Posted by Sade Williams
Save for the proactiveness and timely retaliation by the Nigerian government, Nigerian passengers travelling to Dubai would have been left with Emirates airline as the only ‘choice’ that would fly them to that country, even as the COVID-19 pandemic effects bite harder.
Although, the United Arabs Emirates (UAE) was not the only country that issued new health protocols to safeguard its citizens in the last one week, the Netherlands had also issued same to Nigerian passengers.
Emirates airlines and KLM for passengers travelling from Nigeria on their flights to Dubai and Amsterdam to undergo a Rapid Antigen Test (RDT) four hours from the time of flights departure. This requirement is in addition to the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test done 72 hours from the date of departure by passengers.
This is also in addition to the fact that Dubai Airport Centre said it would only welcome passengers travelling directly from Nigeria.
It indicates further that passengers would not be allowed to connect Dubai from any other country or station if they have visited Nigeria or transited via Nigeria in the last 14 days to the travel date.
Aviation stakeholders were concerned that Nigerian carrier, Air Peace, which operates to Dubai via Sharjah (another city/airport/station), may be affected by the new protocol since its passengers would be connecting Dubai via Sharjah.
Nuhu Adam, managing partner, TMSS Logistics, described it as ‘pandemic aero-politics’, saying when stakeholders were supposed to come together to achieve a common goal, the reverse seems to be the case.
“I see this as pandemic aero-politics at its best. EgyptAir passengers also got messages from the Emirates telling them that they can’t connect Dubai via Cairo again except they fly direct to Dubai. They are hiding under COVID-19 pandemic to introduce protectionism in this era where all stakeholders need to work together.
“This is a protectionist policy that needs reassessment by all stakeholders in the aviation industry. And this will also take a toll on travel and tourism as it affects traffic on that rout”, he had said.
Olumide Ohunayo, a travel consultant with Zenith Travels, had also said that the COVID -19 protocols were in place but faulted the fact that passengers must travel direct to Dubai from Nigeria.
“What they’ve done it to tighten the health protocols test and certification and also to protect Emirates airline. There is no gain saying that some Nigerians have been known to have flouted the COVID-19 protocols by getting fake results and that is why they are saying they must get a certification 72 hours minimum before you depart and that they must do a rapid test which must come out four hours before departure. This is to safeguard their country.
“Secondly, asking passengers to fly direct to Dubai is excessive; that is protecting only their carrier at the expense of a very huge fare that will affect Nigerians going to Dubai. Are they saying that Nigerians can move to other cities in Dubai by road and if that is not possible, there will be a serious challenge because Nigerians are now left alone with Emirates. Air Peace flies to Sharjah, this is not clear enough and I think Nigerian government need to get some clarifications from the Dubai authorities. Most importantly, to protect Nigerian airlines and passengers. While I have no objection to the health protocol, I have an objection to the fact that it is only Emirates airlines they will accept, that is not fair”, he said.
To Group Captain John Ojikutu (retd), a former commandant of Lagos airport, apart from the health protocols, the other message is clear-they do not want a private airline unless it is a flag carrier or national carrier.
He said the only reason the Dubai airport authority would want to discuss with Nigerian government before taking any decision is when the airline is a national carrier or a flag carrier.
To him, a private airline would not be treated fairly on international routes.
The spokesperson for NCAA, Sam Adurogboye noted that implementation of the additional requirement by the airlines was commenced without the prior notification or approval of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) and other regulatory bodies in Nigeria. This, he said led to the provision of RDT testing by organizations and Laboratories that have not been approved by the PTF and other Regulatory agencies for RDT at the international airports in Lagos and Abuja.
“The PTF upon review of the situation directed the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to inform the airlines to either suspend the requirement for pre-departure RDT or their flights to the country until such a time when the required infrastructure and logistics have been put in place for RDT by the Government.
“Emirates Airlines however continued their operations requiring passengers to carry out the RDT test six hours from the time-of-flight departure from Nigeria.
The PTF therefore directed for the immediate suspension of Emirates Airlines operations to Nigeria effective 4 February, 2021 until when the needed infrastructure and logistics are put in place for the RDT test by the Nigerian Government.
Barely 24 hours after the directive to suspend flights, the UAE retracted and directed Emirates to withdraw the requirements for RDT for Nigerian passengers, prompting the NCAA to also immediately acknowledge the swift move by lifting the suspension.
“The Nigerian public is hereby informed as follows: Emirates Airlines no longer requires passengers to carry out pre-departure RDT, no laboratory has been approved by the PTF and other regulatory agencies to carry out RDT for incoming or departing passengers”, Adurogboye said.
“Everybody is feeling the pandemic, you know the United Kingdom barred Emirates sometimes ago, so Dubai is also looking for a way to protect Emirates but to me, this is not how to go about it, hiding under COVID-19, do you know the traffic and the amount of money they will lose on that route, I don’t think they can afford to add Nigeria to it”, a stakeholder said.
Ojikutu who reacted further yesterday noted that one of the things Nigeria can do is to ‘limit Emirates flights to only one airport in Nigeria and not more.
He said ‘the frequencies on commercial agreement too can be limited to one a day instead of two it enjoys to Lagos.
“Last year, I suggested the restrictions of inbound international passengers to only Lagos and Abuja so as to be able to manage the affected inbound Nigerian international passengers at the testing centers located at the airport with the limited number of health workers. That was not done.
“Dubai airport banned transit passengers not airlines. There are more transiting at Dubai airport than those destined for Dubai; in actual fact about 80% at Dubai airport are transiting; imagine the number of health workers needed and the risk of them contracting the virus; that probably might be the reason. The cost of providing testing or tracking them contracting is not what any operator would want to add to the loses caused by the pandemic to its earnings.
“Now the principle of reciprocity can only work in a normal situation and with contemporaries; in commercial aviation, we are far behind Emirates; in Africa, while Johannesburg is no one with 22 million passengers, Lagos is number 8 and Abuja is no 11, so we cannot now begin grandstanding with Emirates that has many intercontinental flights than all the African airlines. What we can do to Emirates is to limit its flights to only one airport in Nigeria and not more. The frequencies on commercial agreement too can be limited to one a day instead of two it enjoys to Lagos.
While not ruling out corruption in the whole scenario, Ojikutu noted that ‘it has fibrous roots in most of our airports even before the Covid pandemic. Everybody suddenly becomes health workers because there are no sufficient skilled health workers knowledgeable in COVID-19 testing. Those unskilled insiders’ threats who find their ways to the airport security-controlled areas are those we must find out. This should not be difficult for the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria Security outfit and DSS in the airport to do.
Commenting further, another stakeholder, Abiola Lawal, managing director, Quorum Aviation, commended the NCAA for standing up for Nigerians.
“I have met with or listened to the current DG of NCAA enough times, there is no doubt he gets it and very astute in the global Aviation system and between him and current minister of aviation, they really understand where they have the leverage especially with some of the foreign interests and airlines and they are not afraid to use the leverage. “Ask some of the European Airlines early on the pandemic , I think they got a taste of a new sheriff in town too early, there has to be some equivalency in certain Sovereign matter and Nigeria must understand it’s leverage when it matters”, he said.