Chinelo Obogo,[email protected]

Since the restriction of international flights into Nigeria in March as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, evacuation flights which fall under humanitarian/essential operations continued on a very regular basis.

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Nationals from countries like Britain who wished to leave Nigeria  were mandated to pay £490.50  each for flights onboard British Airways just as Nigerians residing abroad who wished to return home were also mandated by the Federal Government to pay a stipulated amount.
On its website, the UK Mission said: “Special flights from Abuja and Lagos to London commenced on April 18.  The flights cost £477.50 from Abuja and £490.50 from Lagos. All passengers must pay for their tickets to be eligible to take these flights; you must be normally resident in the UK. Your eligibility, including your UK address, will be checked before your tickets are issued.”
Though the Minister of Aviation, Captain Hadi Sirika said on Monday, August 17, that international flights would resume on Saturday, August 29 and the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, said the government would end normal evacuation flights today, for  over five months since Nigeria’s airspace was closed to international commercial operations, the country lost millions of dollars in revenue and which inadvertently led to the loss of hundreds of jobs and salary cuts in the aviation sector. This issue raised pertinent questions among stakeholders in the industry as many say that during the period that foreign airlines were not given the go-ahead to resume operations, they still raked in cash by commercialising evacuation flights as passengers  had to pay for seats, most often at a rate higher than the usual commercial rates.
Commerciaisation is the process of managing or running something principally for commercial gain and this is what experts believe foreign airlines were doing under the guise of evacuation flights, while agencies like the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA)  lost revenue that should have accrued from these airlines under normal commercial operations.  Approvals for evacuation flights are usually gotten from the Ministry of Aviation and it is after the approval is received that the NCAA and the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) will be informed.
In May, Sirika imposed a fine of one million naira on Flairjet, a UK based charter company, that was impounded  for operating a commercial flight into the country as opposed to the humanitarian operations it was given approval to do to Nigeria. The Minister said the airline violated the Civil Aviation Regulations Implementation Standards and that the government has reported their misdemeanor to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority and the UK High Commission in Nigeria. He said the company applied several times to operate humanitarian flights but that approval was given but the company decided to operate commercial services, charging money and flying in and out of the country.  The crew was arrested and aircraft was immediately impounded. The pilots were quarantined for 14 days.
“Flairjet were found to violate our Civil Aviation Regulations Implementation Standards 1.3.3(a) Table 2(IV)7(a) and IS 1.3.3(a)) Table 2 (VIII) (4). The maximum penalty for each is N500,000. We caused them to pay and reported their callous misdemeanor to UK CAA, MFA and the UK High Commission,” Sirika said.
This punitive measure did not make the required impact as just last month, the NCAA said it would investigate the alleged violation of the ban on international flight services by Emirates’ Airline after it was reported that the Dubai-based carrier was allegedly operating scheduled flights from Nigeria, claiming the flights were evacuation flights.
In one of the advertisements by the airline’s ticket sales agent, Tour Brokers, the airline said: “Fly Emirates Airline from Lagos to Dubai, London, and many more destinations  from London on the 19th of July, 2020 to Dubai, London, New York, Toronto, Paris and many more destinations. Contact us now for your ticket – Limited seats available.”
Few weeks ago, an Airbus A330-243 owned by Middle East Airlines with registration number OD-MEA and Boeing 777 airplane with registration number TC-LJC operated by Turkish Airlines collided at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos. A source at the scene of the incident said the Middle East Airline and others were allegedly carrying out commercial operations under the disguise of evacuation flights.
Stakeholders’ worry
Though the lifting of international operations has been slated for August 29, the coordinator of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Dr. Sani Aliyu said the date is not sacrosanct but that if authorities meet the criteria for resumption on the 29th, they will be given the green light to resume.
But as long as restrictions on international operations remain, stakeholders fear that these ‘evacuation’ flights by foreign airlines would continue at the expense of the country’s economic interests.
The President of the Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative, (ASRTI), and CEO, Sabre Travel Network West Africa, Dr. Gabriel Olowo, says he is worried as to why evacuation flights replaced commercial flights even as tickets are presently sold higher and above regular commercial rates. He said evacuation flights should by definition be a rescue flight operation consequent of force majeur situation with cost borne by government during emergencies and should be for a relatively short period of time.
“I am perturbed with the endless flight evacuations these past six months. I am particularly worried why evacuation flights are seemingly replacing commercial flights after the new travel protocols have been established. All stakeholders have complied with international set rules and people love to travel for various reasons. Tickets are presently sold higher and above regular commercial rates.
“To those of us in aviation, evacuation flight should by definition be a rescue flight operation consequent of force majeur situation with cost borne by government during emergency and relatively short period of time. But this is not the case anymore as operation is already entering the 6th month and counting. These routine evacuation flights especially to and from Nigeria via neighboring countries  (when travel across international borders is supposedly banned ) is a huge economic deprivation and capital flight from Nigeria.
“One wonders which direction this COVID-19 new normal is pointing to after six months of empty treasuries of our airlines, airports and all allied services,” Olowo said. Aviation expert and partner at Emftri Group, Amos Akpan, told Daily Sun that there is a clear distinction between commercial flights and evacuation flights and said the two should not be confused.  He said in evacuation flights, each government makes arrangement to transport her citizens out of an unfavourable environment by air, while commercial flight has business and economy as its motive.
“This government seems to have defined its own evacuation flight. Generally evacuation flight means taking people out of a dangerous or unsuitable environment by air. In evacuation flights, each government makes arrangement to transport her citizens out of that environment. The government chooses the carrier, facilitates the clearances, and pays the carrier for the charter; irrespective of where the funds is sourced from, the government institution pays the carrier. That is what we know as evacuation flight.
“I am adjusting to this new paradigm of evacuation flight that is happening now. Commercial flight has business and economy as its motive while evacuation flight has safety and welfare of citizens as its motive. I refuse to be confused with terminologies like “commercial evacuation flights”. The responsibility of government to her citizens is clear, which is, safety and welfare, while the duty of a commercial airline is to give satisfactory service to the customer at a price. Each government tries to use her resources to the benefit of her citizens so they award charter contract for airlift of her citizens to their own country’s airlines,” Akpan said.
Aviation security expert, Captain John Ojikutu, is of the same view that throughout the restriction period, commercial flights were being carried out by airlines under the guise of evacuation flights, thereby causing the country to lose revenue. He told Daily Sun that the chattered commercial flights are meant to have been clearly specified in the lockdown directives and circular. He said when passengers pay for their transportation, it is commercial and the airline gets into commercial agreements with the countries of embarkation and disembarkation.
“What we have had throughout the restriction period were commercial flights with agreement that passengers would pay their fares. The fares are not being paid by governments or by humanitarian national or international agencies, like the Red Cross International or UNHCR , but by passengers carried. The flights are chartered commercial under the government special flights which was meant to have been clearly specified in the lockdown directives and circular.
“Evacuations are done by government or humanitarian organisations that pay for the transportation. When passengers pay for their transportation, it is commercial and the airline gets into commercial agreements with the countries of embarkation and disembarkation. “All the flights that are conducted by airlines for stranded passengers and those conducted as chartered by aircraft operators are all commercial and should not be exempted from paying mandatory 5 per cent fare charged by the NCAA Act 2006.
“In the case of the UK, remember that it is a welfare state; the ‘repatriation flights’ to UK, if it’s for their nationals, is understandable. And the citizens would not have to pay for it. However, if they are repatriating other nationals to their countries, there would be an arrangement between countries on methods or modes of transportation and which country pays. In both cases, the passengers do not have to be responsible for the fares. If passengers are paying and we dub their transportation as evacuation or repatriation, then something there needs further and better explanation.
“So none of the flights can be said to be evacuation or repatriation except there are hidden payments in the actual fees that are paid by the responsible governments which would include the navigational charges, landing and parking fees,” Ojikutu said.