NEWS COMMENTARY: IRREGULAR PAYMENT OF AIRLINE STAFF: ROUTE TO DISASTER

About four years ago, precisely when Captain Fola Akinkuotu took over the mantle of office as Director-General/CEO of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) in 2013, Captin Dele Ore, erstwhile Director of Operations of the liquidated Nigeria Airways blew the whistle that all was not well with the domestic airlines in the country as the clime under which they operated was harsh and profitability was becoming elusive. The signs of the times then was the inability to pay airline employees as at when due and the information came as a rude shock to participants at a stakeholders’ forum with the then new NCAA DG as it is unheard of in the aviation industry considered to be a safety critical sector. Captain Dele Ore was reacting to the revelation and had wondered then that under such a situation how the airlines had managed to stay afloat. Prior to that time to owe staff salaries in such a sector where safety was premium was regarded as a taboo that was better imagined than experienced. In fact it was considered then that if such a dangerous trend was not nipped in the bud it could lead to a situation whereby safety could be compromised.

In the midst of high landing, navigational and terminal charges, Captain Dele Ore had urged airline owners to give priority to staff welfare including paying staff emoluments as at when due. Rather than change, the harsh clime had worsened courtesy of the global economic recession with the attendant dwindling fortunes of the local currency, the Naira against its foreign counterparts especially the US Dollar, the Euro and the Pound Sterling in the face of lack of maintenance facilities and the high operational cost especially aviation fuel, otherwise called Jet A!.

Today it is becoming fashionable for some airlines in Nigeria to owe their staff up to six months and more without their proprietors bothering whether such people exist. They hinge their inability to meet their financial obligations to their workers to high costs of maintenance, fuel, multiple taxation, excessive charges by agencies and the falling value of the nation’s currency, the Naira.

Their coming into being, no doubt, is commendable. They have been able to provide jobs to thousands of jobless people who may have still been roaming in the labour market. By the virtue of their operations social problems associated with joblessness are curtailed to some extent. When people have a means of eking out a living, the tendency for their minds to veer into thoughts that are not in conformity with a decent society is reduced. The existence of the airlines is a boost to all the ancillary service providers and the nation’s economy.

It is unthinkable that airline operators would offer mouth watering salary package in their process of seeking Air Operator Certificate (AOC) to get the best hands and also to lure them away from their other companies only to slash their salaries to a ridiculous level after getting the certificate. Even the cut down emolument no longer comes as when due. The humiliating working condition is such that no worker will be proud to relate it to the public except when there is strife. Reasons advanced by some airlines’ inability to meet the salary demands of their workers may not be totally written off but a greater percentage of the problems have their roots in the management of the airlines. A good management team should have exceptional insight to see far ahead of an impending danger and takes steps to steer the airline from the catastrophe or mitigate the impact.

No one prays for accident to happen, be it road, sea, or rail, because of the attendant repercussion. All the jobs saved over the years could be wiped out as a result of one air-mishap. Many airlines have crumbled because of one accident. Every worker of the airline forms the chains of safety. A distortion in one affects the rest, in other words, every staff is important to the survival of the company. The sustenance of safety is a herculean task if those at the different levels of keeping the airline afloat are not remunerated adequately in accordance with the terms of agreement indicated in their rules of engagement. Insiders’ threat festers when airlines renege in their promise to meet the regular monthly salary of their workers. Today, there are airlines owing their workers up to six months and above. Aviation unions have to recourse to picketing these airlines as the last option to compel them to liquidate the arrears of salaries.

There is no doubt aviation in the country had grown over the past two decades on the domestic scene with our cargo traffic growing significantly by about 50% while aircraft movement experienced a growth rate of about 10%. Over the same period passenger traffic increased by about 40% suggesting that domestic airlines had gone through a period of boom.

In the same vein the owners of these semi-failed airlines live in opulence; they go about boasting they have the best airlines in this part of the world, that their importance is so great that they cannot be ignored while those that keep the airlines going are wallowing in abject poverty. One thing the boastful proprietors fail to know is that their ego is prone to being bruised if their airlines record any crash that results in loss of lives. Their names and that of their airlines have a place in the annals of airlines with fatal crashes. Africa has unenviable safety records. At least 2016 was accident-free in Nigeria. We think that positive record, which brightened the image of the country, should be maintained.

For an employer to deny an employee his/her wages is like denying him/her the right to live because  he/she has deployed his/her time and ebergy to discharge his/her duties with the hope of being remunerated promptly. It is from this emolument, for instance that the employees hopes to meet his responsibility to himself/herself and the entire family. Therefore, failure to meet his/her expectations may render him/her emotionally imbalanced. It has been scientifically proven that people under such psychological distress are unfit to handle machines (aircraft) if they are pilots or maintenance engineers. It is equally an undeniable fact that prompt payment of workers’ salaries is a motivator to ensure the continued service of the employee by the employer. It also represents the most important factor in the relationship which exists among the employer, employee and the state authorities, that is, the government. On the part of the employee prompt payment of salary is an incentive for increased productivity while on the part of the employer it is a determining factor of his/her capacity to employ the most qualified and competent skilled hands in the industry and to retain them in the long run.

Some industry watchers, however, describe the ugly trend of airlines owing their staff as a veritable invitation to disaster. “It is not good for a safety critical sector like aviation, it is not good for the country, “they told Aviationline.

The link between accident and safety is tenuous if neglected. No stone should be left unturned so that Nigerian airlines are not listed among those that contribute to air disaster in Africa. The regulatory agency must be firm in its policing roles. The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) is perceived to be weak that is why airlines under its watch that fail to pay their staff are still operating. It (NCAA) should bring out its claws and teeth when the need arises