With high cost of airfares charged by foreign airlines, many Nigerians who had depleted their resources due to Coronavirus lockdown would have been trapped overseas without indigenous airline that worked with government to rescue them, writes Chinedu Eze.
Before various countries began to close their borders, both land and air, to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, people were travelling to many destinations for business, for tourism, for medical treatment and for many other reasons.
So the lockdown stopped people in their strides. Nigerians who went to India for medical treatment, importers who went to China to import goods, businessmen and women in Malaysia, holidaymakers who travelled to Europe, students whose scheduled school tenure programmed them to return home; all were stopped by the pandemic.
The lockdown made evacuation inevitable so countries arranged with their governments and airlines to bring their citizens home. The situation even brought air transport to its knees. Airlines had stopped scheduled passenger service so they were in desperate need for revenue.
THISDAY investigations showed that fares paid by evacuees were relatively high because evacuations were largely a one-way flight and even when it was not, it was not like a normal scheduled flight where an airline is dealing with its customers.
Combined with the emergency situation, the fares were a bit exploitative. That was the initial problem faced by Nigerian embassies when they engaged foreign carriers to evacuate Nigerians. The fares were exorbitant. Information from the embassies revealed that the foreign carriers would add the cost of the movement from their hub to the destination where they would do the evacuation. Then they would fly from there to the country of the evacuees. This problem was solved when the Nigerian government, facilitated by the National Assembly, introduced a policy that Nigerian carriers should evacuate Nigerians. Although this was fought against by some foreign airlines, which allegedly connived with some embassies to jettison the policy, but government stood its ground.
Many Nigerians who were not resident abroad and who were desperate to return home could not have afforded the exorbitant fares charged by foreign carriers. In fact, some of them barely had money for airfares because during the lockdown, previous arrangements made for their visit had been exhausted, as most of them added more days to the initially scheduled period of visit. They had used all the money on them to eat and perhaps seek for accommodation.
So many Nigerians would have stranded in various countries if government did not facilitate the use of domestic airlines to evacuate them because they would not have been able to pay for the high fares.
According to reports, the first evacuation done by the Nigerian carrier; Air Peace was the evacuation of Israelis from Nigeria. That was one week after the lockdown of Nigeria’s airspace by the federal government on March 23, 2020. By then a foreign carrier had been programmed to be evacuating Nigerians before the federal government took its decision.
It was after that decision was taken that it became possible to evacuate many Nigerians because Air Peace did it with very low fares and even airlifted many who could not even afford for the ticket. So over 80 Nigerians were brought into the country free of charge. Of course, it would have been impossible for a foreign carrier to do that for Nigerians.
In fact, THISDAY learnt that a UK-based airline that was engaged for the first batch of evacuation of Nigerians from London did not only charge outrageous fares, but it also stipulated the minimum number of passengers it would airlift and when the number was not up to that; it insisted that the Nigerian embassy in the UK should pay for the shortfall.
Also when it arrived Nigeria and landed in Lagos, it refused to take some of the passengers to Abuja, as initially scheduled, insisting that it came to evacuate UK citizens from Lagos and had no reason going to Abuja. That was how the foreign airliner repudiated the agreement, leaving the Nigerian embassy in the UK aghast.
It has to be noted that during this period, Nigeria’s indigenous carrier, Air Peace carried out series of evacuation flights both inbound and outbound and helped to bring back stranded Nigerians. Information from the airline showed that it brought medical supplies for the federal government from Turkey; later went back to the country and brought in evacuees; on April 7, 2020 it flew to China to bring in medical supplies and experts for the federal government.
Air Peace evacuated Indians from Nigeria and brought in Nigerian on May 31, June 4, 13; July 4 and July 8, 2020. The airline evacuated Nigerians from Turkey on July 5, Uganda and Kenya, July 2, South Africa, June 25, evacuated Nigerians from the UK on June 28 and flew to Thailand and Malaysia where it brought in 310 Nigerians on July 11, 2020.
On April 7, 2020, Air Peace flew to china to bring in 15 Chinese medical experts and medical supplies. It flew back on May 30 to bring in 268 Nigerians, again on May 29 when it brought in 301 Nigerians. So, Air Peace brought back over 4, 302 Nigerians from different parts of the country since the lockdown.
Industry analyst and Managing Partner, TMSS Logistics, Nuhu Adam, told THISDAY that by using an indigenous carrier, the evacuees saved about 40 per cent of the money they would have paid to foreign carriers. This was because the fare charged them by the airline was about 40 per cent lower than what the foreign carriers charged.
In addition to that, Adam noted that if the evacuation was conducted by foreign carriers the money paid would have been repatriated almost 100 per cent.
“So for an indigenous carrier that has about 3,200 staff; that was good for the county and also for the airline. It was a two-pronged gain: to assist fellow Nigerians with low fares and also took those who could not pay free of charge and to safe such funds from being repatriated by foreign carriers,” he said.
Many Nigerian evacuees narrated how they suffered in many countries, especially in Asia, waiting to be evacuated and heaved a sigh of relief when they were flown safely back to their country.
That was what prompted the evacuees from India to write a letter of appreciation to Air Peace. The letter described the action of airlifting them back to Nigeria as a patriotic act by the airline.
The letter, which was signed by the coordinators of the evacuees, Martin Osa Izevbokun from Edo state and Hon. Aliyu Bello from Nasarawa state, thanked the airline for offering to bring the Nigerians home at a very minimum cost and with offer of free tickets to about 20 of the Nigerians who went for medical treatment but did not have money to pay for their way back home after being stranded for weeks.
The letter dated June 12, 2020 stated, “We the undersigned Nigerians who are being evacuated home aboard Air Peace flight APK 7830 on the 12th of June, 2020, after being stranded in India by the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown hereby write to thank you most sincerely for the unparalleled patriotism, patience and magnanimity, which you have displayed during the long and tedious process associated with the evacuation.”
Nigerians who were evacuated from overseas have variously expressed their gratitude to the federal government that made it possible for their airlift.
Also the Chief Operating Officer of Air Peace, Mrs. Toyin Olajide, thanked the federal government of Nigeria for all the support it has given the airline and assured that with such continued support, Air Peace, and indeed, other Nigerian carriers would be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with other notable carriers in the world. She singled out the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama and thanked them for the support they have given the airline and the succour they have given Nigerians living abroad by providing them the opportunity to return home.
The federal government recently commended Air Peace for facilitating the evacuation of 584 Nigerians by engaging another airline when the British government denied it landing right.
Air Peace said it had to defray the extra cost for engaging a foreign carrier to ensure that Nigerians were brought back to the country and for this the federal government commended the airline.
In a public announcement made by Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs with reference number No: MFA/PR/2020/16 and dated July 12, 2020 and titled, “Public Announcement to Change of Departure Date and Airport of Air Peace Evacuation Flights from the United Kingdom,” government commended the airline for the sacrifice it has made to ensure that Nigerians returned to their fatherland.
Among other things government said, “In the light of the foregoing, the Federal Government wishes to extend its appreciation to the Chairman and Management of Air Peace Limited for their commitments and patriotism in ensuring that our stranded nationals in the United Kingdom return home safely. The federal government, however, regrets any inconvenience these changes might have caused.