British Airways and Nigerian Passengers (The Guardian Editorial)

The Guardian Editorial 9th May 2008.

LINK: British Airways and Nigerian Passengers

THE British Airways’ decision to evict over 100 Nigerian passengers from a Lagos-bound flight from London on March 27 is understandably causing a furore, and appropriately, the contempt and arrogance displayed by the management of the airline has been condemned by aggrieved Nigerians. The circumstances surrounding the incident were embarrassing and the response of the airline was somewhat high-handed. In this regard, we fully endorse President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s displeasure, and his directive that the incident should be investigated.

On March 27, Nigerians aboard a Lagos-bound British Airways flight from London, had reportedly protested the maltreatment of one of their compatriots who was being deported and was on the same flight. The miffed passengers, including one Ayodeji Omotade, who had served as spokesperson, were later ordered out of the plane. The British Airways in a press statement says it had to “offload the passengers”… in consultation with, and on the advice of the United Kingdom (UK) Police…”

And the reason for this decision, classified as “a rare occurrence,” was “to ensure the safety of our passengers, aircraft and crew”. British Airways justifies its reaction on the ground that its crew members “were subjected to verbal abuse and physical assault”. Mr. Omotade who was reportedly singled out had his luggage seized for days, he was banned from flying British Airways “for life”; he was arrested by the police and was later arraigned in court.

Since the incident occurred, on March 27, British Airways in the face of rising public outrage and criticism, maintained a disdainful silence until May 2, when it issued a press statement, through a media consultant. This official response arrived more than a month late, and over a week after both President Umaru Yar’Adua and the Director-General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Harold Demuren had both expressed serious concerns.

The president, even from his sick bed, had reportedly directed the Minister of State for Transportation (Aviation) Mr. Felix Hyatt to investigate the incident, stressing that ‘under no circumstance will his administration tolerate the subjection of Nigerian passengers to less than acceptable international standards of treatment”.

Government’s response was not swift enough, but it was well-advised. The Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs has since held meetings with the British High Commissioner over the matter. We share the view that the Nigerian government should be ready always, to defend the rights of Nigerians and to seek explanations as it is doing. Airlines seem to have developed a habit of treating Nigerian passengers shabbily.

Besides the President’s directive, Nigerians in Diaspora have been collecting protest signatures against British Airways, there is also a widespread campaign on the internet involving Nigerians who want the airlines sanctioned. A UK-based non-governmental organisation, Africans United Against Child Abuse (AFRUCA) has decided to deny British Airways its patronage, in addition to encouraging its business partners to do the same. The levity with which British Airways has so far handled this matter is most strange, certainly it violates the ethics of community relations in business. The NCAA had demanded that within three days, i.e. by Monday, April 28, the airline should indicate a plan to compensate the passengers. Has it complied? Possibly not, for the matter was ignored in its press statement.

British Airways makes brisk business on its Nigeria-UK routes, (some would even say it is its most lucrative); it would have been wiser to handle this incident with greater sensitivity. But the airline is not alone in its alleged mistreatment of Nigerian passengers, even if what happened on March 27 was an isolated case. Recently, in Lagos, Delta Airlines reportedly ordered some of its passengers to disembark at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport for reasons that are still the subject of controversy between the airline and the concerned passengers. It is, however, quite possible that some passengers on the British Airways flight in question had over-reacted in seeking to protect their compatriot who was being deported. Some of our compatriots tend to be too dramatic in asserting their rights, and in many situations abroad, this has been the catalyst for undeserved humiliation.

Nonetheless, their rights to freely express themselves should not have been undermined to the extent of treating them with such disrespect. It is just as well that Omotade has taken his case to court. Persons who are similarly aggrieved may seek legal redress.

This incident occurred in March. Why is it that, but for President Yar’Adua’s recent directive, neither the Nigerian High Commission in the UK nor the Ministry in charge of aviation noticed or commented on it? Obviously, some persons had failed in their duty to Nigeria and her citizens.

When all is said and done, the incident should provide British Airways an opportunity to review its customer relations/communications processes and seek to make amends where necessary.