FLYING IN TEARS

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Some airlines should be sanctioned for operational laxity, writes Sonnie Ekwowusi

Last week I flew Arik in tears. What a harrowing experience! Not the first time flying Arik. A few years ago, I flew Benin-Lagos on Arik. It was a horrible flight. Why? As the plane was about to take off, a middle-aged lady passenger on board burst out in sobering prayer. “In Jesus name, we pray! In the mighty name of Jesus, we pray! “Amen!”, all the passengers yelled in unison to my utter consternation. “…Father, even as we embark on this journey to Lagos grant us thou journey mercies….”

I was perplexed. I turned and looked at the passenger sitting by my righthand side. Our eyes met. He too was surprised by what was happening. “So, they are now allowing them to preach on board?”, I asked him. He nodded regretfully. “I thought preaching was only allowed in those luxurious buses plying the South-East routes”. No sooner had the aircraft gained altitude than it started jerking. Passengers on board started screaming, beseeching God for help. Perhaps that was why the middle-aged lady led us in prayer shortly before departure. But a consoling voice soon came. It was the voice of the pilot requesting all passengers on board to quickly put on their seat belts because we were experiencing a severe turbulence. That turbulence lasted until the plane landed at the Lagos domestic Airport.

This time around, I was heading for Abuja. I got to the airport in good time only to discover to my chagrin that all morning and afternoon flights to Abuja had been cancelled for that day, of course, without prior notices to customers. We were all left stranded at the airport lobby and waiting room. After two hours of roaming around, a staff appeared from nowhere and requested all intending passengers to Abuja to write their names on detached pieces of paper. We all complied. Then after about an hour, an official announcement came to the effect that all Arik flights had been cancelled and rescheduled for 6.10 pm and 7.30 pm respectively for that day, and, furthermore, that all of us should converge at a certain counter to ascertain whether or not we were “qualified” to be issued with boarding passes. Suddenly there was a stampede. All passengers started running towards the said counter with their luggage. No COVID-19 protocols observed. No social distancing. No face masks worn. On getting to the counter, the young lady and two young men on duty started calling our names, one after the other, as if Arik was doing us a favour and giving us boarding passes to heaven. When a passenger’s name was called, he or she was required to answer loud and clear, “present” as if he or she was before a teacher in a classroom. Mind you, all this while Arik did not deem it fit to apologise to us for the great damage it had inflicted us let alone offer us breakfast or lunch. We were all hungry and frustrated. I was hungry and tired. And a plate of rice and drinkable water at the airport cost about N4, 000.

The saddest aspect was that on my return trip from Abuja, Arik again cancelled all flights without prior notices to passengers and without tendering any apology. Again I spent the whole day at the airport. Thank God I had my laptop with me. I worked and worked. And when tiredness crept in I stood up and strolled around the open space to stretch my tired legs and ease off my painful waist. Boarding eventually commenced at 7.30 p.m. Boarding over, we discovered that the plane air-conditioners were not cooling. We were sweating profusely. In order to get some air to stay alive we began fanning ourselves with anything we could lay hands on. On noticing our distressed condition, one of the air hostesses announced that the air-conditioners would start cooling in 20 minutes after the plane had taken off. I managed to control my temper. Anyway, the plane finally arrived in Lagos at 9. 45 p.m.

The truth of the matter is that our aviation industry is overdue for a major overhaul. The federal government should not wait for another plane to crash before carrying out this urgent assignment. It is obvious that the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) are inefficient. You see, aircraft used for domestic flights in Nigeria operate like Lagos “molue” buses. No sooner had a plane taxied to a stop at the runway than it was immediately “loaded” with new passengers and directed to fly immediately without checks on the plane as required by international aviation servicing and checking standards. Passengers are frequently switched from one plane to the other. Flights are randomly delayed or cancelled with impunity. The impression I get is that FAAN and NCAA are inefficient otherwise how can you explain that over the years domestic flights in Nigeria have been randomly delayed or cancelled without sanctions from the regulators?

Investigations reveal that the ADC plane crash of 7th November 1996 was caused by conflicting signals from the air traffic control. Therefore effective communication between the air traffic controllers and the pilot and crew must be guaranteed. Also investigations reveal that the Dana plane crash of 2012 was caused by engine failure. Let there be functional radars at our airports. Aircraft should be subjected to comprehensive routine checks (using the standard check lists) before take-off. No animals on the runways. No pot holes on the runways. Routine aviation training should be organised for pilots, crew and aviation and aircraft maintenance staff. We need incorruptible FAAN and NCAA which will ensure that airlines operating in Nigeria comply with international aviation standards.