by Ifeyinwa Mbakogu
On November 5 2013 I boarded an Arik airplane flight to Uyo, Akwa-Ibom State alongside other passengers that included some Nigerian journalists. Prior to that torturous journey, Arik sent a text message alerting passengers on the scheduled 10:45am flight of a 15minutes delay. Though I receive such messages all the time on domestic flights within Nigeria, I was still glad it was sent to me. I was sure I would receive another message warning of another 30 minute delay before reaching the airport.
When I got to the airport, I rushed immediately to the check in counter where I observed that we were checking in with passengers on the Calabar route. I was travelling to Uyo for research purposes, not surprisingly, I had luggage loaded with books and research tools to be used by my target population, children. I was alarmed to discover that each excess kilo cost 500Naira! Since I had an excess of 23kg, the female attendant informed a concerned passenger that came to the counter with me and I that my total excess luggage cost was 13,500Naira. I questioned the total but assumed that there were additional airline charges. I was given a ticket detailing my total excess luggage to be sent for payment at another counter. I was told before leaving that my luggage will be left at the check in counter until my excess luggage was paid for. I was a bit reluctant to leave my luggage unattended until the lady assured me of their safety. I dashed to the payment counter, gave the man at the desk 14,000Naira and was upset when he asked for 500Naira change. In suppressed rage, I informed the man that I was angry at having to pay so much excess luggage charges and cannot understand why I should be asked to provide change for a service provision company. The man was apologetic. I was shocked on returning to the check in counter to be informed by the same lady that my luggage had been passed to the plane. I asked her why she should do this without informing me or seeking my consent. Of course, I only got a nod of the head and the repeated response that my luggage had been dispatched. I told her that after my check in experience, I will not be flying Arik airline. She responded with amazing certainty that I will.
Next, I moved to the gate where I was met by an immigration officer that checked for identification and other travel details. Just when I was entering the surveillance section, I noticed the young man from the excess luggage payment counter calling out to me. I stopped and he shyly informed me that I had overpaid by 1000Naira. There was no time to go through my receipt to ascertain what my actual payment should have been and why 1000Naira was returned to me. Nevertheless, I was grateful that he was honest enough to return 1000Naira to me. I collected my money, thanked him and proceeded to the surveillance section.
After the screening process which I have never adjusted to, I joined other passengers at the airport lounge. While we sat at the airport lounge, Arik made a further thirty minute flight delay announcement. Patiently, as we sat at the airport lounge, we made friends, chatted about this and that.
At about 11:20am, we heard not through the public address system but from a man straining his voice to the limit in the large airport lounge that the flight to Uyo will be boarding immediately. As we joined the queue, the same man announced that passengers to Calabar should join the Uyo-bound queue as it will be a combined flight for passengers travelling to Uyo and Calabar. Of course, all we could do was mutter our surprise. We are all slaves to the system. Then again, historical records show that slaves to a system have revolted occasionally, and the erratic service delivery system in Nigeria is one people should speak out against.
After another screening exercise, we were asked to move over to the left of the aircraft to identify our luggage. I became upset on sighting my luggage. My black suitcases with blue trimmings were looking like luggage that had been in use since 2003. I was so shocked that I had to complain to one of the luggage attendants who referred me to his boss with that boss referring me to another boss. By the time I was referred to the third boss, I was really tired.
The third boss muttered an apology and promised to look into the matter. While the exchange on the luggage was going on, I was also trying to get someone to note that I had identified my luggage; this was yet another helpless process because everyone kept saying that they were going to call the appropriate personnel.
When we boarded the plane, we had to go through the twenty minutes process of settling in. Bearing in mind that passengers were only allowed 6kg of hand luggage into the plane, more than half the passengers could not find space to stow their individual hand luggage in the overhead compartments. I called on a cabin crew several times to assist me with finding a space for my knapsack which weighed less than 6kg because it contained only my laptop, prayer book and some travel documents. He gave me a fleeting glance and asked that I stow the luggage under my seat or where my legs should be. I tried doing this and found that storing the laptop bag under my seat inconvenienced the passenger seating behind me while storing the luggage where my legs should be inconvenienced me a great deal. When I pointed out to the same cabin crew that I had slight disabilities and something should be done about creating some space in the overhead compartment, he was not helpful. After listening to our exchange, the passenger sitting on the same row as I was, got up and assisted in managing the situation. As for the cabin crew, I saw him moving behind me running around to attend to a man that I was informed is a Nigerian musical artiste.
When the safety instructions were completed, we took off at about 12noon. The plane made a lot of rattling sounds during takeoff and mid-flight but I thank God that everything went smoothly. I was rather surprised that the captain never bothered at takeoff to apologise for the flight delays on board the aircraft. About thirty or forty minutes into the flight, we finally heard from the captain. He apologised for the flight delays, informed us about landing in Calabar in a few minutes where we would pick some passengers headed for Lagos. We simply relaxed for we had no say in the matter.
When we landed in Uyo, we relaxed as the Calabar bound passengers disembarked. We waited about twenty minutes for the Lagos bound passengers to board the plane, settle in and like us, await their fate. It was when one of the Lagos bound passengers on the left side of the aisle started asking why the plane was so full and where the strange faces he met on the flight were bound that it dawned on us that the Arik airline officials in Calabar did not inform these poor souls that they will be flying to Lagos en route Uyo. This was turning out to be a taxi or Molue with no fixed route. At takeoff, the captain announced that the flight will be making a brief stopover at Uyo to drop off the passengers from Lagos and possibly pick a new set of passengers. We were also informed that the travel time was ten minutes. It was a relief to hear this.
When we disembarked at Akwa Ibom international airport, after surviving two unnerving take offs and landings in two torturous hours, I was the most relieved passenger! Directed by my friendly neighbour during the flight, I was led into the airport and towards the luggage conveyor belt. But the drama had only just begun. It started with the commotion around the entrance to the airport. When I heard the raised voices of some of my fellow passengers, I knew that something awry had occurred. I noticed that the now agitated crowd was following a man in a suit with a badge slung round his neck toward the luggage conveyor belt. The visibly agitated man pleaded for quiet as he passed on the bit of upsetting news he claimed he had just received from Arik Lagos office. The man, who later gave his name as Emmanuel Okon, informed us that our luggage was left behind in Lagos. When the passengers asked when the luggage was likely to be delivered in Uyo, the Arik representative preferred not to give information he was uncertain of. The passengers bombarded the man with questions. I stood aside really confused. I was in Akwa Ibom, a State I had never visited and apart from the nice man I sat with on the plane, I knew nobody. The reason behind boarding a morning flight was to allow adequate time to settle into my new accommodation before visiting the agency where my field research was based. So much for good planning!
I really needed air to work through this unforeseen situation. This was when I asked the Arik representative for his name and phone number to enable us reach him for updates on our luggage. The man was forthcoming with this information, which I wrote down on my jotter and passed the same details to other interested passengers. The man also said that our phone numbers and addresses in Akwa Ibom state will be collected by another Arik staff. Emmanuel Okon promised everyone, especially concerned passengers bound for Eket that they will be called on their mobile phones and their luggage delivered to their individual addresses. Even when I observed that the other Arik personnel was only collecting phone numbers and not passenger addresses, Emmanuel Okon again assured us that our luggage will be delivered to us.
In the course of writing my name on the sheet of paper provided by the second Arik personnel, I ran into the other passenger who was at the counter with me when my excess luggage situation was being discussed. I told him how the staff at the excess luggage payment counter had called out to me to return 1000Naira. That was when he shared his wariness with the information provided by the lady at the check in counter. He said he had also worked through the calculation for 23excess kilos which came to 11,500Naira, which was different from the 13,500Naira total given by the lady. This was when I finally unzipped my backpack to retrieve the ticket handed out to me. I discovered that the excess luggage payment officer actually wrote 11,500Naira on the ticket, meaning that he should have handed over 2,500Naira to me rather than the 1,500Naira received. We all concluded that Arik was quite an interesting airline.
Seeing that there was nothing to be gained from hanging around the airport, my inflight neighbour offered me a ride into town with the promise of updates on the luggage situation. Interestingly, when my new friend and others tried calling Emmanuel Okon’s phone number from the airport premises, the call never went through. I was sad that the unexpected drama of the day prevented me from admiring my new environment and the Akwa Ibom International airport.
I called the Arik representative, Emmanuel Okon, all day on Tuesday and the next day, Wednesday but while the phone rang occasionally, he never picked the phone. At other times, the phone was simply switched off. I will not like to draw conclusions from the lack of feedback from a phone number that an airline representative provided to visibly traumatised, helpless and agitated passengers; but I consider it disrespectful that none of the passengers on board that Tuesday flight could have direct access to Arik airline for information on their luggage. On Tuesday, I had to look for alternative toiletries, medications and other relevant necessities to make my existence more tolerable in Uyo. I woke up on Wednesday, still visibly shaken as I headed out to my research agency. Not only was I heavily incapacitated that I had to report to the agency constituting the focus of my research without my research or project materials, I also had a laptop with me that I could not recharge because both my charger and voltage step-down were in my main suitcases.
My friends and family in Lagos including the travel agent, spent Wednesday, calling all accessible Arik phone numbers, including the one used for further enquires on flight changes but none of these numbers went through. This was becoming really tiring. Some other passengers also called to find out if I had news on the luggage situation. We promised to share information with one another too. The next best thing to do Wednesday night was to purchase more items to live through the day and the next. I have never operated in such uncertainty. On Thursday, the passenger that brought me home from the airport, called asking me to find my way to the airport to verify if our luggage had been delivered without our knowledge.
At the airport, I was directed to the appropriate Arik representative who took me to a room where the remaining luggage was stacked. During this short walk, I asked the Arik representative why Emmanuel Okon or any Arik staff failed to contact passengers for updates on their luggage, the man only said that he was away from the office when this was going on and expected that the normal airline policy would have been not only to notify passengers of their luggage but to deliver the luggage to passengers. He collected my luggage tags, verified this against that attached to my luggage and wheeled one of my suitcases to the car park. While nobody apologised for delaying my luggage, I appreciated that the man was courteous enough to assist in manoeuvring my luggage to the car park.
Ifeyinwa Mbakogu lives and works in Lagos. This piece was first published on Thisday.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.