Cameron Reaches Out to Jonathan over BA, Virgin Atlantic
The federal government may have to tactically back down on its hardline stance over the exorbitant airfares being charged on the Lagos/Abuja-London routes by British Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airways respectively,
Presidency sources said at the weekend that British Prime Minister David Cameron had reached out to President Goodluck Jonathan shortly after a 30-day ultimatum was given by Aviation Minister, Mrs. Stella Oduah, last month, to the UK carriers ordering them to lower their airfares or face a flight ban.
He was reported to have phoned Jonathan to assure him that the issue could be resolved within the mechanism of the Bilateral Air Service Agreement between Britain and Nigeria.
A source said Jonathan, after the telephone conversation with Cameron, urged Oduah to soft pedal on the issue that has pitted the two nations against each other.
Oduah had on March 26 given the airlines, a 30-day ultimatum, which will expire on April 26, to correct the distortion in the air fares being charged passengers from Lagos and Abuja to London, warning that failure to comply with the order would result in their ban from flying into the country.
She had argued that it was unfair for the British airlines to charge Nigerian passengers more than they do those from neighbouring West African countries.
The National Assembly has also intervened in the matter, warning the British airlines to end the regime of discriminatory airfares against travellers from Nigeria. It was learnt that Jonathan, during the telephone conversation with Cameron, assured him that his administration would not take any step that will jeopardise the cordial relationship between Nigeria and Britain.
Cameron and Jonathan in July 2011, during the British PM’s visit to Abuja, had signed a joint communiqué pledging to double bilateral trade between the two nations, which reached £4 billion in 2010, by 2014.
Before the phone discussion between the two leaders, Britain had warned that it would be forced to retaliate against Nigerian airlines, if the federal government carries out its threat to sanction BA and Virgin Atlantic.
It said banning the private airlines would amount to a “heavy-handed action that would be catastrophic.”
According to Britain, contrary to the impression created by Nigeria, only business and first class fares were more expensive in Nigeria than in its neighbouring countries, a reason it attributed to high demand for those seats.
A presidency source, who spoke on the issue, confirmed that premium cabin airfares on both airlines were high due to “price inelasticity”, as Nigerian passengers preferred to fly the British airlines for their journey to the United Kingdom.
“For most Nigerians flying overseas, the UK remains a favoured destination and because they find it convenient, that along with the safety record of the airlines, especially BA, has made them unresponsive to the high price of their tickets,” he explained.
He said the federal government through the aviation ministry will continue to explore avenues to get better deals for Nigerian travellers patronising both airlines through negotiation and by implementing policies to engender competition on the Lagos/Abuja-London routes.
Last October the aviation ministry had met with officials from Britain’s Department of Transport (DoT) to resolve the issue of landing slots for Arik Airways at the London Heathrow Airport.
During the meeting, the minister had broached the issue of airfare disparity between Nigeria and other West African countries charged by the British carriers, and had appealed to the DoT to compel BA and Virgin Atlantic to reduce their fares, especially for government officials, whom she claimed were the carriers’ largest customers out of Nigeria.
However, the DoT officials informed the minister that they were not in a position to determine the airfares of BA and Virgin Atlantic, reminding her that it is a commercial decision made by the airlines