Air travel, even more than other things in Nigeria, is laced with uncertainty. It is common to see passengers still waiting at airports hours after their scheduled departure time.
Today, Linda Ojiefo* is leaning over the Aero Contractors check-in counter at the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos, arguing with a customer service representative. Linda, an entrepreneur, is incensed that her flight to Port Harcourt was cancelled without prior notice. Like everyone else, she wants a refund.
“I’m going to try getting a bus to Port Harcourt from the park instead,” she says casually. She is less agitated than before. “I'm used to this,” she announces. “Every time I book a flight, I prepare my mind for the worst.”
Linda is smart. The average Nigerian domestic traveller can bet on her flight being delayed or even cancelled. This is the norm; after all, in 2017 alone, the Consumer Protection Department of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) reported that the country recorded 30,214 cases of delayed flights.
But why is this the norm?
Two words: Bad Weather
The first thing that rolls off the tongue of any airline customer service representative, asked about flight delays or cancellations, is bad weather. Sometimes, this is true: bad weather is not conducive for take-off or makes flying unsafe.
Yet these days, navigation aids reduce the impact of bad weather by assisting aircraft in determining their safest course and warning them of obstructions to navigation. And in naturally difficult seasons like Harmattan, when the air is dusty and dry, planes may not fly regardless.
Isah Lawal*, a flight dispatcher for a major local airline, also tells me that the landing aids in smaller airports are not as precise. These aids are meant to guide pilots when visibility is low, but because the instruments are not as advanced as they should be, pilots cannot rely on them in more severe weather, causing flight delays.
“Since we don't have the appropriate landing aid, the pilot has to rely on his eyes to see very far when landing. Considering that this is risky, airlines would rather not fly until the weather becomes bearable,” Isah explains.
But what airlines wouldn’t tell you is that sometimes, flights are deliberately delayed. Why? To reduce costs.
Nigeria’s local airlines are not profitable. Faced with challenges ranging from the high cost of aviation fuel to multiple taxation, airlines often struggle to stay out of debt. Out of 50 established local airlines, only 5 are operational.
Nero Okwa, of Jetseta, a private air travel company, believes that local airlines, in a bid to make profits, sometimes deliberately delay or cancel flights. “A lot of the time, planes are empty. Except during peak periods, Nigerians don’t fly as much,” he tells me. “Let’s say an airline has a 2pm flight and 4pm flight to the same destination. It may delay the 2pm take-off and merge it with the 4pm flight,” he explains.
In doing so, the airline saves money on fuel and ensures seats are filled. Linda, our earlier delay victim, agrees with Nero. “When my morning flight to Abuja was delayed,” she starts, “I noticed it was conveniently delayed till afternoon and integrated with the second flight.”
Isah Lawal disagrees. He argues that established rules around crew scheduling constrain airlines’ decisions. To be specific, crew members are not permitted to be on duty for more than 14 hours a day, and of those, they cannot fly for more than 8 hours.
Each crew member that flies for under than 8 hours is entitled to a 9-hour rest. Isah explains that if the crew, in unavoidable circumstances, flies for over 8 hours, their rest time is bumped up. Moreover, the crew would be unable to make their previously scheduled flight until the rest time elapses. “I would have to delay the crew’s next flight to ensure they get the stipulated rest time,” he says.
If airlines follow this rule, that could explain why flights are merged. “If you cut corners there is a possibility that your license will be sealed off or you will be fined. The fine is in dollars, nobody wants that fine, so they are better off obeying,” Isah says in an effort to dispel the deliberate delay theory.
“When flights are merged, it is not because airlines want to make more money. It is because they are trying to stay within the law,” he concludes.
Most times, however, flight delays are unintentional and are caused by operational hitches.
Again, this is one of the more common excuses passengers hear when they even bother to ask why their flight got delayed. Although operational hitches are legitimate, they are also broad, ranging from incorrectly checked-in baggage to a pilot being arrested.
Airlines rely on a range of industries to provide necessary and complementary services as they fly, sometimes leaving them at the mercy of their service providers. For example, cleaning and catering services are outsourced, and any disappointments in these areas may result in delayed or cancelled flights.
Solomon Umitit*, a pilot for one of Nigeria’s local airlines, tells me that because of how flights are structured, operational flight delays and cancellations often filter through to future flights. “A few weeks ago, a bird flew into the engine of the plane before take-off. Even after we sorted it out, once we landed in Lagos the engineers had to recheck the engine before the plane could depart again,” he narrates.
“Checking the plane meant that the next flight was going to get delayed until the check was over because the same aircraft was scheduled to fly. Delays on one flight automatically means that other flights lined up after the first one also get delayed,” he emphasises.
And then comes aviation fuel
Another reason for delayed flights is one Nigerians would be familiar with: not enough fuel. Aviation fuel—Jet A1 fuel—is both scarce and expensive in Nigeria, and in many cases, trucks have to travel long distances to deliver it at airports. Naturally, this can cause flight delays.
Unlike petrol, aviation fuel is not regulated by the government, so a lot of the time, airlines are at the mercy of importers. Mohammed Salaudeen, an oil marketer and aviation expert, tells me that the marketers importing Jet A1 fuel face a lot of costs, most of which are passed on to airlines. “The product is so expensive because of the margins placed on it—for transport, taxes, handling fees, etc.,” Mohammed explains.
Isah Lawal adds that importers prefer to supply international carriers who buy in bulk and are willing to pay more. This sometimes causes fuel shortages for local airlines who have to wait their turn. “As I wait, the passengers also have to wait. Nobody travels till fuel comes,” Isah states.
The cycle of misinformation
A number of these reasons are legitimate and understandable, so why do airlines hide them from passengers? Are they worried that passengers would ask for compensation?
Auwwal Ahmad, deputy station manager for one of Nigeria's airlines, explains that airlines do so out of the fear of passing across the wrong information. Better not to say anything than to be misunderstood.
Auwwal points out that passengers interpret messages differently, and many of them are unfamiliar with aviation terms and don’t understand how an aircraft functions. So, giving them information that requires some background knowledge could lead to misunderstandings. Besides, someone who is agitated over a delayed flight is unlikely to properly process the message delivered by an airline representative.
“If a flight is delayed for operational reasons like a brake or tyre change, the passenger who hears about a brake unit assumes the plane’s brake is faulty,” he explains. “Meanwhile, it’s quite normal for an aircraft to undergo a tyre or brake change,” he says.
So what can we do about all this? Well, airlines are private entities, but the government plays a significant regulatory and supervisory role. This means it has a part to play in improving local flight timings. And at the moment, they seem to be off to a good start.
In January, the NCAA and the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) lowered the minimum visibility requirement for take-off and landing in 18 airports across the country. Flights previously stopped when visibility dipped below 800 metres can now operate, and this change came with relevant amendments to the available navigation aids in the country.
While this is not enough, it makes a difference.
The challenge of airline profitability is more long-term and not one that will be solved by a new national carrier. The market for aviation fuel, for instance, may only improve when Nigeria starts refining its own oil.
It is clear that without addressing these issues, Nigerians will continue to endure the near-certainty of flight delays and plan their lives accordingly. And despite a culture that views scheduled appointments as negotiable—the infamous Nigerian time phenomenon, this particular problem benefits neither airlines nor customers.
“No flight dispatcher enjoys delaying flights. If I delay a flight, then there’s definitely a reason,” Isah reminds me as he stares with frustration at his dispatch screen. And from where I am, each flight looks perfectly out of sync.
*name changed to protect identity