PENDULUM BY DELE MOMODU
Fellow Africans, let me start by making a confession. I was a big fan of Afriica World Airlines known in the aviation industry by the acronym AWA, when it started its humble operations in Accra, Ghana some years back now. I had been approached by one of its top staff, Tosan Woode, an extremely gifted personality in the regional aviation industry having worked in British Airways and Virgin Atlantic in Ghana. The passionate lady sold to me the idea of this new airline that would change the epileptic operations of most airlines on the west coast of Africa. Tosan is an incredibly smart marketer who is capable of selling a lean horse at a premium. She invited me on a test flight and although it took a while to get accustomed to its small operating aircraft, slowly but surely, I began to patronise the airline.
My first worry was therefore about the size of the airline’s aircrafts. They were tiny like mosquitoes by comparison to what I was used to. I felt that if one wanted to fly in smaller aircraft, then one should go in the luxury and comfort of a private jet. I asked when the planes would be upgraded to the types flown by Arik, Air Nigeria and later Medview on this route. Tosan assured me that this would happen before not too long. However, as it seemed that I was having an interminable wait for the spectacular to happen, I decided to dig deeper and make further enquiries as to when the waiting for bigger aircraft would be over. My independent investigation revealed that the airline was a joint venture with joint ownership by Ghanaian and Chinese investors. And I would not worry too much about this ordinarily, although I have always had concerns about the added value that Chinese investors bring to the African businesses that they partner or invest in. However, what I discovered, alarmingly for me, was that no such plan was in the works for any bigger aircraft, not even one, at least, not in the immediate future.
Nevertheless, the airline had a big advantage over its Nigerian counterparts, discipline, which meant punctuality, cleanliness and civility. The airline kept to time with frightening regularity compared to what we were normally used to on thee Lagos-Accra route. Passengers marvelled endlessly about the timing and wished and prayed that it would not go the way of others. The served snacks were neat and the juices were always chilled, except the water, which I gather was because a lot of people prefer room temperature water for health purposes. Later coffee and teas were introduced on some flights. Not a perfect airline, but we were grateful for its efficiency.
I tried my best to support the AWA dream, same way I supported Virgin Atlantic when it arrived our shores for serious business. Virgin soon entered into barter deals with Ovation International. We marketed the new airline to high heavens. Twice, I was invited to the home of its Chairman, Sir Richard Branson, in Holland Park, London. It was such fun and Virgin made the job easier by introducing newer aircrafts and spa services in its Upper Class cabin. It even rejigged its Premium Economy Cabin which it now calls Premium because it is a cut more than the usual Premium Economy cabins of other airlines. It was also on Virgin Atlantic that I first had in-flight WiFi connection although you had to pay for it in all cabins. Virgin Atlantic has a cheap messaging service which makes it all worthwhile. But it was not the case with AWA in terms of improvement to its fleet or its services, I guess because of the nature of the aircraft they obstinately and obdurately insist on deploying on such a prime and lucrative route as the Nigerian. AWA has simply refused to invest in comfortable aircrafts. The available ones are not exactly new or nearly new, but God’s case has no appeal. I understand though that maintenance is key for the airline and that provides some degree of comfort. The only strong point of the airline is that if you ever desire to arrive your destination timeously as planned, AWA was it.
AWA therefore very soon became the airline of choice from Accra to Lagos and Lagos to Accra. AWA virtually took over that route due to the virtual unseriousness of its Nigerian rivals. Unfortunately, those airlines have remained epileptic with worsening service conditions and in some cases they have become moribund on this mouth-watering route.
As normal with most successes engendered in our part of the world, AWA’s head began to swell. The Airline started expanding rapidly and spreading exponentially to other West African routes. It grabbed Abuja which used to be the exclusive preserve of ARIK. With such monopoly in its kitty, AWA and its owners and operators began to grow wings longer than that of its aircrafts and beards longer than that of Karl Marx. One particular lady, a flight attendant, became notorious for rudeness and uncivil manners. One day she yanked me off a flight in Accra because I insisted on having my hand luggage on board which she claimed was too big for the hat racks on the aircraft. All pleas that her colleagues usually create space or allowed passengers to place their hand luggage on the floor in front of them fell on deaf ears. I left the plane for her as I was not prepared to condone her unruly behaviour. I appreciate that ostensibly this was for passenger safety, including mine, but there was no basis for this as in the past and since then, I have not been challenged by anyone else but her about my hand luggage. Indeed, as I disembarked, all the ground staff exclaimed in unison “what is wrong with this girl that she’s always rude to passengers?”
I vowed not to fly AWA again, but some good friends prevailed on me and some staff promised to make sure it does not happen again. However, the confrontation with the same lady did recur. The next time she saw me on her flight, she was going to offload me, but for the prompt intervention of the Captain. She refused to touch my hand luggage despite the instructions of the Captain, until her colleague came to my rescue. I thought that our altercation had somehow ended and that I could henceforth be able to enjoy my flight in peace despite the lack of comfort because of the seat size. As the Yorubas say “ a nroju j’eko obun … On another occasion, I sat on seat 3A. She walked up to me and asked rudely, “do you know you’re sitting in an exit row seat? In case of emergency will you be ready to assist in prompt evacuation?” I nodded a yes and this lady shocked me and all the people near me to our marrows. “Speak with your mouth instead of nodding …” I just knew she had no redemption.
I came to the sad realization and the miserable conclusion that it wasn’t the fault of AWA. If our home airlines operated efficiently, no one would dare talk to us in such manner. I swallowed the insults and continued to fly AWA notwithstanding, because of their timeliness and my own scheduling issues. It was the same way Virgin Atlantic started misbehaving at some point by withdrawing all the privileges we enjoyed at the beginning including all the spa treatment, Nigerian cabin crew, gifts for top frequent fliers and so on. We also started going back to other airlines, and this helped me a lot as I discovered other African and European airlines, like RwandAir, Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and also Turkish Airlines. Of course the class and comfort offered by Emirates Airline is on another level where these airlines are concerned. Such is life. Travelling with those Airlines meant that I also had the opportunity of visiting the countries more, and take in the splendour of their cities. They have afforded me of seeing the squalor and woes in our country and I just pity my fellow countrymen because we are constantly being short-changed by our leaders.
As for AWA, it now operates about five daily flights to Lagos and two to Abuja. It operates domestic flights to Kumasi, Takoradi and Tamale. It now flies to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire. All these in some of the tiniest aircraft you will see used by a commercial airline. I am aware that these aircraft are cost efficient, but it must not always be about cost. Any airline on this route must also consider the comfort and sensibilities of its passengers. The fact that we seemingly have no choice does not mean we should be treated like the dregs of the earth. One would expect that the airline would invest in some bigger aircraft given the significant revenue increase it has enjoyed over the years. It can mix these with the smaller aircraft and still have effective and better synergy.
AWA has also partnered with some airlines to help distribute their cargoes across West Africa. It is the airlines tendency for unbridled and uncontrolled expansion without apparently considering the comfort and safety of its passengers that has become so worrisome. I am very sorry, this is the reason I decided to sound a note of warning and caution today. That AWA is biting more than it can chew.
I came to this sad conclusion early this week. I had planned to fly from Accra to Lagos last Wednesday. So we checked in at Kotoka International Airport. Everything seemed very fine until we were invited back to the check in counter and our boarding passes were withdrawn from us. The airline told us calmly that flights weren’t landing in Lagos. Wow, what’s this? I still did not smell a rat.
Then it was time for the next flight. What did we witness? Same routine, same ritual. Passengers kept piling up, flight after flight. They kept telling us they are sure there’ll be improvements, but only by Saturday. Yet they kept checking in, more and more people, and even selling fresh tickets to unsuspecting passengers. I decided we must put a stop to this nonsense before a monumental tragedy befalls Africa again.
AWA needs to slow down. Its desperation for expansion should never compromise safety and security of lives and property. AWA is clearly overwhelmed by its humongous operations. It cannot continue along this dangerous path without running into some form of calamity. I pray not because it has worked very hard to attain its current status. More importantly, I pray that such calamity does not involve loss of irreplaceable lives, because all this is avoidable. It must invest heavily in more and bigger and newer aircrafts. This penny-pinching cannot be allowed to continue unabated.
Using the incompetence at Murtala Muhammed as excuse and alibi is not right or justified. AWA should reduce its operations urgently to a more manageable one. We know that many of our airports are still very ineffective, are managed by incompetent people or lack proper technical facilities required of modern international airports. Airlines like AWA should not compound an already ugly situation.
In this regard, I note that many bigger airlines from America, Middle East and Europe confronted with the situation in Lagos, which was caused largely by ineptitude, and not simply the weather, turned back and headed to Ghana for succour. I must salute the Republic of Ghana for its conduct during this period. It has provided an airport that is the envy of many, not just because of the full international facilities it offers to the airlines, but also because of the competence, maturity and graciousness of its various staff, even in the wake of an avalanche of aircraft and passengers. The aviation authorities in Ghana surely deserve a standing ovation. I salute all those involved with the management and operations in the Kotoka International Airport Accra.