Introduction

For nearly three decades in Nigeria the rights of passengers have largely been ignored by airlines – a situation which has been exacerbated by the absence of relevant laws. Domestic airlines habitually delay or cancel flights without compensation, citing grounds such as bad weather or 'operational reasons'. The authorities' failure to enforce the laws and the accompanying apathy on the part of passengers have combined to make flight delays the norm at Nigerian airports.

In a bid to address this issue, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has introduced a passenger bill of rights, set out in the NCAA 2012 Civil Aviation Regulation Volume 2 – Consumer Protection, which places high value on air travel needs. Its overarching objective is to protect the rights of passengers and increase their confidence in aviation services. To achieve this, the Ministry of Aviation has ordered all aviation companies to set up consumer service units, as well as establishing the Aviation Consumers Council – comprising industry stakeholders and members of the public – to advise the ministry on global best practices. The regulation sets out rules to deal with issues including no-shows, overbooking, lost or damaged baggage, denied boarding, and delay and cancellation of local and international flights.

Passenger rights

The regulation sets out the following rights and protections for customers:

  • Where a passenger's flight is to be re-routed or delayed, he or she must be notified at least two hours in advance.
  • Where a passenger has a print-out showing a confirmed reservation for a specific flight on a specific date, he or she cannot be denied boarding on the grounds that there is no corresponding reservation in the airline database.
  • If a passenger wishes to cancel a ticket purchased under a non-refundable fare, he or she must be able to transfer the fare paid to a future flight, minus any applicable charges or cancellation fees.
  • Compensation must be paid if a flight departs before the ticketed time.
  • If luggage is delayed or lost, compensation must be paid within five business days.
  • If a passenger's flight is delayed for more than one hour or cancelled, or a passenger is denied boarding, he or she has a right to compensation.
  • If a passenger is treated rudely by airline staff or agents, he or she can claim compensation from the airline.

Challenges

The passage of the bill was a welcome development and the latest step in the ongoing reform of the aviation sector. However, the NCAA's commitment to implementing and enforcing the bill must be questioned. Research has revealed the prevalence of poor-quality passenger services in light of the non-enforcement of the passenger bill of rights by the NCAA.

One of the Consumer Protection Unit's objectives is to force airlines to comply with relevant regulations and to deal with consumer complaints in a satisfactory manner. However, the unit's penalty regime has not lived up to the intentions of the passenger bill of rights, which clearly entitles passengers to several means of redress in the event of infraction. The lack of proper commitment to the enforcement of the bill's provisions has made it more theoretical than practical.

Recommendations

Nigerians should be informed of their rights under the bill, as follows:

  • The bill should be posted on the NCAA website and widely publicised.
  • It should be explained in a written document made available to all passengers at Nigerian airports.
  • The NCAA should implement a public awareness programme on the rights and responsibilities of both providers and users of air transport and allied services.

Further, the NCAA should adopt a 'naming and shaming' policy for airlines which violate the bill of rights. This would encourage airlines to take active steps to protect their reputations by respecting passenger rights, and would serve as a warning to other airlines to uphold the bill's provisions at all times. The NCAA should also periodically publish details of the number of complaints, how many have been resolved and unresolved and airline performance assessments.

Moreover, new enforcement mechanisms should be put in place. The NCAA should:

  • give passenger complaints top priority;
  • ensure that compensation is paid in a timely manner; and
  • respond promptly to complaints.

Further, the existing enforcement mechanisms should be strengthened and the issue of whether the Consumer Protection Unit or the NCAA should deal with passenger complaints should be resolved.

Finally, adequate measures should be taken to ensure that defaulting airlines are penalised accordingly and in line with the regulation.

Comment

Adoption of the recommendations listed above would go a long way towards ensuring that the bill is not merely theoretical, but rather is capable of being implemented, enforced and respected by all. The bill should not result in passenger apathy; rather, it should be enforced strictly until it becomes part of the culture of Nigerian air travel.

For further information on this topic please contact Onyeka Momah at George Etomi & Partners by telephone (+234 1 462 1660) or email (onyeka.momah@geplaw.com). The George Etomi & Partners website can be accessed at www.geplaw.com.

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