By G9ija

A week after foreign flights resumed on Lagos and Abuja routes, international air travel has gone chaotic. Not only have fares increased by more than 200 per cent on some routes, seats are either not available or flights fail to keep to schedules. In some countries, like the United Kingdom, the pre-boarding mandatory coronavirus tests are not readily available, forcing airlines not to airlift booked passengers.

Some airlines have more passengers on some routes than Nigerian rules allow, and too few passengers on other routes for the carriers to embark on economically viable flights. Where excess is the case, airlines reschedule passengers’ flights to observe the maximum of the 200-persons-per-flight rule; and where passengers are fewer than the number needed to achieve economic viability, airlines cancel flights to the agony of customers.

Nigeria had, about a week ago, resumed skeletal international travels after five months of lockdown. The COVID-19 in-country protocols restrict services to Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, and Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja, with a maximum of four flights or 1280 inbound passengers per airport daily.

The protocols also state that each Nigeria-bound passenger must have COVID-19 test certificate showing negative status and an online payment for another test on arrival in Nigeria.

A check on latest airfares at the weekend showed increment across airlines. As of yesterday, some of the approved airlines had not resumed operations. Few of the operating carriers were still not regular and cancelling flights. British Airways, Emirates, Ethiopian Airline, Middle East Airline and Virgin Atlantic were regular but expensive.

Air tickets, which sold at an average of N220, 000 for economy class, now sell between N440, 000 and N900, 000. The popular Lagos-London economy class fare that was averagely N190, 000 now goes for between N350, 000 and N700, 000. The seats have been fully booked across airlines and the earliest availability is September 20.

The second busiest route, Lagos-Dubai, is not better. The economy class ticket that cost an average of N200, 000 before COVID-19 is now N456, 000 on Emirates, and between N700, 000 and N900, 000 on other airlines.

President of the National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA), Susan Akporiaye, confirmed the spike, adding that it was expected.

Akporiaye said that besides economic difficulties faced by global airlines, forces of demand and supply, coupled with limitations placed on operating carriers, had forced airlines to spread the cost on available travellers.

She said traffic was not the problem but the mandatory 200 passengers per aircraft limit, which was forcing airlines to reschedule some of their passengers despite availability of seats.

Last week, Nigeria-bound passengers in London, Dubai and Addis Ababa were thrown into confusion over online payment for COVID-19 Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests upon arrival. The online platform was not accepting entries or not generating the required barcodes, which forced airlines to disembark passengers before departure.

The reporters learnt at the weekend that following the intervention of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), the Federal Government had temporarily suspended the pre-boarding online payment requirement. Inbound travellers are now required to show return tickets and readiness to pay for the test in Nigeria to be allowed to come in. Akporiaye said another issue was that some airlines reject test certificates from government-approved laboratories, in preference to private labs in Nigeria.

“It is just a whole lot of confusion and inconvenience on travellers. Travel has just become as difficult and expensive as it could get; our government needs to look into all these issues. I believe they are expected teething problems.

“Safety is paramount for us all and we must avoid the second wave of infections. The authorities also need to review how we are doing and return to stakeholders for further engagements,” Akporiaye said.

Besides fare hike and extra cost on tests, some Nigeria-bound travellers in the United Kingdom are in distress over conflicting travel protocols. While Nigeria has directed that inbound passengers must have a recent COVID-19 test certificate before boarding, the UK is not giving preference to COVID-19 tests for travel purposes but for medical needs and signs of sickness. Many healthy travellers are without the certificate, hence, unable to fly.

A Nigerian stranded in London, Abiodun Abayomi, said his flight to Nigeria had been shifted twice over his inability to conduct the pre-boarding test.

“I had done a test before that expired just minutes before boarding. I had to do another one. I am just sick and tired of all these conditions. I just wanted to be home in one piece with my family. A lot of people are now travelling to the outskirts of London to get the certificate. Who pays for that extra cost having bought a very expensive ticket? It is that stressful,” Abayomi said.

A travel expert, Yinka Ladipo, confirmed the spike in fares and blamed it on naira to dollar exchange rate and airlines’ cancellation of all promotional fares.

Ladipo noted that besides the traditional busy routes, finding connecting flights beyond was still a very big challenge, given all manner of restrictions across countries.

He said except for Nigerians returning to their families, work or school, not too many people are travelling yet.
“An average of N200, 000 trip now costs about N500, 000, plus another N100, 000 for tests. It means the trip has to be very important.
“Even for those that have the money to travel, getting flights to various destinations is not easy. I have been trying to get a client back to work in Australia for some days now without luck. Getting to London, US or Dubai from Lagos is not a problem, but beyond. There is no flight to Sydney or Melbourne. That is the common phenomenon. Various countries have diverse restrictions in place and that is affecting all of us,” Ladipo said.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a clearing house for 290 airlines, had earlier said the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) take-off guidance would aid safe operations across the continent and ease confusion.