How poorly paid Akwa Ibom airport workers shut down power, force Arik plane to return to Abuja

Arik Air plane

The workers are demanding better working conditions.

Last Friday’s power cut at the Ibom International Airport, which caused an Uyo-bound Arik Airline flight to abort landing and return to Abuja late in the night, was caused by protesting workers, demanding improved working conditions.

Although some of the protesting workers, suspected to have planned the incident, were arrested by security operatives, including the official in charge of power who was scheduled to be on duty when the incident occurred, angry Nigerians are demanding stiff sanctions against all officials found culpable.

The Arik Airline flight, which took off from the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, could not land at the Uyo airport following a sudden interruption in public power supply shortly after the pilot had received an all-clear signal and fully engaged its landing gear as the plane was approaching the final lap towards the runway.

Passengers on Flight W3 533 said what could have been another national tragedy in the aviation industry was narrowly averted, thanks to the vigilance of the pilot, who hurriedly terminated his landing plan and re-engaged the engine to quickly fly back to the sky.

A passenger on board the flight, which also conveyed about 50 others, including federal lawmakers and top government official travelling to Uyo for a retreat, said the plane was forced to hover in the sky for almost an hour as the authorities made efforts to provide alternative power for safe landing.

After hanging in the skies around the airport for about 55 minutes, hoping that normalcy would be restored and the runway lit for landing, the pilot decided to return to Abuja at about 9:35 p.m. when it became obvious that electricity supply would not be restored at the Akwa Ibom airport.

PREMIUM TIMES gathered that the workers had, early that Friday, embarked on an industrial action to protest against poor conditions of service after the management of the airport refused to dialogue with them on their demands.

Most of the workers are said to be contract staff with no condition of service since their employment, while others were either asking for the confirmation of their appointment or receiving salaries they wanted improved by the management.

Agencies decline jurisdiction

No official of the airport management was ready to speak when our reporter visited the airport in Uyo. The Corporate Communication manager, Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Yakubu Dati, said he would not comment on what the management of the airport would do to the masterminds of the power cut at the airport, as the facility is owned by a state government.

“Uyo Airport is owned by the Akwa Ibom State government. So, the administration of the airport does not fall under the jurisdiction of FAAN,” Mr. Dati said. “FAAN only runs Federal Government-owned airports. All the workers there (Ibom Airport) are not FAAN staff. So, we do not have any authority over them on any issue, including discipline and sanctions.”

Spokesperson of Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Fan Ndubueze, also spoke in the same vein, saying the authority of the agency does not go beyond exercising oversight functions as the regulatory authority.

“The NCAA just read in the newspapers about the incident in the media like every other person. We are still waiting for the official report from the Akwa Ibom State government detailing what happened. Till we receive the report, the NCAA will not take what happened seriously, because we will need to analyse why the breach happened.”

Mr. Ndubueze said the NCAA’s major concern is the safety of the passengers, saying the pilot should be commended for doing what is right in the circumstance by making the return flight to Abuja.

Also, Joe Obi, Senior Special Assistant to the Minister of Aviation said he was not in a position to comment on any line of action being contemplated by the government against perpetrators, as the Ministry is yet to receive any official report of what happened.

Akpabio approves payment

Meanwhile, in a bid to address some of the issues that resulted in the protest, the state government on Monday approved the payment of the workers’ salary arrears and placed embargo on employment by the Ibom International Airport Development Company Limited (IADCL).

Governor Godswill Akpabio, who made this known during a town hall meeting with members of the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE) and Air Transport Services Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (ATSSSAN) in Uyo, in the wake of the industrial action, condemned the action of the workers, pointing out that the aim of establishing the airport is yet to be realized, since most of the facilities were still under construction.

“The airport is meant to render repair and maintenance services within the region. Due to the stress being experienced by the teeming population of Akwa Ibom by going to Calabar to board planes, we have to commence passengers airlifting from the Uyo airport,” the governor said.

“We are yet to decide other services that will be operational as we are currently on expansion to accommodate international services. We are constructing a fuel dump and other facilities that are inherent in a world class airport.

The governor noted that most staff members of the airport are redundant, because the government is still constructing the facilities the workers are supposed to work with, adding that government cannot continue to employ until such facilities are completed.

In the meantime, he said government would to rationalise some of the staff to other agencies within the state civil service until the full aim of the airport is achieved, announcing the approval of N120 million for the payment of salary arrears owed the airport staff, while reinstating all those who were wrongfully dismissed.

The governor promised to set up a committee to look into the issues of rationalisation of the staff, promotion and increment of salaries in accordance with the state civil service rules, adding that all these are steps aimed at addressing the poor welfare condition of the workers and enhance their opportunities should the airport be taken over by the Federal Government.

The chairman of the workers association, Brendan Edidiong, appealed for the upward review of IADCL staff salaries to about 10 per cent higher than that of Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), while appealing for the release of promotion letters to staff of IADCL who are overdue for promotion.

The Chairman of Ibom Airport Implementation Committee, retired Air Commodore Idongesit Nkanga, urged the workers to abide by the rules of safety and security as prescribed by aviation authorities.

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