By Chinelo Obogo

Industrial actions by unions have been a regular occurrence in the aviation sector and despite the fact that the industry has existed for many decades, regular spats between employees and employers have not abated.

At the moment, there are over five active unions in the sector; National Association of Air Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE), Nigerian Air Traffic Controllers’ Association (NATCA), Air Transport Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (ATSSAN), Association of Nigeria Aviation Professionals (ANAP) among others and over the years, one or more of these unions have had to embark on an industrial action to press home their demands for better Condition of Service.

Most often, when unions embark on strike, it causes a chain reaction across the country and practically grounds the industry. A case in point is the industrial action embarked upon by NATCA on Tuesday, November 23, 2021 when it directed that Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) begin three hours ‘flow control’ for two days across four airports (Abuja Lagos, Port Harcourt and Kano) and  this caused serious flight disruptions and delays.

The action was precursor to a two-week warning strike which NATCA said it would embark on if the management of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) did not meet its demands to improve their working conditions as they protested the death of nine ATC’s in two years.

 “Flow control’ is a traffic flow management technique used in order to regulate the rate at which aircraft enter an airport airspace to a level no greater than the resource can accept and aircraft are usually  delayed at the point of departure. The decision to use ‘Flow control’ to space departure slowed down operations across the country and caused flight delays and cancellations. The situation was eventually resolved as the management of NAMA was forced to resume negotiations with the union.

Another devastating strike which lasted 14 hours and caused losses running into millions was declared by staff of Nigerian Aviation Handling Company Plc (NAHCO) on Monday, January 23, 2023 following a directive by NUATE and ATSSSAN to their members to down tools after negotiations with the management of NAHCO for the review of current salaries since June, 2022 broke down.

More than 50 local and international flights were disrupted and operations were grounded as a result as airlines like Qatar Airways, had to make an air return to Doha with about 220 passengers onboard of the airline’s aircraft. The airline lost an estimated N700 million, while the affected passengers would also be catered for by the airline.

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A statement by the spokesman of Air Peace, Mr. Stanley Olisa, said the ground handling company did not inform them about the strike neither was a public notice issued. “Neither NAHCO nor the striking union informed us of an impending strike. Our staff reported to work and noticed an ongoing industrial action. If we were informed beforehand, we would have conveyed same to our passengers early enough. All morning and other subsequent flights were disrupted- cancelled, delayed and rescheduled. This strike cost us over N500 million as we operate over 100 flights daily,” he said, while Mr. Kingsley Ezenwa, the spokesman for Dana Air, said the carrier lost about N100 mil-lion to the disruption.

The strike was eventually called off after the management of NAHCO agreed to re-enter negotiations with the union and promised that no staff who took part in the strike would be victimised.

But how should an industry which is still grappling with infrastructural deficits and a hostile business environment handle this recurring issue of industrial actions? The Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, who fielded questions from State House Correspondents recently at the Presidential Villa, said that the FAAN Act signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari last year prohibits industrial actions and riots in the aviation sector and that the enforcement the law has begun in earnest.

He said: “This will not happen in the future again and the reason is simple; aviation is an essential service. The Act has been assented to by the President, so strikes and riots around our airports are prohibited by the laws of the land. Now that we have the Act in place assented to by the President and passed by the National Assembly, we will deal with it according to the law.

“We will ensure no essential service is being disrupted by anybody no matter how aggrieved. There are other channels of expressing grievances when they arise but they are not permitted to go on strike because aviation is an essential service and it is seen so by the law of the land now.

“I will give you an example, there was an airline that had to return to base because it couldn’t land. Imagine if there was a patient on that aircraft? Imagine somebody attending to a very serious issue or matter at hand or business or a student trying to catch up with an exam and then because of somebody who is aggrieved, some other person dies in the process.

“Government will no longer allow that. So it’s in the law of the land, check the FAAN Act, it’s been assented to and it’s going to take place soon, in fact now, from today we will not allow that. As a government our ears are always open, government is open to listen to any grievances and there are procedures for dealing with this kind of grievances. They should please desist from this, it is wrong, it is inhuman, it is not allowed, it is not permitted and we will not be permitting any longer.”

Responding to the Federal Government’s move, Aviation Round Table said, “The right to embark on strike in any industrial dispute cannot be truncated by a legislation otherwise it’ becomes an affront on the rights of the workers and at variance with International Labour Organisation (ILO) laws”, while aviation expert, Alex Nwuba said: “Its normal for business people to stand with business until we consider the conditions that people work under resulting from incompetent and corrupt management and corrupt union leadership.” How the unions will respond to this Act when issues arise remains to be seen.