Nigeria's largest airline halts domestic flights

Associated Press Modified: September 20, 2012 at 4:16 pm •  Published: September 20, 2012
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LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria's largest airline Arik Air Ltd. halted all its 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.

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.

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