The fate of thousands of passengers was in the balance Sunday over the ban on Emirates flights from Nigeria, which takes effect from today (Monday).
In a new directive, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) carrier is allowed to only operate one flight per week to Nigeria against 21 flights earlier approved by the federal government.
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The government, through the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), on Thursday withdrew the winter schedule comprising 21 frequencies; 14 to Lagos and one to Abuja, approved for Emirates.
This was in retaliation for the refusal of the UAE authorities at Sharjah Airport to approve the three slots applied for by Air Peace, the sole Nigerian carrier operating Dubai via Sharjah.
In a similar retaliatory move, the federal government has indicated desire to ban flights from United Kingdom, Canada, Saudi Arabia and Argentina over their red-listing of Nigeria. This action, oberserves believe, will further aggravate woes of travellers.
The latest diplomatic fiasco between Nigeria and UAE was coming a few days after President Muhammadu Buhari paid a visit to the country.
Buhari had attended the Expo 2020 in Dubai where he was received on arrival by his highness, Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.
But barely a week after Buhari’s visit which coincided with the resumption of Emirates flights to Nigeria after more than nine months due to another row over COVID-19 protocols, both nations are at daggers drawn again.
This time around, the federal government, in a retaliatory move and the application of the principle of reciprocity contained in the Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) between the two countries, imposed a ban on Emirates Airline.
The Director-General of NCAA, Capt. Musa Nuhu, who gave an insight into the development said Aviation Minister, Senator Hadi Sirika, had “graciously approved the winter schedule as requested by Emirates without any hindrance or arrival slot requirement in the spirit and intent of the Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) between Nigeria and UAE.
“The Honourable Minister of Aviation decided to apply the principle of reciprocity and withdraw the approval of the winter schedule given to Emirates Airline and instead approved one weekly flight frequency to Abuja on Thursday.”
But the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) of the UAE had written to the minister protesting the action of NCAA, saying it was against the spirit of BASAs between the two countries and that the action was unjustified.
UAE’s Minister of Economy and Chairman of the GCAA Board, Abdulla Bin Touq Al Marri, in a letter dated December 10, 2021, disclosed that Air Peace abandoned its slots in Sharjah and moved to Dubai Airport and sought to shift to Sharjah again.
In a statement, Air Peace management described the minister’s claim as untrue.
Daily Trust, however, reports that the festering diplomatic row has created confusion again in the travel industry as many passengers who have booked on Emirates and Air Peace are uncertain about their flight schedules.
Findings by our correspondent yesterday indicate that Emirates airlifts an average of about 300 passengers daily on each flight to Dubai using its wide-bodied A380 aircraft.
With three daily flights, an estimated 1,000 passengers are currently stranded, uncertain of the status of their flights from today (Monday) while other passengers are exploring alternative flights.
Investigations revealed that many passengers have approached their travel agents for refund in the wake of Emirates’ flight suspension.
A passenger who was to travel on an Emirates flight on Monday had to explore an alternative airline, paying over N500,000 to travel via Lufthansa.
Among those stranded are businessmen, students and others, among them those said to be going for medical reasons.
“I had to book another flight on Lufthansa travelling through Brazil just to connect Dubai because the various restrictions across the world have made travel very difficult for everybody because you have to travel via a destination, not on the red list.
“But I must be in Dubai by all means and that has cost me an extra N500,000. How many people can afford this,” the passenger, a student who preferred anonymity, said.
The Vice-President of National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA), Abuja Zone, Ambassador Adeshola Kayode, lamented that millions of naira have been lost and businesses affected as a result of the current imbroglio.
“We have lost millions, clients have started requesting refunds and some of these tickets are not refundable and for those that have refunds, it will take time to process,” he said.
He however said the federal government’s decision was a welcome development to protect the sovereignty and integrity of the country.
He said, “It is a challenging one because as some of us are aware, we have been on this issue for a while now, for over 10 months. When we heard that the ban had been lifted, we were happy. All of a sudden, our clients were about to travel until the shocking news came again.
“To us, I think the response of the Minister of Aviation and the DG of NCAA is a welcome idea because it is high time that we as an industry and as a country began to respond to such countries because they see us as an unserious nation and they can just throw anything at us.
“Like what happened when the British government put us on the red list. We as professionals have been discussing that the next thing the government should do is to put the UK and those countries on the red list as well.”
Other stakeholders said the development provided an avenue for Nigeria to review its BASAs in a way that would be commercially beneficial to the country.
A former president of the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), Engr. Isaac Balami, said Emirates and other foreign airlines should begin to respect Nigeria.
“They should begin to take us seriously. When we didn’t fly into the country, we did not die. They must begin to respect Africa, most importantly Nigeria.
“I commend the minister and the DG for this bold step and I pray that we will continue in that trajectory, not just Emirates but any other person who will not respect and honour Nigeria.
“When Emirates solves the problem and makes Air Peace happy, we will also make them happy.”
Mr. Chris Aligbe, CEO Belujane Konzult, said, “For the first time Nigeria is giving an appropriate response. What Nigeria has done is the standard thing that should be done, the principle of absolute reciprocity and that is what happens in airline operation in the relationship between nations. Nigeria should be applauded.”
Meanwhile, the federal government is set to announce a ban on travellers and airlines from Canada, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and Argentina if they do not take Nigeria off their red list.
Minister of Aviation Senator. Hadi Sirika, who dropped the hint on Saturday in a leaked audio clip, said his ministry and the Presidential Steering Committee (PSC) on COVID-19 have reached an agreement on the decision.
He said those countries will be on the red list no later than Tuesday, December 14, 2021.
He said the PSC had met and reviewed the various travel bans placed on Nigerian citizens to those countries and concluded that the ban was unacceptable.
“There is also the case of Saudi Arabia, which put Nigeria on the banned list. No visa, travels into that county and so also Canada and the United Kingdom. And so today there was a zoom meeting by the COVID-19 Task Force, which I participated in.
“We have said the ban isn’t acceptable by us and recommend that Canada, UK, Saudi Arabia and Argentina be also on the red list,” he explained.
He indicated that if they didn’t allow Nigerian citizens to get into their country, their airlines and citizens shouldn’t come to Nigeria either.
“I’m very sure between now and Monday, perhaps Tuesday maximum, all those countries will be on the red list from the Task Force on COVID-19. Once they are put on red-list, their airlines will also be banned,” he said.