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It is said that after battles, warring factions return to the drawing board or the round table to fashion out way forward and to ensure that issues that led to war are never repeated. That underscores the importance of peace in any human endeavor.
Last week was tough for Bi-Courtney Aviation Services Limited, (BASL), the various aviation unions, concessionaires and service providers at the imposing MMA2 as the unions for two harrowing days shut down the terminal over labour related matters.
Thank God, the siege laid on the first privately-funded terminal in Nigeria, the Murtala Muhammed Airport Terminal Two (MMA2), a member of the Resort Group, has ended. This came to an end after unions in the aviation sector, including the Air Transport Services Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (ATSSSAN), the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE) and the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), had paralysed activities at the terminal for more than 48 hours last week.
Their complaint was the disengagement of some employees by the company, who the unions said were workers who showed interest to join them, while BASL said they were disengaged because of either old age or lack of diligence in their duties.
The unions barricaded the main entrance and exit of the terminal building with different vehicles as early as 5 a.m. on Tuesday, last week, to prevent access to the facility. Thousands of intending passengers were stranded while the face-off lasted. Traffic on the ever-busy Mobalaji Bank-Anthony Way and other adjoining areas was heavy all through the period the action lasted.
Defiling court order
Despite the order of a Federal High Court, sitting in Lagos and presided over by Mr. Justice I. N. Buba, restraining them from disrupting the operations of MMA2, operated by Bi-Courtney Aviation Services Limited (BASL), the unions shut down the terminal, claiming they had not received the court order. But sources said even when they were served copies of the order, they refused to collect it.
The unions barricaded the main entrance and exit of the facilities with different vehicles in flagrant disobedience of the court order in suit number FHC/L/CS/1641/2018. With this action, many intending travellers, workers and business owners in the terminal could not access the building, while traffic on the Mobolaji Bank-Anthony Way was chaotic.
BASL, in a statement by its spokesman, Steve Omolale, had condemned the action of the unions and expressed surprise that it occurred despite the court order, which restrained them from disrupting the operations of the first privately-funded terminal in the country.
Airlines, banks, other businesses count their losses
Besides BASL, also hit by the effects of the strike were the airlines, the banks, concessionaires and other businesses operating at MMA2, who could not access the terminal. Specifically, the airlines, including Dana, Arik, Aero, Med-View, Azman and Max Air estimated their losses to be in millions of naira. Banks operating cash centres at the terminal are: GTB, United Bank for Africa (UBA) and Zenith Bank, while other major service providers include Spar, the eateries, bookstalls, protocol services, car hire operators, cargo freighters and fuel suppliers, among others. There were also the concessionaires, such as Spakleen Professionals, Precise Cleaning Services and Tow-To-Go, among others.
In fact, Dana Air in a statement by its spokesman, Kingsley Ezenwa, said it lost over N100 million on the first day of the lock down of the terminal and added that if this continued, the airline would be forced to downsize.
An official of another airline, who craved for anonymity, re-echoed this, saying: “For now, we have lost over N63million to the ongoing industrial action and losing such money in an industry where airlines are still grappling with a myriad of challenges is unacceptable and disappointing to say the least. We do not know how the situation will be in the coming days and we might have no other option than to downsize, if the action stretches for too long.”
However, despite the strike, electricity and water supply, as well as other facilities at MMA2 were running throughout the duration of the strike, as all efforts by the unions to gain access to the terminal, its power house with four giant generators and other facilities were vehemently resisted by the management of BASL.
Counter-protest by the business owners
When it occurred to people whose businesses are in MMA2 that the strike could disrupt their businesses further, they had to embark on a counter-protest on the day two of the strike. To show their disapproval of the action, the concessionaires, customers, businesses and employees, numbering over 2,000, who were wondering why the action was happening, embarked on a peaceful counter-protest. They accused the unions of deliberately planning to sabotage their businesses.
They carried placards with various inscriptions, such as “Over 2,000 staff, families suffering”, “FG, save our souls”, NUATE/ATSSAN, respect court orders”, “NUATE/ATSSAN, let Bi-Courtney be” and “BASL is a responsible employer of labour”, among others.
Chaos at General Aviation Terminal (GAT)
While the strike was on, most airlines at MMA2 relocated their operations to the General Aviation Terminal (GAT), while Aero Contractors moved its operations to its terminal. This amounted to a huge loss of revenue to BASL and other businesses at MMA2 and a gain for the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) which is managing the GAT. However, this understandably increased the chaos at GAT as the facilities could not accommodate the sudden upsurge in passenger traffic.
The AVSEC of FAAN was overwhelmed by the upsurge in the number of passengers. Concerned stakeholders who expressed worries that this was the greatest threat to the aviation industry, were alarmed that this could be happening at a government facility. They said one of things the labour unions’ strike exposed was the inadequate facilities at GAT to cope with any further increase in the number of the airlines there. Air Peace and part of Arik Air operations are currently at GAT. Many passengers who experienced the chaos at the terminal vowed not to ever use it again, “no matter the situation”.
After laying siege to MMA2 for two days, the unions and BASL eventually agreed to call off the action last Thursday night. This was after both parties had signed an agreement brokered by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA). While Bi-Courtney agreed to recall the disengaged workers and allow unionisation in the terminal, the unions agreed to call off the strike. This brought a lot of relief to all the stakeholders in the sector.
A letter signed by BASL’s Group Executive Director, Mr. Roger Whittle and Group Head, Human Resources, Mr. Ola Azeez, entitled: “Re: 15-Day Ultimatum to Recall and Reinstate Workers” reads in part: “Staff of BASL are free (as they have always been) to exercise their right of association by indicating their willingness to join any of the aviation unions. The management shall deduct and remit check off dues as required below.
“The 27 members of the union who were laid off shall be recalled without loss of pay or service and deployed to where their services are required within the Resort Group. Thereafter the company intends to declare them redundant and is willing to discuss their redundancy benefits with the unions in accordance with Section 20 of the Labour Act.”
Flight operations resume at MMA2
After the disruption of its operations, normal activities finally resumed at MMA2 last weekend. All the airlines are back at the terminal, while businesses have reopened. Many passengers, who said they prefer the terminal have been trooping there to board their flights to various destinations. Indeed, there are no signs that activities were disrupted for two days at the terminal.
Unions’ disdain for concession
Aviation unions have never hidden their disdain for concessions in the sector. They have done everything within their power to oppose and truncate the various concessions earlier granted private investors by the Federal Government. But the MMA2 concession has been the most enduring since 2007, surviving all sorts of assaults from the unions and FAAN.
There were other concessions in the aviation industry, which either never saw the light of day, or which were completed amidst controversy. The one between FAAN and Maevis Nigeria Limited to increase the authority’s revenue base through the Airport Operations Management System (AOMS) was a classic case of a concession gone awry. In it, FAAN, using all the weapons in its arsenal and the might of a federal agency messed up the concession, even after Maevis had invested millions of naira to buy and install equipment for the job. Officials of the government agency resorted to self-help by going physical to eject those of Maevis from the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, after FAAN was floored in the court of law, just to frustrate the concession.
In the same vein, the same FAAN engaged AIC Hotels Limited in a battle of wits over a parcel of land leased to the company to build an international hotel around MMIA under a concession agreement in 1998. As usual, despite a court order, officials of FAAN physically assaulted those of AIC just to recover the land from the company. In fact, they chased away the company’s workers from the land and seized some of their tools.
Stakeholders believe that since BASL has given in to the unions’ demands, it is now high time for them to reciprocate by supporting the MMA2 concession to reach its full potential. They particularly mentioned the GAT where about 50 per cent of BASL revenue is being earned by FAAN as one of the issues the unions must address. The unions had physically prevented BASL from taking over the terminal when the Federal Government wanted to hand it over to the organisation. The stakeholders also mentioned the various judgement debts owed the company, which the unions could assist it to recover from the government, saying “one good turn deserves another”.
Stakeholders flay unions’ action
A member of aviation industry think tank group, Aviation Round Table (ART) and Chief Executive, Centurion Securities, Group Captain John Ojikutu (rtd), said the actions of the unions tarnish the image of the country and negatively affected the travelling public, as well as airlines and other businesses operating at the terminal.
His words, “The unions have the right to go on protests but there must be limits in aviation. If you say you want to disrupt the operations of MMA2 and you call the airlines operating from there to find an alternative, I get worried and I ask, what is the NCAA doing about it? There is nothing that happens in aviation today, good or bad, call the NCAA. If they fail to do it, then something is wrong.”
“Disrupting the operations of the airport terminal will affected airlines, who have a responsibility to the travelling public and other operators. If you disrupt an operator, you are simply hurting the nation and giving a very bad image of the country to the outside world. This is a country that wants to concession some of its airports, what are you telling the people that want to come in to buy into this? You are simply telling them not to come and if they don’t, how do you have a meal on your table? That is where my worry is.
“Let me say this, I am not in the defence of Bi-Courtney but you should ask, how many number of delays came from GAT? How many came from MMA2? The bulk of the delays came are from GAT. The question is how many passenger gates and check point screenings do we have at GAT and how many are at MMA2? If you look at it properly, then you know that if you cause trouble at MMA2, there will be more delays and cancellations. If that happens, it goes back to these people that are talking of going on strike. It means the airlines are not going to have enough earnings to pay their bills.”
Speaking in same vein, aviation expert and former Assistant Secretary of Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), Mohammed Tukur carpeted the unions, saying they acted in violation of the law. He noted however that the unions would have explored all avenue so settle the issue rather than resort to the actions they too. He stated that what happened was a bad advertisement of the aviation industry by the activists.