Aero Contractors: Getting Dangerously Drunk On The Draught Of High Praise

Mutti Yovbi

Aero Contractors, when they still operated charter flights, primarily to Warri and Port Harcourt, were the belle of air travel in Nigeria. For safety and customer care that was the airline to fly with. Starting to fly the Abuja route at the behest of the British Embassy and other members of the diplomatic community, brought a sigh of relief therefore. We all believed that Aero would teach the others a thing or two about how to run an airline and more importantly, how to deliver quality service. Not many quibbled at paying the $100 that was the ticket charge in 2000/2001, too many planes were dropping out of the sky and flights operated by other airlines felt like the Lagos molue had suddenly taken to flight

Alas, the fantasy is over. Gone are the days when you were sure of courteous service at all Aero service points, whether you are being served by ground crew, cabin crew or even at the parcel service counter by the luggage handlers. These days every two-bit individual wearing the Aero tag thinks that is enough excuse to talk down at the customer. Perhaps not their fault, they probably think us ninnies to pay the most expensive rates in the local air travel market with no added value really.

It is no longer news that you cannot get an Aero ticket out of Abuja without having to pay a little bit on top. With a few hours to go, all tickets are routinely sold under the counter while the ticketing clerks give facetious responses to requests to get on the next flight, especially if it is the last for the day. I wrote in once to complain but the response I got by email advised me to pick up my tickets on the internet to save myself such trouble in the future.

Recently the rules about check-in and boarding times were changed. True, each new ticket carried the information in small print, but the tickets were still enclosed in jackets that gave information in bold that the check-in counters closed 20 minutes before boarding and not the 40 minutes it was changed to. Poor passengers, catching the early flight out somehow missed the new information and when expectedly several arrived 25 minutes before on the day the new rule commenced, they were refused check-in. All except those who were willing and able to wheedle a boarding pass. The ones who chose to play by the book were turned away and had to pay the no-show charge.

Aero Contractors refused to take responsibility for this gaff and made every single passenger that missed a flight as a result pay N2,500=00 only to have bold signs printed and posted on all counters the following day.  They still did not highlight the change on tickets so that regular passengers become conscious but they stopped giving out the jackets, apparently because a customer threatened to sue based on that.

By the way Aero is the only airline that requires customers to be at the check-in counter at least 2 hours before a local flight. Their first flight of each day out of Lagos leaves at 6:45 a.m. meaning anyone wanting to catch that should have left home by 2:30 depending on where you live. Aero is reputedly punctual, one of their selling points used to extract money from non compliant passengers but carelessly ignored when it does not play in their favour.

The other day a pilot kept us sat out on the tarmac in broiling heat for more than an hour after boarding. Apparently, he wanted to disembark a couple of passengers that had blundered on to the flight instead of one going to Port Harcourt. There was no explanation or apology for the delay, instead the pilot made an announcement to the effect that anyone who did not like it was free to get off the plane. He also reminded passengers in very cross tones that it was the last flight for the day and that if passengers made a fuss he would refuse to fly to the destination airport, which had no night service. In that situation, an explanation would have sufficed for passengers suffering the discomfort of an aircraft that was not powered and was therefore very hot. Most were sweating profusely and the infants could not be calmed for the heat. The last thing we needed was a threat that we might have to return home, some of us to far flung reaches of Lagos, if we did not behave in a manner pleasing enough to our driver.

This new Aero attitude is reminiscent of another establishment, Citibank before they changed back into NIB and went disturbingly quiet. Like them Aero targets what they described as high net-worth individuals and others like me who are pretenders to the appellation.  They now deem themselves superior and better than everybody else, even the customers upon whom they rely for business success. Aero staff have become very condescending and will insult the customer at the littlest provocation. Yet these same people are not above being slipped a bribe for overlooking excess luggage. As a matter of fact, I was asked once to pay for lunch but chose instead to pay my excess luggage costs, because I am paranoid about airline safety and will not encourage anything to remotely jeopardise it.

Once you are seen as unbending and unyielding to subtle coercions and horror of horrors, if you dare to hold on to your rights,  Aero staff become very officious and ensure that you pay the maximum possible, both in terms of money and in terms of your time wasted being tossed from one counter to the next.

According to some check-in staff who were unable to show any written notices to the effect, Aero Contractors now require any passengers asking for a ÔÇśfragile' tag to be stuck on their luggage to sign an undertaking that indemnifies the airline from any careless handling of said luggage. I explained in vain that a tag simply informs the baggage handler and should be a complimentary, no trouble service, easily available at all check-in desks. What I got was a round of insults for my effort, by both staff and a male manager called Uche. They even threatened to tear off a fragile tag I had stuck on from a previous trip and asked me to take back my luggage if I was not happy with their terms.

It appears that payment, and more payment and still more payment of charges is all that Aero Contractors is about these days. I was at the ticketing counter to reschedule my ticket for the second time, having missed my flight yet again, while sitting in the departure lounge. "Ah", I was told by the staff that offloaded me, "the public address systems are poor and people do not hear the announcements". I wondered then why, against stated policy, they chose to take my unaccompanied luggage, about which we had argued at check-in, to my intended destination.

I had another unpleasant surprise when I went to pay the No-show charge, it had been increased from N2,500 the previous week to N3,000 this week, without notice to the customer. As usual when I questioned this, the ticketing clerk imperiously informed me that all she was there to do was collect the payment from customers, not to answer questions.

There were several people there to pay no-show charges. I was the only one on my flight so I quietly accepted blame and paid up. The others were being clearly short-changed. They had been delayed at the check-in counter as a result of wrong information being passed by Aero Contractor Staff. The flight left without them in spite of their punctual arrival for check-in and all the supervisor on duty had to say was "better pay your no-show charge because you can't get a refund on the ticket". The elderly woman who dared to demand an apology was primly told by another staff, ÔÇśyou cannot blame me if you have problems madam, Aero did not make you miss your flight and I have personally done nothing to you I want to say sorry for'.

While waiting the more than twenty minutes it took to be attended to, a ticketing staff told yet another customer in very rude and loud tones, "you are lying we did not make you miss your flight. You cannot come and tell me what is not here, just pay your six thousand and be rescheduled for another flight otherwise forfeit your money" Nobody asked why so many people missed the same flight.

It sounds like a badly written script, but that is what Aero Contractors has become. A mockery of the values they once stood for and which attracted people to their stables.  Moving from Lagos through Benin, Warri, Port Harcourt and Calabar to Abuja, it is becoming clear that this is the Aero Contractor's new improved corporate policy. However, Nigerians are not as insensate as most service providers seem to think. I am beginning to see that there is no point paying that extra for poor service and a bit of snack thrown at you grudgingly by overrated cabin crew. You are meant to arrive at your meting calm and un-harried not seething from bad service and the rudeness of airline officials as they subject you to debasing treatment for your hard-earned naira.

My greatest pain however, is the lack of recourse to law, the complete absence of a regulatory body to whom the aggrieved passenger can report and hope to get redress.