Over the last year, two significant aviation milestones were recorded. The first was the publication of the National Civil Aviation Policy 2013 and the second was the public presentation of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority Consumer Bill of Rights. The Bill is based largely on Part 19 of the Civil Aviation Regulations 2012.
The overarching objective of the policy is to protect the rights of consumers as well as increase their confidence in aviation services. To do this, the Ministry of Aviation has mandated the establishment of consumer service units by all aviation agencies and service providers to educate consumers on their rights and an Aviation Consumers Council comprising of industry stakeholders and members of the public to advise it on global best practices.
The Bill of Rights was published to educate the Nigerian public on minimum rights of passengers and obligations of carriers. It specifies rules to deal with issues ranging from "no-show", overbooking, denied boarding, delay and cancellation of local and international flights. The passenger rights specified would be familiar to most aviation practitioners and travelers. Indeed, it has been argued that they are not far reaching enough. The importance of the Bill of Rights is that it is a public recognition of the fact that passengers have hitherto tended to get the short end of the stick, especially with respect to local and regional carriage. It seeks to raise the standards of service delivery by local operators to the public.
In instances of "no-show" for example, the airlines are advised to take steps to transfer the passengers to another flight subject to space availability and meeting other ticketing requirements. In the event of oversold flights, airlines are to minimize the number of persons denied boarding. Also, they are to request for volunteers for denied boarding before applying boarding priority. Such passengers who agree to be offloaded are entitled to compensation and assistance with re-routing to their destination on an alternative flight.
Where the flights have been delayed, airlines have an obligation to provide the passengers with refreshments, access to free calls, emails or text messages, hotel accommodation or even reimbursement, subject to the length of the delay or whether the flight is international or local. In any case, the passenger will be entitled a maximum amount of 4150 US Dollars as compensation.
When a flight is cancelled, passengers are entitled to be informed of such proposed cancellation 24 hours in advance for local flights and between 3 to 7 days for international flights, with an explanation on alternative transport. If the airline does not comply with this requirement, the passengers will be entitled to compensation (a certain percentage of the ticket price) or reimbursement and assistance with re-routing to their destination on an alternative flight.
The Nigerian Civil Aviation Act 2006 domesticates the Montreal Convention for international carriage. Domestic carriage is governed by a modified form of the Convention.
More importantly, for the first time, the Bill provides for a standing administrative mechanism for addressing passenger complaints. Nigerian Civil Aviation Agency (the NCAA) has mandated that all airlines establish consumer protection desks at airports where they can receive and resolve complaints from their customers. How efficient and effective this would be is still debatable.
Passengers who wish to lodge complaints about violations of the Passenger Bill of Rights may do so with the Directorate of Consumer Protection of the NCAA. Upon receipt of such complaint, the DCP will conduct an investigation into the complaint. It informs the airline of receipt of the complaint and gives it the opportunity to respond and advise on procedure taken to resolve the matter. The DCP will adjudicate on the merits of the complaint and determine whether it can be resolved at that stage or be transferred to the NCAA Administrative Hearing Panel.
The Administrative Hearing Panel is quasi-judicial and both parties are to transmit a Statement to the Panel upon which they will both be heard. After hearing, the Panel may make any order from the payment of compensation to the complainant, payment of fines or penalties or even referral for criminal prosecution as appropriate. While there is no provision for the enforcement of the orders made by the Panel, airlines tend to abide by them. Appeals from the Panel lie with the Federal High Court.
There has been some controversy as to whether complaints from passengers against airlines could be laid before the Consumer Protection Council (CPC), which is a government body established to redress consumers' complaints in all sectors of the economy. While the CPC's jurisdiction in matters of consumer protection is general, the Act has given the NCAA specific powers in consumer protection matters in the aviation sector. Thus, the NCAA has been quick to reiterate this jurisdiction to the exclusion of the CPC.
Of course, passengers have a right to approach the civil courts directly. The appropriate court is the Federal High Court.
Though it is still early days to tell whether these policies and regulations will prove effective, the Nigerian government is sending clear signals that it intends to address the rights of airline passengers and raise the quality of domestic air travel in Nigeria.