The seed that grew my fears was planted before I got on the plane. It was last Christmas, and my destination was to Owerri, in Eastern Nigeria.
Over the ticket counter, I paid an extra fee for excess luggage and checked in my bags. Further down the lobby and to my right was the escalator, which took me up to the second floor. There, on the second floor, my hand luggage went under the scanning device and my body searched. Security clearance over, I put my shoes, my belt, my hat back on, retrieved 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 began to read a novel. Thirty minutes into my reading, I heard over the megaphone the announcement of my name, as well as two other names. The announcer instructed us to come downstairs to the check-in counter.
Still in my seat, I waited and watched to see who my companions would be. From the seated crowd rose a tall, lanky man. He strolled off. After a while I followed, a reasonable ten steps behind. We passed the small corner by the security post and took the escalator down, and then walked towards the check-in counters, behind which there was a luggage room.
“I was told to come down,” said the lanky man to one of the airline staff standing sentry in front of the luggage room.
“Don’t mind them,” the sentry replied to the lanky man. Suddenly, and without any further clarification, the lean man turned and walked away. For a second I was tempted to join him since they summoned 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 advice of the sentry and instead made my way into the back room.
Inside the room there were three men, two of them shuffling bags over the conveyor belt and the third 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 is my bag,” I replied.
“What is in it?”
“My belongings – you can open it if you want.”
“No, Oga, happy Christmas.” In addition to the seasonal greeting, the man began to smile and continued to wish me well. If there was anything in my luggage that was illegal or hazardous, the staff did not make it known. Therefore, neither my luggage nor I deserved extra attention. However, any protracted argument may 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 floor above, ready to go through security for the second time. The staff at the security post said to me, “Did you go through security before?”
“Yes,” I said, and I was let in, back to the waiting area, without a repeat search or pat down. Scary, I swore to myself. It was at this time that the seed of fear began to grow and take root. Any villain determined to do mayhem would have exploited the lax security procedure.
I could not help but think of how pervasive this attitude of circumventing procedures may be in the entire local aviation system.
By now, my senses were on full alert. Where a roach roams, many more exist. I looked around me, 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 ask about the status of their flight. Was the announcement about a trip to Abuja, to Enugu, to Owerri, people would ask? Confusion was everywhere. Overhead announcements were never clear. Information about flight delays did not come promptly – in fact, there was a general lack of diligence to inform passengers at all. Not knowing whether the disorderliness was limited to baggage and security or pervasive to the entire system worried me.
My concern is that the wrong one sees in the performance of these airlines may pale in comparison to what one does not see. Yes, there have been some improvements over the years, but these improvements are not enough when dealing with a life or death scenario. Gone are the days when passengers loaded or retrieved their suitcases directly from the airplane, but progress made so far is not enough.
Why would one airline staff announce for a passenger to come over to the counter, and another person countermand the announcement? Perhaps a lack of supervision, the extent and depth of which nobody knows.
Nigerians do not want to find out the health of the local flight apparatus only when a plane falls out of the sky. Now is the time to ask questions and demand compliance with strict procedures. Which experts make sure that airlines maintain their planes in optimum readiness to fly at all times? Just because the planes fly and land does not mean they meet maintenance standards. Nothing prevents officials from delaying airplane maintenance to maximize profit. A system which allows a one-thousand naira note to avoid luggage inspection could easily allow one million naira to delay or avoid routine aircraft checks. Public access to the maintenance records of these airlines is justified.
My experience while on board was, however, somehow different. Entering the airplane calmed my fears a little. The crews were professional, and passengers treated with respect. A voice from the cockpit apologized for the delay and promised an enjoyable flight.
The seat assigned to me was by the window, but there was a man already sitting there when I arrived. On seeing me, the man made a half-hearted effort to shuffle out but, because fear had gripped 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 did not work. I found a crack in the back of a seat diagonally opposite me. The floor of the aisle was clean but dusty. All these to me are further signs that the local airline systems and apparatuses in Nigeria might not be functioning as correctly as visualized.
My mind began to walk backward, and I remembered the commotion that I went through before I got on the plane, the unnecessary announcement for me to get back to the check-in counter, and the failure of the security personnel to rescreen me when I got back.
Forty-five minutes was all it took for the plane to get to Owerri. Onboard, the flight, beverages, and snacks served took my mind temporarily off my fear.
After seven days in Eastern Nigeria, I was ready for a return flight. At the Samuel Mbakwe airport where I waited for my plane, the electric power went out twice in one hour. Later on, I boarded the aircraft, unsure whether the light would go out in the plane in the same way.
Midway to our destination, at high altitude, the pilot began making 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 unintelligible announcement.
“It is because the plane is traveling at very high speed,” he replied. My heartbeat began to skip, and I must have looked as pale as the inside of a banana.
“Don’t worry,” the man said to me, “we’ll land safely.”
Wake up, fellow citizens! There is a lot to worry about regarding 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. For this reason, airline employees and Inspectors should undergo repeated weekly training and refresher courses. Records of employee training and airline inspections should be published for all to inspect. Let us prevent a tragedy before it occurs.