The revocation of visas for 264 Air Peace passengers by Saudi authorities at King Abdulaziz International Airport-Hajj Terminal Jeddah has sparked calls for the government to reciprocate the action and protect local carriers designated to a route.
While the federal government said investigations were ongoing to prevent a recurrence of the unfortunate incident, the Saudi authorities had not provided reasons for the cancellation of the visas at the time of filing this report. Eighteen passengers were banned from Saudi Arabia due to various offences committed in the past.
The affected passengers were informed of the visa cancellation upon their arrival at the Hajj Terminal, leading to the return of 177 passengers to Nigeria, while 87 passengers were allowed entry into Jeddah.
However, Abdulaziz Sabitu, managing director of the Arafat Air Service Nigeria Limited and former zonal officer of the Association for Hajj and Umrah Operators of Nigeria, said the passengers on the Air Peace flight to Saudi Arabia whose visas were cancelled were not carrying the appropriate visas.
Stakeholders have however argued that the visas the affected passengers got were the same with those others who boarded Saudi carriers used in the past, and wondered why the rules had to be changed in Air Peace’s case.
Olumide Ohunayo, an industry analyst and director of research at Zenith Travels, said some agents had been using this same visa process on Saudi carriers and it was waived.
Ohunayo said now that a Nigerian carrier has come on board, the Saudi government has decided to go back to implement the rule. He said the rule of reciprocity needs to be applied in this case.
He said: “I hope the government will look at this issue and see what would have gone wrong with the process. I feel those passengers who were brought back need to be compensated because they were checked. Only for the aircraft to land before they started implementing the rules.
“We must protect our carrier going forward. We have started the Jeddah route which is positive and we have to take our market from Ethiopian Airlines, Morrocan carriers, Egypt and Sudan and all those who have been feasting on Nigerian passengers on the Jeddah route. Air Peace has come up and we need to support them.”
Seyi Adewale, chief executive officer of Mainstream Cargo Limited, said the issue between Air Peace and the Saudi Arabian government revealed what he described as “aero politics”.
According to him, Saudi Airlines historically used to have very vibrant and lucrative flights into Kano and Lagos for both passenger and cargo before it diminished around 2014-2015.
“It appeared the first airline trapped funds, I believe, around this period and aggressive competition from airlines like Ethiopian Airlines made them pull out. Saudi used to outperform Ethiopian Airlines at that time but sadly they lost traction. This is important because they know the impact, potential and capacity of the Nigerian market,” he said.
According to him, if Air Peace has the first mover advantage with the renewed cooperation, that potentially could affect Saudi Airlines and any other airline originating from Saudi Arabia.
He said the pushback may be intended to scare passengers and potential exporters from using Air Peace.
“It will be resolved diplomatically but note that Saudi Arabia has already made the point or indication that boarding a Nigeria-based flight is unreliable and potentially will assure passengers that airlines originating from Saudi are safer and best bet. This is their goal when smooth bilateral relationships are restored or re-emerge,” Adewale said.
John Ojikutu, an industry expert and CEO of Centurion Aviation Security and Safety Consult, described the visa cancellation as an “internal threat to our growth in international commercial aviation.”
According to him, it is not about Air Peace lowering airfares in the Gulf; it is about the threats of Air Peace to those behind “the institutional corruption and who are still behind the establishment of the national carrier and not to designating Air Peace and others as flag carriers”.
“Any flag carrier like any national carrier must be supported by the federal government: was that the case with Air Peace before its flight to London, Dubai or Saudi Arabia? Bilateral Air Service Agreements is not for any airline alone but a national commonwealth managed by the ministries of foreign affairs, aviation, trade, justice and by the national carrier or designated flag carriers,” he said.
He lamented that those in government were concerned only about their earnings from multiple destinations to foreign airlines, and commercial agreements on multiple frequencies to foreign airlines.