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Charter Airlines Defy Flight Ban, Fly Rich Nigerians Abroad

° charge passengers $4,000-$8,000 per seat to UK, others

Okechukwu Nnodim and Olaleye Aluko

Some charter airlines have begun offering services to members of the public despite a ban on international flights by the Federal Government due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sunday PUNCH has learnt.

It was also learnt that some commercial flights that were contracted by foreign missions to evacuate stranded citizens from Nigeria were also being used to convey passengers at an extra fee.

According to multiple Ministry of Aviation and airline sources, several Nigerians and foreigners have been travelling in and out of the country via the private charter and evacuation flights.

A top source at the Ministry of Aviation told Sunday PUNCH that the process of seeking approval from the ministry had become very easy and porous hence the current development.

While passengers with very deep pockets patronise charter airlines, others without the means join evacuation flights that have been commercialised.

“If you have a valid American residence/passport or British visa and the right money, I get you on a flight by Sunday morning,” a source in the ministry boasted.

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When asked to explain, he stated, “If you own a private jet, all you need to do is write a letter to the minister indicating that you need to travel for medical reasons. And you would be given approval almost immediately. Once you are given the approval, you can add people to the flight under the guise that they are your personal staff or family members.

“These people who are supposed family members or personal aides are actually passengers who could pay you between $4,000 and $8,000 and sometimes $14, 000 depending on your destination and the kind of aeroplane you are flying.”

The official explained that nobody really investigates who is being conveyed on the plane.

He recalled what happened in the case of Musician, Azeez Fashola, aka Naira Marley, who travelled with several others from Lagos to Abuja to attend a concert during the ban on local flights.

The official added, “If you recall the case of Naira Marley, Executive Jet Services which flew him had received approval from the ministry under the guise that it was flying an Appeal Court Judge, Justice Adefope Okogie, from Lagos to Abuja.

“The names of Naira Marley and nine others were on the list but different names were given to the control tower by the captain and everything went smoothly and they would have got away with it if not for the controversy generated by the concert. That is how things have been going on in the aviation sector lately.”

On the evacuation flights, the official further explained that some officials of foreign missions were colluding with some international commercial airlines to fly Nigerians in and out of the country.

He explained that when some flights come for evacuation, they also take some Nigerian citizens at a different and more expensive fee.

The official stated, “Most times, when they want to evacuate foreign nationals, the ambassador of the foreign country would write to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the approval is usually automatic, based on international law.

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“Once they get the approval, a letter is sent to the Ministry of Aviation which gives the final approval. These approvals are given automatically. Once the planes arrive, they evacuate their citizens along with Nigerians who have valid visas. Don’t you find it strange that more evacuations are going on now than during the lockdown itself?

“Have you asked yourself why during this ban on flights, several artistes and VIPs have been travelling to give birth abroad?

“I know several international airlines that have been doing this. The two biggest culprits are based in Western Europe. They come on a regular basis under the pretext that they want to evacuate and then move Nigerians along with them.”

A former chief executive officer of a local airline said many people he knew had been travelling in and out of the country in the past few months through the so-called evacuation flights.

The source said, “I have a friend that has travelled three times to the United States of America in the past four months. He just left Lagos last night again on one of the European airlines which have been running evacuation flights. He has American permanent residence too. So it is easy for him to join the evacuation flights.”

He added, “It is common knowledge. Why do you have more evacuation flights these days when the lockdown is over? Some of the foreign airlines have commercialised it, even though those approvals come from their foreign missions.”

Easy approvals for VIPs

A report by Sahara Reporters a few weeks ago showed that even during the lockdown, several VIPs and government functionaries took their families abroad.

For instance, the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele, moved his wife and two children to the UK on a chartered flight.

According to the manifest published by the media organisation, the jet owned by Executive Jet Services – which was later suspended for conveying Naira Marley – flew Emefiele’s wife, Mrs Margaret; and his sons – Godwin Pammichukwu Jnr. and Andrew Olisehike Emefiele on flight N104DA from Lagos to the UK on June 1, 2020. The pilot was identified as Captain Kolawole King.

Seyi Tinubu, the son of a former Governor of Lagos State, also travelled on a private jet – a Bombardier Express 7000 with registration number VP-CBT –on June 7, 2020 from Lagos to Stansted Airport, London, to witness the birth of his son, Tobias. The plane was flown by Captain Giannetakis Michail.

Popular actress, Omotola Jolade-Ekeinde, on July 19 posted a video on Instagram of how her husband, who is a pilot, flew home their children from abroad.

She wrote, “Thank you lord. My babies are home. When all fails and your dad has to fly a PJ (private jet) to come get you himself. Captain Matthew Ekeinde, na man you be. This is to appreciate you for being such a superhero. Thank you lord for journey mercies.”

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Booking a flight

One of our correspondents who posed as a businessman, reached out to a travel service firm, Etam Avitat Services Limited, on the availability of flights to the UK.

He was immediately informed that a flight would be available for 2.45pm on Saturday at a cost of $4, 500 and subsequently sent a Guaranty Trust Bank account number.

Our correspondent was informed that a negative COVID-19 test result would suffice but it was not compulsory.

Some other travel agencies organising such flights include April Travels Limited and which offers economy, premium economy and business class services.

Two travel agencies, Global Links and Services Limited and FlyBoku, confirmed to one of our correspondents on Friday that they were conducting evacuation (commercial) flights to London and South Africa respectively in separate inquiries.

An official of the Global Links and Services Limited told one of our correspondents on Friday that the Lagos to London flight was scheduled for August 2 and it was a charter flight with economy and business classes.

She said, “On Lagos to London for Monday, let me make some inquiries and get back to you. There are some things we are trying to sort out tonight (Friday). There is economy fare at N550,000 for adults, N499,000 for children and business class for N1.1m. Just put that at the back of your mind. Let me get back to you because of this Sallah, we will need to sort out some things quickly. One thing that is sure is that we will still go.

“If we don’t go on Sunday, we will go during the week by next week (this week). If you don’t hear from me on Friday, you will hear from me tomorrow (Saturday). Almost everything has been put in place. It is just because of the public holiday but let me just get back to you.

“For Lagos to London flight, you will not need the COVID-19 result but why we are asking for it is for the safety of the rest of the passengers.”

Meanwhile, the official at FlyBoku, said, “The one we did (on July 31) was from Johannesburg to Lagos. For now, we don’t have Lagos to Johannesburg.”

On the Fly Boku flyer obtained by our correspondent, the fare charged for South Africa to Lagos was $1,250.


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