Friday, June 13, 2014

We’ve Regulations to Stop Abuse of Passengers by Airlines -Director of the Directorate of Consumer Protection, Adamu Abdullahi

Director of the Directorate of Consumer Protection, Adamu Abdullahi, spoke to Chinedu Eze on passenger protection laws within the remit of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority and other issues

Many passengers are not conscious of the fact that they can be helped by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) when airlines infringe on their rights. Do you think this is due to poor sensitization of the public?

Historically, consumer protection was just a unit under the Directorate of Air Transport Regulation and it was so until 2009 when it became full-fledged directorate and the reason for this is that worldwide airlines and service providers are getting more and more out of government control so it is really the private sector that is more into that.

The private sector is profit driven so when you are talking of the issue of service you now have to protect the consumer. That is the essence of bringing out this consumer directorate so that it will not just be a profit motif that will guide airlines and other operators as well as the service providers in the provision of service.

They also have responsibilities to make sure that the service they provide is of quality. That is what the background is. Based on that we came into existence, but then, coming into existence is different from being in operation.

You ought to have backing regulations. We worked on regulations for consumer protection which we gazetted only in September 2012 and it became law in November 2012 as Nigeria Civil Aviation Regulations Vol. 2 and Part 19 is the area that deals with consumer protection. Essentially the regulations gave us the necessary bite so that now we can call service providers and operators to order and tell them that this they must do. If your flight is delayed, your flight is cancelled, you lose your bag, your bag is pilfered there are regulations that will take care of these.

In terms of education (enlightenment) we still have a long way to go. Most passengers don’t even know of our existence or the existence of any rules or regulations guiding them as per their rights and obligations, but we are working on it.

The renovation that is taking place in all the airports really took out from us because we used to have cubicles; we used to have desks so that people can see us visibly and talk to us, but all those went with the renovations.

It is right now that these terminals, these airports are coming to operation and we are talking with the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and Bi Courtney Aviation Services Limited (BASL).

We are also talking to the airlines; that now we have these regulations on ground we have to have a place to operate from and that we have to have bite. You have to know that these are the regulations and you have to apply them.

We have done all that now and we have also sat down and designed a customised consumer protection desk that will soon be established in all the airports. We are starting with the international terminal, the General Aviation Terminal (GAT, now Domestic Terminal 1) and MMA2 (Domestic Terminal 2) all in Lagos. After that we then go to other international airports before going into all the secondary airports. These customised desks are in NCAA colours with NCAA logo, so they stand out when you see them.

When we have that at least people will know that there is a place you can go and complain. We are also coming up with uniforms for our staff. We are introducing blazers, short sleeve and long sleeve shirts, ties and scarves for the ladies. So that you will easily identify them whenever you see them even from afar, you will know that this is NCAA consumer protection officers.

We also intend to introduce the NCAA portal, which has just come into effect now. The NCAA portal is an online information system where you can go into the and lodge your complaint and it comes to us. That also comes up with a voice over.

That’s why the process is taking a little longer so that we would have a call in system, so that when you log into CPD (Consumer Protection Directorate), NCAA and lodge your complaint there will be a live telephone operator to listen to you and take your complaint. Once all these things come into operation people will know that certainly we do exist. It is then we will go full blown.

Before now NCAA seem to have made consumer protection optional to the passenger who has a choice to come to NCAA or go to the police. Is it still the same way?

This is the way it works. You as an airline or an operator, you sell a ticket to a passenger; you have a contract of carriage with that passenger. He has paid you a fee; based on that fee, you have agreed that you are going to carry him from point A to point B safely and in comfort.

You are the one who ensure that you also keep your own part of the deal. So what the consumer protection regulations make provision for is that all airlines must as a rule have customer service. So the airline customer service desk should be your first port of call if you any issues with that airline.

That is the way we want it. Resolve your issues because you have the contract with them. We only come in when things cannot be resolved. But the issue of police, no. Police do not sort out passengers issues.

It is only when passengers become unruly that then it becomes an aviation security (AVSEC) issue; not police really. For instance, we have issues of passengers blocking aircraft, blocking check in counters; we have had passengers kick at cockpit doors.

In all other climes these are acts against civil aviation and they are considered as such. Kicking the door of the cockpit is really more of an attempt to hijack the aircraft as far as international regulations are concerned. In as much as we are educating the operators on what they must do in case of delays; although delays are inevitable in aviation; no way, you must always have delays, but when you delay, it is the management of the delay that we are really after.

One hour after that delay you have to give refreshments. Two hours after that delay you have to give the option, ‘Look, can you still wait for this flight, if not, take your money back; go and take another flight, if you are in a hurry, or if you want to wait for us; wait for us’.

And if by any chance that delay runs into night hours when there is no operation at the airport, you have to give passengers hotel accommodation. If it runs into three hours you have to give them hot meals. The regulations are very, very clear on what you have to do.

This is not a matter of your doing it when you want to or if you don’t want to. That is not the issue; the issue is that as of today these are the regulations. So you have to follow the regulations.

But passengers also have their own obligations. We urge you that you have to pack your bags by yourselves. Make sure that whatever you put on that bag you are the one who can be held accountable for it. Secondly, make yourself available for check-in in time.

If you are on a domestic flight, you have to be at the airport two hours before the flight. This is because there are things you do before you board a flight; you don’t just board, you don’t just enter the aircraft as you do in a bus. There are some checks that you have to go through.

International flight is even worse because you have to go through Immigration; you have to go through Customs. There are so many security agencies at the airports now, so we advise you have to come early. You don’t expect to have courteous service when you are not courteous. So you have to carry yourself courteously.

If you do that you don’t have any issues and if by any chance such issues arise, such as delays or cancellations, you have the customer service of the airline. Talk to them. If they cannot resolve your issue, come to us; that is what we are there for.

Airlines may cancel flights for other reasons and say it is due to bad weather. Are there other ways Consumer Protection will know that the airline is telling lies?

Very simple, we have officers in all the airports in the federation. We have at the regional head level, at terminal head level and then the consumer protection officers; apart from us that are at the headquarters that get reports.

So whenever such issues arise our officers are there as observers. They see all the things that happen and they report. They tell us, this is what this airline has done and based on that the passengers became aggrieved, the situation is running out of hand; therefore, advise them to do something. At our own headquarters level now, we can call the airline, their senior management and talk to them.

But what we want them to understand is that these regulations are regulations. We are not begging anybody to do anything; these are what you are supposed to do.

So you cannot say you will not do it because these are sanctionable offences; if you don’t do it there is a sanction that there is already attached to it. That is the way we are looking at it now.

This is because air transport is not a good paying business. It is very capital intensive and in addition so many overheads. People have this feeling that once you buy your ticket the airline will carry the money and put into the pocket. It is not like that.

Over 70 per cent of what you pay goes to fuelling. There are overheads and handling charges, landing and parking charges; our own five per cent is there, which we share among the agencies. Even the collection they do for FAAN (Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, passenger service charges (PSC) and so on, so the return on investment in aviation is peanut.

So whatever airlines can do to save money here and there, they will do it. If they can avoid giving out that refreshment, as far as they are concerned it takes a little out of their overhead. But then that is why we are there. If they don’t do it, you report to us and we would tell them to do it. If airline does not do it, it has the option of sanction.

Looking at also the excesses of passengers, they could react in a chaotic manner and may be disorderly and noisy, thus making it impossible for the airline to deal with them. So how can the airline manage such situation, like if the airline is serving refreshment and those who are not travelling with the flight come to partake in it?

The responsibility of the airline to the passenger only comes up when the passenger checks in and has a boarding pass. So when you are ready to serve refreshments, of course you serve those with boarding that makes it a lot easier for you.

People that don’t have boarding passes cannot partake in that. That is one. Secondly, this issue of unruly passengers, we are a very funny set of people. You have to see the way we behave ourselves when we are in other climes.

Take British Airways, for instance, you will see the most highly placed officers in Nigeria queue up to board their flights. When they come back to our own it becomes a different issue all together. The first question is ‘Do you know who I am?’

My own staff was slapped by top government official only two days ago in Abuja) last week of May). Three good slaps. What did he do? He was just trying to help him sort out his bag. His bag was misrouted so he was trying to help him.

In that process, the airline official that was supposed to be held responsible for the rerouting of the bag got one slap. My staff who was trying to help got three. So this issue of unruliness does not help matters in that it is really an AVSEC issue, anywhere else in the world. If you behave unruly they will send their aviation security after you.

If it is a police case you go to the police; if it is a court case, you go to court and you can go to jail for such issues. Sooner or later that is the way things are going to work here too.

So we keep encouraging the airlines. Airlines sold tickets to the passengers, they have their names. They have their contacts, email addresses, their telephone numbers, so if they behave that way, the airline has the responsibility to report them.

If AVSEC is not doing anything about it, NCAA has its own AVSEC which has oversight over FAAN AVSEC they can call FAAN AVSEC to order. But the airlines seem not to be ready to report such passengers because they feel that if they do so it will touch on their market.

Since the regulations took effect, have you penalised any of the airlines?

Plenty. What we insist is that these are the regulations so you do what you are supposed to do under the regulation. You remember the aero issue? What we did on that issue is that we called them, sat down with them and had their own side of the story.

You don’t just go ahead and sanction. You have to give them the benefit of the doubt. Those Aero passengers were unruly. We asked the airline to tell us the passengers that were unruly but they were not willing to say. We asked them what they planned to do to assuage them. You made them stay overnight at Abuja airport.

You didn’t give them accommodation; you didn’t feed them; you didn’t give them any kind of refreshment. Yes, in the long run they used the same ticket to fly.

But at the same time the airline has to do something; you have to give them some form of compensation. Regulation said 25 per cent of the ticket fare. We made Aero give 100 per cent to each passenger. Anywhere you want to go in this country, you have free ticket to anywhere Aero goes to. 11 out of those passengers have collected and utilised the tickets.

All Civil Aviation Authority in this world are there to grow the industry. They are not there to kill it. Therefore, we now looked at their instruction manual. If you have emergencies and your flights were disrupted, what are the programmes you put on ground to assuage it? We looked at the regulation and we found it wanting. So we sat down together with them and corrected it.

It now passed through our scrutiny and NCAA said okay, with this new manual we feel that if you have such an issue again you will have a way to go around it; it will never happen that way again. From November until today have you seen Aero have such issue again? The essence of any law is to better the industry and prevent such unfavourable thing from happening again.

Let us talk about the disagreement you had with Consumer Protection Council (CPC)?

The Consumer Protection Council has a general law that says you have to protect the interest of the consumer of services in all sectors of the economy and that is what they have been doing.

But we in the aviation sector feel that by the passage of the 2006 Civil Aviation Act that established NCAA, there is now a specific law. This is because that Act specifically mandates NCAA to come up with programmes for the protection of the interest of consumer of services, which we have. And we considered very strongly that we created a full-fledged directorate under NCAA.

We used to have a very cordial relationship with CPC.  We never had any issue patterning to aviation because people report to them. People write to CPC about the alleged maltreatment of airlines to them.

When CPC get this report they send it to us. They write to us through the Director General. When such report comes we investigate it and get back to CPC and said this is the way we resolved that issue.

So it was very surprising to us when the same CPC got complaint over the handling of the same Aero issue and they went ahead and called the airline for meetings; called the passengers for meetings, but they did not call NCAA. They went ahead and conducted administrative hearing and then further sanctioned Aero, using our own regulations.

There is nothing wrong with that. If that is the way we have been handling aviation, there wouldn’t be any airline flying in Nigeria today. This is because I have earlier told you the way we resolved it.

CPC in its own wisdom looked at our own regulations and decided that the passengers were supposed to have an SMS, so they said Aero should pay passengers N1000 for SMS or for call. CPC also found out that they are supposed to provide the passengers refreshments; they said every passenger should be paid N4, 000 for that.

CPC said the passengers ought to have been given accommodation and they charged Aero N10, 000 per passenger for taxi from the airport to the hotel and back to the airport. They charged Aero also N25, 000 for hotel accommodation for each passenger. In essence every passenger should collect N46, 000 from Aero. The passengers were 39.

It was the most unfortunate to have happened to the passengers, but the fact that Aero has given everybody a ticket. Some will argue that an airline that has treated you that way, why will you even fly them in the first instance.

But more importantly, for the fact that we had sat down with Aero and resolved that this would never happen again, I believe that we have achieved something. Mistakes are supposed to be made so that we make corrections. We don’t feel that Aero should be double punished as the mistakes made has prompted us to look at the manual of other airlines and corrected them.

The Supervisory Minister of Aviation, Dr Samuel Ortom has resolved the issue between CPC and NCAA and we agreed to work as we were working before. We have decided to revert to status quo. Anything that concerns aviation we get back to them and have our collaborations like before.


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