Wednesday, January 18, 2023 2:33 pm
By Dele Cole
THE flight from Abuja to Lagos was scheduled for 6:30 p.m.; we left Katampe at 3 p.m. and arrived at the Abuja Airport about half an hour later. Just before the toll gate at the airport, there was a security checkpoint with military, police, etc.
We proceeded to the departure gate, passing through a road flanked on both sides by massive Chinese constructions of a new terminal.The Chinese have been reputed to be first class builders of infrastructure such as airports, railways, and roads. In Nigeria, our experience does not support this estimation.
The Chinese have been at the airport in Abuja for upwards of three years, and it is not clear exactly what they are building or how long it will take. One thing is clear: construction is a hindrance to departures from the airport. On this particular day, it took us well over an hour to navigate from the toll gate to the departure entrance.
I had dispatched my PA and a staff member to ensure that we got to the Ibom Air departure check-in station. And since I was an invalid, I needed a wheelchair, which they provided. I got to the departure lounge with the wheelchair a good one hour before departure. My forerunners had attempted to check me in, but the Ibom Air check-in officer, rightfully refused to check me in until he saw me, even after seeing my ID.
There was a small queue in front of me. The station manager, for some inexplicable reason, decided that the flight was closed. It was about 5 0’clock for a flight at 6:30pm. Nevertheless, they were checking other passengers in behind me. The supervisor ignored me for 15 minutes. He eventually came to me to say the flight was closed.
It was evident that this was not so, as other people behind me had been checked in. He then volunteered to check me in to Lagos with Arik, which was the next flight. My unpleasant experience with Arik notwithstanding, I went to the Arik counter, only to be told the cost of the flights for myself and my aide was N240,000.
I thought this was exorbitant, whereupon the Arik supervisor called on a number of people milling around. Two of them came to see me and told me that they had two seats for me at Azman Air and pushed me towards the check-in counter at Azman Air. Azman Air was an all-economy flight, and after about 10 to 15 minutes, he came out with the Azman supervisor and two or three well-dressed gentlemen who seem to inhabit the airport.
They obviously were not staff of any of the airlines but had first class connections with the supervisors of various airlines. These guys produced two economy tickets, for which they demanded N100,000 each for myself and my PA. I remonstrated, that I thought the fare was exorbitant, but they kept insisting. It was getting dark. I had the choice of either going back home and coming the following day or meeting their demands.
I gave them N100,000 each for myself and my PA, but they will not hand over the boarding passes because they were demanding to be paid for securing the seats. I refused, but a small crowd had started gathering, including the supervisor from Ibom Air and his counterparts from Arik Air and the supervisor from Azman, who were insisting that I pay them something extra for securing the seats. It was well past 7 0’clock; my driver had gone home, and I was left with the choice of paying the touts or going home with another taxi, with the inherent danger that this might entail. In the end, I gave them N50,000 and boarded the plane for Lagos.
A little while later, I had occasion to go to Abuja again. These agents saw me and greeted me like a long lost brother. “How are you, sir? Where are you going, sir?” I smiled and told them I was going to Lagos. The Dana check-in supervisor asked for my luggage, and I told him I had none, just a carry-on, and he said that according to Dana rules, I cannot fly with a bag that is more than 6kg.
By this time, there was a commotion, and I moved aside on my wheelchair so as not to obstruct other passengers. I pointed out to the supervisor that other passengers had similar luggage, some with two items, without the hassle of trying to force them to check in their luggage. This matter escalated, and again a small crowd gathered. I tried to place a call to the owners of Dana Airlines but had no luck, Then I placed a call to one of the Dana Airlines supervisors I used to know. He called someone else, and within a short time, the matter was resolved. Then I boarded my flight to Lagos.
Almost every person had similar luggage or bigger luggage than mine, so I couldn’t figure out why I was having this kind of difficulty. On arrival in Lagos, because I needed a wheelchair, I had to wait for all the passengers to disembark. My idle mind started counting passengers with hand luggage similar to mine or even bigger. By the time I counted 37 passengers with luggage similar to mine, I gave up. But not without pointing out to anyone who was listening what my predicament had been.
It is possible that something about my personality will stand out or that I will draw unwanted attention. All the officers and their touts may see me as an easy mark, liable to produce money with the slightest of pressure.
It is entirely possible that these incidents were only one of a kind and that I was singularly unlucky in running into this kind of person. However, one thing is clear: there are too many touts in our airports who collude with the airport authorities and the check-in agents of the airports. The touts and the agents are on very familiar ground.
I have been going to Abuja since it became the federal capital. All our airports are replete with an extraordinary number of touts, who prey on passengers at any given opportunity.
Nigeria has been singularly unfortunate in the various people who have been made ministers of aviation, general managers of airports, and several other top managers in the airline industry. There is no effective reporting system, which might reduce obvious areas of corruption and bad management.
The airline business is a very sleek and efficient organisation everywhere else in the world except Nigeria. There must be well over 30 airlines that have operated and died in Nigeria. Airports are a graveyard of discontinued airlines and aircraft. Compare this with the success of Emirates, Qatar, Etihad, Kenya Ethiopian and South African Airlines.
One airline minister attempted to convert the parking lot outside the Murtala Muhammed International Airport into a hotel; another minister owns a service company that delivers catering services at the airport: and another owns aviation storage facilities at the airport. All the ministers and officials are reputed to receive handouts from operating airlines, as are several government officials on security services, baggage handling companies, and all the ancillary services within the airport spaces.
Nearly all the airlines operated by Nigerians have been taken over by AMCON without any visible improvements. Now the sceptre of another national airline carrying the flag of Nigeria looms before us. The aviation ministry announced a few months ago that it had contracted consulting services for international airlines for several billions of naira. That, in my humble opinion, is a waste of money; it will end up in a dunghill like its predecessors.
Moreover, this exercise will increase our unacceptably high debt rates without producing any conceivable results. The airline industry is symptomatic of the rest of our economy: “overborrowing, underpaying, wasteful, inefficient, unverifiable Alibaba, and the 40 thieves.”.