Some charter airlines have begun offering services to members of the public despite a ban on international flights by the Federal Government due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sunday PUNCH has learnt.
It was also learnt that some commercial flights that were contracted by foreign missions to evacuate stranded citizens from Nigeria were also being used to convey passengers at an extra fee..
According to multiple Ministry of Aviation and airline sources, several Nigerians and foreigners have been travelling in and out of the country via the private charter and evacuation flights.
A top source at the Ministry of Aviation told Sunday PUNCH that the process of seeking approval from the ministry had become very easy and porous hence the current development.
While passengers with very deep pockets patronise charter airlines, others without the means join evacuation flights that have been commercialised.
“If you have a valid American residence/passport or British visa and the right money, I get you on a flight by Sunday morning,” a source in the ministry boasted.
When asked to explain, he stated, “If you own a private jet, all you need to do is write a letter to the minister indicating that you need to travel for medical reasons. And you would be given approval almost immediately. Once you are given the approval, you can add people to the flight under the guise that they are your personal staff or family members.
“These people who are supposed family members or personal aides are actually passengers who could pay you between $4,000 and $8,000 and sometimes $14, 000 depending on your destination and the kind of aeroplane you are flying.”
The official explained that nobody really investigates who is being conveyed on the plane.
He recalled what happened in the case of Musician, Azeez Fashola, aka Naira Marley, who travelled with several others from Lagos to Abuja to attend a concert during the ban on local flights.
The official added, “If you recall the case of Naira Marley, Executive Jet Services which flew him had received approval from the ministry under the guise that it was flying an Appeal Court Judge, Justice Adefope Okogie, from Lagos to Abuja.
“The names of Naira Marley and nine others were on the list but different names were given to the control tower by the captain and everything went smoothly and they would have got away with it if not for the controversy generated by the concert. That is how things have been going on in the aviation sector lately.”
On the evacuation flights, the official further explained that some officials of foreign missions were colluding with some international commercial airlines to fly Nigerians in and out of the country.
He explained that when some flights come for evacuation, they also take some Nigerian citizens at a different and more expensive fee.
The official stated, “Most times, when they want to evacuate foreign nationals, the ambassador of the foreign country would write to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the approval is usually automatic, based on international law.
“Once they get the approval, a letter is sent to the Ministry of Aviation which gives the final approval. These approvals are given automatically. Once the planes arrive, they evacuate their citizens along with Nigerians who have valid visas. Don’t you find it strange that more evacuations are going on now than during the lockdown itself?
“Have you asked yourself why during this ban on flights, several artistes and VIPs have been travelling to give birth abroad?
“I know several international airlines that have been doing this. The two biggest culprits are based in Western Europe. They come on a regular basis under the pretext that they want to evacuate and then move Nigerians along with them.”
A former chief executive officer of a local airline said many people he knew had been travelling in and out of the country in the past few months through the so-called evacuation flights.
The source said, “I have a friend that has travelled three times to the United States of America in the past four months. He just left Lagos last night again on one of the European airlines which have been running evacuation flights. He has American permanent residence too. So it is easy for him to join the evacuation flights.”
He added, “It is common knowledge. Why do you have more evacuation flights these days when the lockdown is over? Some of the foreign airlines have commercialised it, even though those approvals come from their foreign missions.”
Easy approvals for VIPs
A report by Sahara Reporters a few weeks ago showed that even during the lockdown, several VIPs and government functionaries took their families abroad.
For instance, the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele, moved his wife and two children to the UK on a chartered flight.
According to the manifest published by the media organisation, the jet owned by Executive Jet Services – which was later suspended for conveying Naira Marley – flew Emefiele’s wife, Mrs Margaret; and his sons – Godwin Pammichukwu Jnr. and Andrew Olisehike Emefiele on flight N104DA from Lagos to the UK on June 1, 2020. The pilot was identified as Captain Kolawole King.
Seyi Tinubu, the son of a former Governor of Lagos State, also travelled on a private jet – a Bombardier Express 7000 with registration number VP-CBT –on June 7, 2020 from Lagos to Stansted Airport, London, to witness the birth of his son, Tobias. The plane was flown by Captain Giannetakis Michail.
Popular actress, Omotola Jolade-Ekeinde, on July 19 posted a video on Instagram of how her husband, who is a pilot, flew home their children from abroad.
She wrote, “Thank you lord. My babies are home. When all fails and your dad has to fly a PJ (private jet) to come get you himself. Captain Matthew Ekeinde, na man you be. This is to appreciate you for being such a superhero. Thank you lord for journey mercies.”
Booking a flight
One of our correspondents who posed as a businessman, reached out to a travel service firm, Etam Avitat Services Limited, on the availability of flights to the UK.
He was immediately informed that a flight would be available for 2.45pm on Saturday at a cost of $4, 500 and subsequently sent a Guaranty Trust Bank account number.
Our correspondent was informed that a negative COVID-19 test result would suffice but it was not compulsory.
Some other travel agencies organising such flights include April Travels Limited and www.Wontra.com which offers economy, premium economy and business class services.
Two travel agencies, Global Links and Services Limited and FlyBoku, confirmed to one of our correspondents on Friday that they were conducting evacuation (commercial) flights to London and South Africa respectively in separate inquiries.
An official of the Global Links and Services Limited told one of our correspondents on Friday that the Lagos to London flight was scheduled for August 2 and it was a charter flight with economy and business classes.
She said, “On Lagos to London for Monday, let me make some inquiries and get back to you. There are some things we are trying to sort out tonight (Friday). There is economy fare at N550,000 for adults, N499,000 for children and business class for N1.1m. Just put that at the back of your mind. Let me get back to you because of this Sallah, we will need to sort out some things quickly. One thing that is sure is that we will still go.
“If we don’t go on Sunday, we will go during the week by next week (this week). If you don’t hear from me on Friday, you will hear from me tomorrow (Saturday). Almost everything has been put in place. It is just because of the public holiday but let me just get back to you.
“For Lagos to London flight, you will not need the COVID-19 result but why we are asking for it is for the safety of the rest of the passengers.”
Meanwhile, the official at FlyBoku, said, “The one we did (on July 31) was from Johannesburg to Lagos. For now, we don’t have Lagos to Johannesburg.”
On the Fly Boku flyer obtained by our correspondent, the fare charged for South Africa to Lagos was $1,250.
NCAA begins investigation
When contacted to speak on what the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority was doing to sanction errant private jet owners and foreign airlines contravening the international flight ban of the Federal Government, the NCAA said it would investigate the matter.
The agency’s spokesperson, Sam Adurogboye, requested for some of the adverts on such international flights and after receiving them, he promised to forward them to the appropriate directorate for further investigation.
“Thanks for this. It will help our investigation. I will give you feedback thereafter,” he told one of our correspondents.
The Director, Public Relations, Federal Ministry of Aviation, James Odaudu, said the ministry was not aware of such incidents at the moment.
“As far as the Federal Ministry of Aviation is concerned, there are only two categories of flights that are allowed internationally into and out of Nigeria. And they include evacuation flights or those on essential services,” he stated.
He, however, noted that the government would not hesitate to sanction any airline found culpable of breaching federal directives as regards international flight operations.
Meanwhile, towards the end of March this year, the Federal Government slammed a N1m fine on a British charter carrier, FlairJet, for violating some sections of Nigeria’s Civil Aviation Regulations.
The Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, said the carrier was also reported to stipulated authorities in the United Kingdom.
The Legacy 600 aircraft belonging to FlairJet with registration G-ERFX was impounded by the Federal Government at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos for conducting commercial flight operations despite the ban on such flights in Nigeria.
After impounding the aircraft, the Federal Government quarantined the pilots and other crew members for 14 days, and declared that all necessary sanctions against the British aviation company would be applied to the fullest.
Travel agents selling flight tickets to survive, says ex-NANTA president
Commenting on the development, the immediate past President, National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies, Bernard Bankole, said most travel agents had been out of business for about five months.
Bankole also argued that there was nothing absolutely wrong with the actions by agents who sell tickets for such flights.
He said, “When you are very hungry, if they give you garri, it becomes a suitable food, forget about the ban on international flights.
“For how long are we going to continue like this? Five months and counting, people have been out of business. This is the situation on the ground.”
He said when approvals for such flights come from the Federal Ministry of Aviation after communication with the foreign affairs ministry, people use the opportunity to move passengers into or out of Nigeria, all in a bid to survive.
Bankole insisted that the situation on the ground warranted what was happening, adding that until international flights resume, operators in the downstream aviation sector would continue to seek measures to stay alive.
Charter airlines can operate private charter flights abroad — CEO
The chief executive officer of local charter airline, who spoke on condition of anonymity, argued if people had to pay for evacuation flights, then the flights could be commercialised after meeting the government requirements.
He said, “These are chartered flights. Although international flights have been banned, you can always arrange group charters. That is what they are doing now. This means that they can get special flight permits for one flight and they will sell off all the seats in both directions.
“The airspace is open and international flights have not yet been opened. The government can, however, allow international flights. They call them evacuation flights. Either way you look at it, it is commercial because the people have to pay money.
“But as evacuation flights, the charters have to fulfil some requirements from the government. Technically, it is only scheduled international flights that are banned. Both for domestic and international flights, chartered flights can operate. What that means is that you can apply to the minister to get clearance after which you can operate your flights. That is how it is done.”
Some Nigerians travel after clearance from three govt ministries – Pilot
A pilot with one of the airlines, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the charter airlines are often patronised by Nigerians who prefer less crowded planes because of the fear of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pilot, who also does charter business, noted that although the country’s airspace was closed for international commercial flights, most of the rich Nigerians who were travelling abroad on their private jets or chartered aircraft, had got clearance from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Aviation.
He said, “So yes, the airspace is closed for general commercial flights but we can call what is going on repatriation flights and private charter flights. They will advertise them and call for people to come. It is a special VIP flight. But they must have been approved by the Ministries of Aviation, Health and Foreign Affairs. The airline would be fined heavily if this is not done.
“There are flights for repatriation but if the government is not paying, I have the right to choose the flight I want. A lot of people won’t go with crowded planes.”
FG’s special flights have been abused — Aviation stakeholders
The Secretary-General, Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative, and an aviation security consultant, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (retd.), said the special flights plan of government had been abused.
He said there was a need to define what the government meant by special flights, as the aviation minister had earlier stated that only special flights were allowed to come in or move out internationally.
Ojikutu said, “Now, are such flights evacuation flights? Are the evacuations done by government or done by an individual? And, of course, an individual cannot evacuate himself.
“Evacuation needs to be done by government or an internationally recognised organisation such as the Red Cross, United Nations, who pay for the flight while moving people.”
He added, “But when an individual is now paying for his or her flight, I wonder what kind of evacuation that is, because such individual is now a passenger of that airline he is paying to.”
Ojikutu insisted that the government of a country or a reputable organisation should pay for an evacuation flight and not for an individual to pay for his or her own ticket.
“Now, I’ve also asked, are these airlines paying the statutory fees to government since the passengers are paying them for the tickets?” he asked.
He added, “Also the landing and parking charges, is FAAN collecting these stipulated charges? And this include chartered flights.”
On his part, a renowned aviation analyst, Olumide Ohunayo, stated that what the foreign airlines were doing was wrong.
“It is wrong to see that the process is ongoing despite the investigation that the NCAA has said that it will conduct,” he said.
He noted that international operators now boldly advertised flights and wondered what some of these foreign airlines were doing at the airports when there was supposed to be a ban on international travels.
Ohunayo said, “They are siphoning the funds of stranded Nigerians who need to get back into country.
“The solution right now is that the opening of the international airspace is long overdue and the government should urgently address that.
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