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Flying Scared Onboard Local Airline in Nigeria
The seed that made my fears grow was planted before I got on the plane. It was last Christmas, and my destination was to Owerri, in Eastern Nigeria.
Above the ticket office, I paid an excess baggage fee and checked in my bags. Further down the hall and to the right was the escalator that took me up to the second floor. There, on the second floor, my hand luggage went under the scanner and my body searched. Security clearance over, I put my shoes, my belt, my hat back on, picked up my hand luggage and walked a short distance to sit in one of the shiny metal chairs.
Since I got in early, a full hour before boarding, I started reading a novel. Thirty minutes after my reading, I heard my name announced over a megaphone, as well as two other names. The announcer ordered us to come down to the registration desk.
Still in my seat, I waited and watched to see who my companions would be. A tall, thin man rose from the seated crowd. He walked away. After a while I followed, reasonably ten steps behind. We passed the corner next to the security post and went down the escalator, and then walked to the check-in counters, behind which was a luggage room.
“I’ve been told to get down,” said the thin man to one of the airline staff standing sentinel outside the baggage claim area.
“Don’t worry about them,” the sentinel replied to the thin man. Suddenly, and without further explanation, the thin man turned and left. For a second I was tempted to join him, because they had called us together, our fate joined at the hip, I reasoned. As I wondered whether to follow the tall man or not, curiosity took over. It would be better to know the purpose of the call. I ignored the sentry’s advice and went into the back room instead.
There were three men in the room, two of them were shuffling bags on the conveyor belt and the third was sitting on a small wooden stool. Around him were boxes and luggage belonging to other travelers.
“Is this your bag, sir?” said the seated man, pointing with his finger.
“Yes, it’s my bag,” I replied.
“What’s in it?”
“My belongings – you can open it if you want.”
“No, Oga, merry Christmas.” In addition to the seasonal greeting, the man began to smile and continued to wish me well. If there was anything illegal or dangerous in my luggage, the staff didn’t let me know. Therefore neither my luggage nor I deserved extra attention. However, any prolonged argument might have escalated the situation so, with a flash of a thousand-naira bill, I secured my freedom.
Back on the escalator, I returned to the top floor, ready to go through security a second time. The staff at the security desk said to me, “Have you gone through security before?”
“Yes,” I said, and I was let in, back to the waiting area, without repeated searching or knocking. Scary, I swore to myself. It was at this time that the seed of fear began to grow and take root. Any miscreant determined to wreak havoc would have exploited the lax security procedure.
I couldn’t help but think about how pervasive this attitude of avoiding procedures can be throughout the local aviation system.
By now, my senses were on full alert. Where a rooster roams, there are many more. I looked around, and the passenger waiting area was in a mini-riot. Every five or ten minutes, scores of waiting passengers would rush any person in uniform to inquire about the status of their flight. Is the announcement of a trip to Abuja, to Enugu, to Owerri, one would ask? Confusion was everywhere. Top ads were never clear. Information about flight delays did not come immediately – in fact, there was a general lack of diligence in informing passengers at all. Not knowing if the mess was limited to baggage and security or spreading to the entire system worried me.
My concern is that the wrong that is seen in the performance of these airlines may pale in comparison to what is not seen. Yes, there have been some improvements over the years, but these improvements are not enough when it comes to life or death. Gone are the days when passengers loaded or picked up their bags directly from the plane, but so far progress is not enough.
Why would one airline staff announce that a passenger should come to the counter, and another person reject the announcement? Perhaps a lack of oversight, the extent and depth of which no one knows.
Nigerians don’t want to know the health of the local air force only when a plane falls from the sky. Now is the time to ask and demand compliance with strict procedures. Which experts ensure that airlines keep their planes in optimal readiness to fly at all times? Just because the planes fly and land doesn’t mean they meet maintenance standards. Nothing prevents officials from delaying aircraft maintenance to maximize profit. A system that allows a one thousand naira ticket to evade baggage inspection could easily allow one million naira to delay or avoid routine plane checks. Public access to the maintenance records of these airlines is justified.
My experience while on board was somehow different though. Getting on the plane somewhat calmed my fears. The crews were professional, and passengers treated with respect. A voice from the cabin apologized for the delay and promised a pleasant flight.
The seat assigned to me was by the window, but a man was already sitting there when I arrived. Seeing me, the man made a half-hearted effort to get out, but, as fear seized me, I stopped him and instead took his seat, which was in the middle. From where I sat, my eyes searched for any signs of a system that wasn’t working. I found a crack in the back of a seat diagonally across from me. The floor of the corridor was clean but dusty. All these to me are further signs that the local airline systems and devices in Nigeria may not be working as exactly as pictured.
My mind began to wander backwards, and I remembered the commotion I went through before I got on the plane, the unnecessary announcement for me to go back to the check-in desk, and the failure of the security staff to retrain me when I did. came back
Forty five minutes was all it took for the plane to reach Owerri. On board, the flight, drinks and snacks served took my mind off my fear temporarily.
After seven days in eastern Nigeria, I was ready for a return flight. At Samuel Mbakwe airport, where I was waiting for my plane, the electricity went out twice in one hour. Then, I boarded the plane, unsure if the light would go out in the plane the same way.
Halfway to our destination, at high altitude, the pilot began to make an announcement, but the voice was muffled and hard to hear. I turned to my neighbor on the right and asked what he thought of the incomprehensible announcement.
“It’s because the plane is traveling very fast,” he replied. My heartbeat started to skip, and I must have looked as pale as the inside of a banana.
“Don’t worry,” the man told me, “we’ll land safely.”
Wake up, fellow citizens! There is a lot to worry about on local air flights in Nigeria. It is my heartfelt wish and prayer that all who travel with the many airlines arrive safely at their destinations. Therefore, airline employees and Inspectors should undergo repeated weekly training and refresher courses. Records of employee training and airline inspections should be made public for all to inspect. Let’s prevent a tragedy before it happens.
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