Hundreds of Arik Air passengers were on Thursday stranded at the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) when unions in the industry grounded the airline’s operations from Lagos for alleged debts of over N20billion to industry agencies.
The unions under the aegis of the Air Transport Senior Staff Services Association (ATSSSAN) and the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE) said the debt Arik owes are to the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency, Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority and Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria.
However, Management of Arik Air in a spectacular twist of events grounded all its domestic operations everywhere in the country till further notice and the airline has resolved not to fly until the issues are settled stating that it is not indebted to FAAN
It also alleged that the current disruption of their operations by the unions was orchestrated by FAAN and the Minister of aviation not over debt but personal matters that the airline top management refused to reveal.
ATSSSAN and NUATE stormed the Arik Air operation centre at the GAT as early as 7am and crippled the airlines operations ensuring that passengers were stranded after purchasing tickets.
Giving a breakdown of the alleged debt , National President of ATSSSAN, Comrade Benjamin Okewu said Arik owes NAMA N5billion, FAAN N7billion and NCAA over N5billion as well as some debts in foreign currency owed NCAA amounting US$300million.
Okewu said, “Basically, the 18billion naira they are talking about is an approximated figure in the sense that there is that tendency for it to be more. Arik owes NAMA from the statistics we have over N5billion, Arik owes FAAN from the statistics available to us over 7 billion, Arik is also owing NCAA from the statistics available to us, over N5billion. There are also foreign currency components, as Arik owes NCAA about US$300million. If you convert that all the money Arik owes is over N20billion.”
On why these debts were allowed to accumulate and what had been done in the past to settle the debt crisis, Okewu said,”We have followed an amicable process to ensure that we get Arik Air, to first and foremost, reduce the debt they owe like every other airline has done but the truth is that every effort we have made proves that Arik Air is above the law.”
“The one that aggravated the workers most is the one that took place after taking this agitation to Federal Government, they set up a committee comprising of directors of Ministry of aviation, Asset Management Company (AMCON), FAAN management and Arik Management to sit down and reconcile the exact amount that Arik owes these parastatals, so they can agree on a suitable mode of payment for both parties. Incidentally because Arik has always exhibited that they are above the law, they never came for this meeting. This meeting was called as a result of Arik to respect the Minister of Aviation on their attempt to make them pay debt.
He went on to say, “We are taking on Arik today because if you look at the profile of the debtors, Arik outnumbers every other airline put together, we are progressing to other airlines too, if after this warning they do not come to pay part of their debt because we know , yes it is not easy for the airlines but it is more easy for you when you are servicing your debts for the survival of the other parastatals and then we expect understanding but in the case of Arik, as far as they are concerned, it is a national cake and they are taking their own and nobody can stop them.
Although the unions have said that they would face other airlines, the Arik management held view that it was FAAN that crippled their affairs and that all efforts they have made to settle (things) FAAN has thwarted it.
The Arik Air in a statement credited to its Managing Director Chris Ndulue said, “For the records, Arik Air does not owe FAAN as it is alleged by the agency. FAAN has been collecting its charges over the last 18months when it introduced the pay as you go regime.”
“In this year alone we have paid over N2bn to FAAN. And we have an outstanding debt of 1,6billion from the period before the pay as you go regime”, he said.
The airline said it has started refunding passengers and it is working on modalities to stop future online bookings pending the time the impasse is solved and they return to the skies.