Nigerian Boeing customer halts domestic flights

LAGOS, Nigeria — Nigeria’s largest airline, Arik Air, halted all domestic flights indefinitely Thursday as its leaders alleged government corruption made it impossible for the carrier to fly, after officials raided and disrupted its flights without explanation.

Arik Air’s top executives told journalists that employees of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria raided its operations at Lagos’ Murtala Muhammed International Airport and gave those waiting on its flights nearby conflicting and disparaging information about the airline. The airport authority later denied its employees were involved, blaming the raid on unions upset over unpaid salaries.

The conflicting claims add more confusion to the aviation industry in Africa’s most populous nation, where few of its nine domestic airlines are now operating and distrust remains after a commercial jetliner crashed in June, killing more than 160 people.

As of Aug. 31, Arik Air had unfilled orders for 17 Boeing Co. aircraft, including seven 787s, two 747-8s and eight 737s.

Arik Air cancelled its flights Thursday after the raid on its offices that saw men rampaging through its maintenance hangar near the airport’s runway. Arik managing director Chris Ndulue blamed the federal airport authority for the raid and called it a “calculated attempt to punish the airline and tarnish its image.”

Aniete Okon, the company’s vice chairman, blamed the Nigeria’s Aviation Ministry and Aviation Minister Stella Oduah for trying to stop the airline from flying. Okon also implied Oduah had a financial interest in seeing the airline fail, but declined to elaborate.

“If it continues unchecked, there will be no future for the aviation industry in this country,” he said.

Joe Obi, a spokesman for the Aviation Ministry, later told The Associated Press that Arik Air’s allegations were “completely untrue, unfounded and malicious.” He said Arik was using the disruption of their flights as an excuse to try and escape paying money they owed to the federal government.

“The allegation is just a way to divert attention away from the issue at stake,” Obi said.

Ndulue acknowledged Thursday that the airline owes millions of dollars to the federal government and said the company continues to pay it back on a monthly basis.

In a separate statement, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria blamed the raid on Arik Air on unions upset over not receiving their salaries and benefits from the company.

“The management wishes to inform the public that it was not aware of any plan by the unions to embark on the said industrial action as the management considers it to be counter-productive,” the statement read.

Arik Air, a private firm born out of the pieces of country’s former national airline, has grown into an international air carrier over the last few years, with direct flights to both London and New York. The airline has more than 20 aircraft in its fleet and has ordered more than a dozen more. It also provides more flights domestically than any other carrier in Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million people that’s growing more reliant on air travel.

Rumors about Arik Air’s finances have clouded the company’s reputation in the past, as financing remains difficult in the country. On Thursday, union members demonstrated in the pouring rain outside of the domestic terminal Arik Air uses, with one member holding up a sign gleefully noting that the airline halted its flights.

Olayinka Abioye, a union leader nearby, said Arik owed the federal government millions of dollars and had not been regularly paying its staff, another consistent problem in the aviation industry here.

“There’s so much corruption in this country and these (airline owners) have ties to people in power,” Abioye said.

Arik Air officials declined to answer when asked if they owed their staff any outstanding salaries. Its strongest competitor, Air Nigeria, recently collapsed with employees there saying they were owed at least four months of pay.

Other airlines appear to be grounded over financial concerns and other matters. Arik’s suspension of its flights leaves just three carriers flying and unable to meet the nation’s growing demand for flights. That could put further pressure on an industry where corners have been cut in the past and pilots feel pressure to fly no matter what.

Nigeria also has suffered a series of fatal plane crashes over the last decades, with authorities never offering clear explanations for why the disasters happened.

In June, a Dana Air MD-83 crashed about five miles north of Lagos’ airport, killing 153 onboard and 10 people on the ground. While an initial report suggests both engines failed on the flight, officials haven’t explained why that happened, though they recently cleared the airline to fly again.

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