor authorised by the appropriate regulatory authorities."
This, according to the apex aviation regulatory authority, was in flagrant violation of the PTF on COVID-19 directive.
"This is a violation of Paragraph 5 of the NCAA letter with REF: NCAA/DG/AIR11/16/281 of 02 February 2021 addressed to your good self. The paragraph clearly states: 'Based on the forgoing and to enable the Nigerian government to put in place the needed infrastructure and logistics for COVID-19 RDT testing for departing passengers, the PTF has directed that Emirates Airline should either accept passengers without RDT pending when the infrastructure and logistics are put in place or suspend its flights to and from Nigeria until such a time when the required infrastructure and logistics are fully established and implemented.'"
The DG added that the airline had not been in compliance with the two options given by the PTF as records of flights operated by it from Lagos and Abuja obtained from the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) had shown.
According to the DG, the PTF took these violations of its instructions seriously and had therefore directed that, "Emirates should suspend its operations to Nigeria (Lagos and Abuja) effective 72 hours from midnight (2300z) on Thursday 04 February, 2021".
"During the 72-hour leeway, Emirates is only authorised to bring in passengers into Nigeria while outbound passengers are not allowed," the letter added.
After the ban which was lifted 48 hours later, Emirates, ostensibly in compliance with the directive of the UAE government which obviously was not immediately ready to remove the rapid antigen testing, suspended its Lagos and Abuja-Dubai flights for two weeks. The two weeks elapsed and it was further suspended until it became indefinite as direct flight operations between the two countries ceased.
The stalemate continued as travel agencies and airlines counted their losses. Those who needed to visit Dubai had to devise alternative means through Cotonou, Accra and other West coast countries.
Daily Trust on Sunday reports that all airlines flying into UAE cities, including Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjar lost billions of dollars due to the stoppage.
It was estimated that an average of 6,000 passengers shuttled between Nigeria and UAE every week shared among airlines including Emirates, Air Peace, Egypt Air, Ethiopian Airlines and Etihad.
In fact, in recent times, Kenya Airways quickly cashed in on the row between Nigeria and UAE to attract passengers to connect Dubai via Nairobi with a 32-hour transit time, according to those privy to the arrangement.
It would be recalled that one of the reasons the UAE government introduced additional protocol followed the discovery of fake COVID-19 results at some laboratories. But the Nigerian government insisted the UAE protocol was discriminatory and only targeted Nigerian passengers.
A source privy to the development said, "The UAE was worried about the fake COVID-19 tests which were discovered at some laboratories in Nigeria. But we tried to clarify that so far the Nigerian government and the aviation authorities, especially the NCAA has tried as much as possible to improve the integrity of testing and many laboratories have been licensed to carry out the test while a bar code would be generated. So if other countries are not complaining and not blacklisting Nigeria, it surely means they have faith in what the Nigerian government has done. So why is Emirates' case different?
But diplomacy and mutual engagements have prevailed and the issue was recently resolved. The resolution of the issue followed countless engagements and meetings by authorities of the two countries.
Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, last Friday, announced that Emirates' suspension had been lifted after the UAE government relaxed its conditions for Nigerian passengers.
This paved the way for Nigerian airline, Air Peace, to immediately resume its flights to Dubai via Sharjar on Wednesday, December 1.
Similarly, Emirates also restored its flights to Lagos and Abuja with effect from Sunday, December 5, 2021, signaling a new dawn in the diplomatic relations between two countries.
Analysts say the final resolution of the issues also paved the way for last week's visit of President Muhammadu Buhari to Dubai to attend the Dubai Expo 2020.
Emirates, the world's largest international airline, said it would operate to and from its Nigerian gateways (Lagos and Abuja) with daily flights, providing travellers from Nigeria convenient access to Dubai.
The airline said to ensure the safety of travellers, visitors and the communities, COVID-19 PCR tests were mandatory for all inbound passengers arriving Dubai, including UAE citizens, residents and tourists, irrespective of the country they were coming from.
The airline added that travellers coming from Nigeria must hold a negative COVID-19 PCR test certificate for a test taken not more than 72 hours before departure.
Additionally, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has specified designated laboratories for passengers departing Nigeria and that travellers must obtain their certificates from one of the labs to be accepted on the flight.
Speaking on the resumption of the Nigeria-Dubai flights, an aviation analyst and Director of Strategy and Research, Zenith Travels, Olumide Ohunayo, said the major lesson of the recently resolved diplomatic row between the two countries was the need for Nigeria to always stand by its values as the UAE also demonstrated by not looking at the losses to Emirates but the health of its people.
He, however, made a case for Air Peace, saying the Nigerian airline must be given a slot in Dubai International Airport instead of its present Sharjah International Airport.
Daily Trust on Sunday further reports that the distance between Sharjah and Dubai is 31 kilometres; taking about an hour on the metroline.
Ohunayo, in a chat with our correspondent said, "The lesson here for me is for the country and the nation to stand by its principles. We had our own COVID-19 protocols. Emirates, Lufthansa, KLM introduced their own that are not in tandem with our protocols, the others accepted the policy of the Presidential Steering Committee and complied.
"But Emirates stood its ground that it's their way or no way. It's either you comply with our protocols here or you leave. Despite pressure from Nigeria, even when the government finally said, 'okay, come let us renegotiate', they stood their ground. I think it's time to begin to reflect on our values. We might not have our carrier but we need to protect the industry, and I think this is the first battle.
"The second battle now is that we have to push and support Air Peace. Air Peace cannot be going to Sharjar when Emirates operates into Lagos and Abuja. Air Peace must get a slot in Dubai. If Air Peace cannot get a slot in Dubai, then some frequencies should be taken away from Emirates."
A former President of the National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA) and the GMD/CEO of Finchglow Group, Mr Bankole Bernard, said, "The takeaway is mutual respect which I think is highly necessary. It paved the way for our president to visit the UAE. We are not just another African country, but truly a giant representative of Africa."