got into an Arik-Asaba bound flight from Abuja, the other week, on my way to a function in Issele-uku, Delta State. Interestingly, it was a day after the October 3, ill-fated crash of the Associated Airline in Lagos, the chartered plane which was carrying the corpse of Dr Segun Agagu, the former Governor of Ondo State, and his family members and friends to Akure, in which over 16 people died on board.
At Abuja airport that very day, I observed that there was not much of the usual crowd. However, it was not unexpected, no thanks to the news of the previous plane crash in Lagos. After all, people were still jittery of flying. The mood in the air had been that of concern over the spate of air crashes in the country and the safety of the Nigerian air space. And the major news of the day both at the airport, on the radio, television and in the dailies was all about the ill-fated Associated Airline crash.
While waiting at the Airport lobby in anticipation of our scheduled flight, came the announcement that the flight will be delayed for over 40 minutes. In my mind, it was not much of a problem since my activity in Asaba will commence the following day. Time went so fast and we were ready for boarding. I entered the aircraft alongside many church and state dignitaries. After the usual safety procedure for a take-off, the pilot taxied off the runway for a few minutes and came to a standstill. For over 20 minutes or so, there was silence and no movement. I was beginning to doubt the possibility of our taking -off before the Pilot's intervention: "Ladies and Gentle men, we are monitoring the wind and weather condition to ensure a smooth take-off. In the next 10 minutes we will take-off." Splendid! I relaxed.
Then came another announcement from the Pilot: "Ladies and Gentlemen, there are still no sign of improvement in the weather, but we shall try the alternative runway and see if it will be better for a smooth take-off." At that point, I became very apprehensive. The immediate thing I remembered was to start saying my rosary. As I looked around, almost everyone in the aircraft was in a prayerful mood.
In another 20 minutes, came what could be regarded as the final announcement of the Pilot: "Ladies and Gentle men, it is no longer safe for us to take-off because of the weather condition. Besides, if we succeed in taking off smoothly, we will not be able to land at Asaba airport, since the airport is not adequately prepared for night landing. This flight is hereby cancelled. We are sorry for the inconveniences. We hope you understand. It is for your safety. " By this time, it was already 8.00pm.
As I disembarked from the aircraft, I thanked God for the answer to our collective prayers. Many of us realized it was not the will of God that we should travel that day. After all, the saying might well be understood in this context that every disappointment is in some sense a blessing, since there might be purpose and reason for everything before they happen.
As I walked back into the airport lobby, for briefing from the airline authority, I noticed that the Arik-Benin flight which had taken off an hour earlier came back for the reason that they were not able to land in Benin due to bad weather. As if that was not enough, DANA airline too which was bound for Lagos made yet another emergency landing at Abuja. The circle was complete; and I said to myself, God has saved us from another impending danger.
Many of us were full of praises for our pilot for heeding to the advice of the meteorologists not to fly. Everyone has a duty to ensure that the country's airspace is safe. The decision of a pilot is critical in this regard. It was reported by the bureau, responsible for investigating aviation accidents that part of the reason of the ill-fated October 3, crash of the Associated Airline was because the pilot ignored an automated signal ahead of take-off. We became as it well, beneficiaries of a good judgment of a pilot who was not ready to take unnecessary risks at the expense of human lives.
It was now about 8.45pm and I was shocked that Arik-airline did not have any contingency plan for the passengers of their local route. Could it be it is the same policy they have for their international flights? I was thinking aloud!
In the end, at the airport lobby, a stand-by manager reluctantly appeared and addressed the passengers. The real manager was probably afraid to show up. He apologized for the cancellation of the flight which was beyond anyone's control. He said that the flight has been rescheduled to leave to Asaba the following day by 9.00am. Surprisingly, no mention was made about those who did not live in Abuja and what could be done for their accommodation for the night. As far as the airline was concerned, there was no contingent plan in place for their hotel accommodation and all that. The manager was very blunt: "We have no arrangement to put people in hotel, but we can offer to transport those who do not have their own cars to the city. That is the much we can do." As far I am concern, it was a bad public image for Arik and for our country.
One must acknowledge that there is much going on in the country in terms of remodeling our airport terminals and making our airspace safe. For instance there is a breakthrough in the critical areas of safety infrastructure particularly with NAMA's Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria(TRACON), Instrument Landing system, airfield lighting and multi-lateration equipment, NIMET's Doppler Weather Radars, Wind Shear Alert Systems, and Accident Investigation and Prevention Bureau's (AIPB) Scientific Laboratory, amongst several others. There is also NCAT's state-of-the- art training equipment and simulators as well as NCAA'S Revised Civil Aviation Policy, which places high premium on safety.
Yet, there appears to be a lacuna in the actual supervision of how airlines treat their passengers in Nigeria. It seems to me that in operating their planes to cover the local routes, the major airlines in the country are only interested in making more money to the peril of their customers. Fares are increased arbitrarily; charges are made on luggages at will; flights are delayed for long hours; and when flights are cancelled, no adequate arrangements is made for hapless passengers who are left to cater for themselves even at odd hours.
If the current efforts of government in improving our airports and airspace is anything to go by, there is need to make enabling laws to guide airline operations in Nigeria with regard to developing a better customer service relations. Airlines take their passengers and a lot of things for granted in Nigeria. Elsewhere, in Europe, America and even South Africa, Airline operators make contingency plans for their numerous customers in both international and local routes. I recall, one of my trips from Italy to Nigeria, our flight was delayed for hours by the Italian national carrier, Ad Italia. The airline apologized and paid for our hotel accommodation until the following day when we joined the rescheduled flight. Contingency plan is a necessary preparation devised for an outcome other the usual expected plan. Airlines in Nigeria must learn to partner with some local hotels in the major cities where they operate, to give accommodation services in the event of flight cancellations as in the Asaba example. They will do well to take more responsibilities of giving good services to their passengers. Flight cancellation is not new. It happens everywhere, but contingency plan by airline is part of safety procedures. END