by Chris Bamidele
I have never been outside Nigeria, so I do not have another basis for comparison, but I do not like flying an aircraft in Nigeria. Heck, I do not even like travelling except it is very important. Travelling on Nigerian roads and flying the airspace is not attractive to me. I have been living in Lagos since 1994, and apart from occasional visits to Osun State to see my grandparents, or work related movement, I rarely leave Lagos. I don’t go on holiday and I don’t attend parties or events outside Lagos. It’s a personal decision.
Sometime ago, I started doing freelance work in the media, and the travelling around Nigeria became a necessity. One of those jobs took me to Calabar where I have lived for a year and a half now. In that period, I have taken to the skies between ten and fifteen times, for both official and personal reasons.
Before now, I have been treated shabbily by airlines, got my flight delayed, been spoken to rudely by some of their staff at the check – in counter, but my experience with Aero Contractors on the 3rd of September, 2014 on my Calabar to Lagos flight was the height of it. And then I encountered the typical Nigerian mentality of “Let’s just thank God and move on”.
My flight was booked well ahead of time for some reasons, and the departure time on my ticket was 2:25 pm. Before leaving for the airport, I checked online to see if the departure time had been changed. The flight had been rescheduled for 4 pm. I had not received any text message to that effect, so I decided to get to the airport on time, at least so I could check in and maybe do some writing while waiting for the plane to come.
Some Italian guy was very angry, he sounded funny as he tried to express his anger in English. “Me got flight Italy 9 pm in Lagos. Who pay my money? Who take me there?” he fumed in a rather sexy Italian accent. The Station manager simply kept begging until someone asked him what would happen to our accommodation for the night.
The taxi dropped me off at about 2 pm at the Margaret Ekpo International Airport in Calabar. It was raining as it always does in Calabar at this time of the year, and the whole check-in area was littered with buckets because some parts of the roof were leaking. I ignored all of that and proceeded to the counter which had been opened for check-in, got my boarding pass with no hassles and the departure time indicated 3:20 pm (rescheduled again, typical). I shrugged and moved on to the departure lounge.
I decided to eat at the only shop that sells snacks at the lounge, and while having the snack, the PA system informed us that the plane to take us to Lagos will land at 4:30 pm. The plane landed and we boarded, more than 120 of us. However, we did not take off immediately, instead, we sat in the plane, without air-conditioning. Thirty minutes later, I was sweating profusely. The entire plane was stuffy, the man sitting beside me, unfortunately had the kind of body odour which can annihilate an entire village, and this was not helping matters. I prayed earnestly for the aircraft to take off so that I could stick my nose towards the glass as much as possible for the hour long journey.
Just then, my prayer was answered but not the way I wanted. The captain’s voice came through the PA system announcing that there was a mechanical/technical hitch with the ground equipment needed to power the aircraft and we would have to de-plane while they fixed it. I heaved a sigh of relief as I carried my hand luggage and headed for the departure lounge with the other passengers.
After a seemingly endless wait, by which time it was getting dark and the rain was still pouring, the Station Manager, who introduced himself as Mr Ajibade came to inform us that the plane would not be able to fly that night. He then suggested that we all go home and return by 7 am the next day to check in again for our flight, which he then informed us had been rescheduled to take off at 9 am!.
When a few of us began to explode, he added that we should thank God that the fault was discovered while on the ground and not in the air. According to Mr. Ajibade, God could have been trying to avert something disastrous.
That was when I exploded. “How dare you hang this on God’s neck? What has God got to do with your inadequacies…?”
I kept ranting but to my surprise, other passengers (Nigerians) were telling me to stop being ungrateful. To just thank God and come back tomorrow, they asked me if I would have preferred the aircraft to crash after take-off; if I would rather die than to be late for whatever I was going for. I told them I’d rather be alive and be treated like human being. I also reminded them that death is not limited to a plane crash, a drunk driver could hit me, an Ebola patient could decide to pee on me, that you just may not have the luxury of choosing which one, and it’s a matter of time before one eventually dies.
Like me, an Italian passenger was very, very angry. Trying to express his anger in English, he said, “Me got flight Italy 9 pm in Lagos. Who pay my money? Who take me there?” he fumed. Mr. Ajibade simply kept begging until someone asked him what would happen to our accommodation for the night. Then he said the airline would not be responsible as the incident fell under “force majeure”…!
I sparked once again. “WTF is force majeure in all this matter? Force majeure forced you to reschedule your flight till evening knowing fully well that Calabar Airport cannot operate night flights due to no electricity on the tarmac…?” I made up my mind not to leave the airport until I received some form of compensation no matter how small from the airline, whether officially or not.
Less than an hour later, almost all the passengers had left, then a blogger I’d met earlier came to ask me what my plan was. I told her to follow me if she was interested. We both went to the Station Manager office and oh boy! I gave them trouble. (If you fly Aero to Calabar, ask Mr. Ajibade to tell you) To cut the long story short, I gota small recompense, the blogger got some as well. Though not enough to cover our hotel bills, we were the only two passengers who stood till the end and got something.
I arrived at the airport at 7 am as instructed and we were promptly checked in. The scanner conveyor belt was not working, so we had to open our luggage and bring out the contents for the Custom Officers to inspect. After checking in, the wait started again! They brought the equipment to fix the plane, and it turned out to be the wrong one. So they had to wait for another plane to bring the right one from Lagos or Port Harcourt.
I simply made up my mind to stay and wait it out. I didn’t have any urgent appointment in Lagos but I pitied those who had missed their flights the day before and some who were about to miss another one. A particular PDP leader in Lagos that I met the previous day told me he was rushing back in time for his daughter’s wedding slated for noon that day, but as things stood, he wasn’t going to be there. A lot of people had international flights to catch. A couple, with a beautiful set of twins was going for an embassy interview in Lagos and so many urgent and important cases like that. But the Aero staff simply did not care. They did not bother to send another aircraft from anywhere to come and airlift us, they simply wanted to fix the same one and we just had to wait for them.
When it was apparent that we were not going to leave on time, and Arik was scheduled to leave at 1:20 pm, some passengers started asking for refund and got it. But once Arik noticed people were getting refunds and buying their own tickets, they jerked up the price. The last person I spoke to bought her ticket for 32,000 Naira. One way to Lagos, economy! I could understand the people who bought that ticket for that price, because if I had an urgent appointment in Lagos, I would buy too without any complaint. But since I didn’t have any, I chose to wait and I told the Aero staff that the only way I would not be on their next flight to Lagos would be if they shut down their operations. “I don’t care it if it had been fully booked online or not” I told them. Around 11 am, they brought their normal in-flight snacks for us, without the bottled water though, just the snacks and that fruit juice.
Arik’s plane, picked its passengers and left. At 2 pm, our plane was declared ready, and we boarded. As I approached my assigned seat, the man with the sickening body odour was in his seat already. I looked around and thankfully there were empty seats on the plane, so I just smiled at him and told him he could take the window seat while I look for somewhere else to sit. He smiled back. I settled in my new seat, waiting for the aircraft to take off. As soon as it did, I slept. When I woke up, we were descending into Lagos; I asked the lady beside me if I had missed the inflight snacks because I was sleeping, she told me there were none. The airline insisted we had taken our inflight snacks while waiting at the departure lounge!
I couldn’t believe my ears, but let’s just thank God we are not dead.
Chris Bamidele tweets from @DeGreatest2 and blogs at www. degreatest2.wordpress.com.