ight years! A surprising reflection revealed it had been that long since flying to and back from the Motherland. Unlike the prior years when visits home were twice yearly, spanning five years in a row and in one particular year - the sixth, I flew to Abuja and back three times! Eight years later, family and friends were begin to wonder why its been this long that I returned and shared some love together, to the point that some sought and obtained visas to visit us themselves in the USA. After the much needed break, this time I returned to Nigeria in January 2013, to be acquainted once more with those family, friends whose conditions may never give them any chance of crossing the Trans Oceanic waters either way. What a different experience this time from earlier experiences! Arik Airlines was the choice of medium for these flights, which of course is the first indigenous airline I used to fly with since Nigeria Airways Limited nearly 16 years ago. It was a wonderful flying experience from take off to landing at Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, Nigeria and back to JFK International, New York! The A340-600 equipped with four extended range, heavier Rolls Royce type engines of the Arik airliner I flew with for the very first time was very smooth, and comfortable even in economy class. This aroused my interests of a future anticipated flight with the new Airbus "Jumbo" A380 whenever that may be.
On my search for an airline ticket from the on set, I rambled from airline to airline looking for cost effective air fare tickets and who wouldn't? From the usual; British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, Delta, United and Virgin Atlantic, just to name a few, had high air fares as anyone would expect apart from the one or more lay-over's hopping from city to city and country to country before reaching the target city in Nigeria. At last, I reminded myself that I have to "walk the walk" and as it turned out, Arik Air had the cheapest rates at the time, therefore latched into purchasing the flights originating from JFK, New York to MMA, Lagos and back. Choosing my local flights to match Arik's JFK departures were amazingly cost effective and had perfect flexible lay over times for my connections as I planned the trip.
On that fateful day, I made my connection flight to JFK to board Arik's Airliner and everything was smooth to JFK with US Airways. As I arrived the terminal and Arik checking counter, I was greeted by a "mile long", "thick" static line which apparently appeared never to move. I saw people going back and forth accumulating even more luggage on the line, which appeared to have 4 persons standing side by side as same spot and yakking as they pull their luggage along when they had to. Eight years may have seem long enough to return but that sight alone brought back memories already preformed in me years back, so like the American would say, I had to chill! Patience does it I "patted" myself!
Finally, I made it to the gate after nearly 70 minutes but the wait seem endless, but contrary to insinuations by some that Arik Airline is always late on departure, the flight was called on time to board. However, knowing our people, when First Class passengers were called to line up and board the aircraft as well as travelers with infants who needed help to board first, almost all passengers from what it seemed, throng into position forming a "thick" line like the "oceanic tidal wave front" pushing and pulling with each of their travel documents at hand! I watched in dismay how easy and clear instructions and information means very little to some of us and how some are capable of processing these instructions by just mere deliberate ignorance. Everyone I thought have a seat on this airplane but why the rush? Couldn't people just obey simple instructions? The blockade of both First class passengers ensured and even the infant parents needing help. Seeing this helpless situation, the Arik Air attendant made a near rude plea asking passengers to behave otherwise no one was going to board the flight. This statement by the attendant did not help matters as these passengers responded loudly and angrily to the attendant's request. As the wrangling continued, it finally took shoving and clearing of the gate entrance by some hefty men to help pave the way for First Class passengers and then gradually, the "ocean front" began dissipating until some of us who believed had seats on the aircraft boarded last and everyone was seated.
The moment of truth was at aircraft pushback for departure at about 9pm New York time. We were finally leaving and what a relief that was, I thought. Being aboard the A340-600 wide body aircraft with winglets of 360 passengers seating capacity, it was going to be my first experience flying this type of Airbus aircraft design. I have worked and flown many types of Airbus aircraft designs including the A300, A310 and A320 except this type so, I was curious as to the feel of flying on it. Once off the ground, this giant aircraft soured gradually into commercial space with ease and stabilized quickly. It was impressive I thought and soon afterwards was flying the aircraft ceiling at about 35,000 feet of the assigned altitude by Air Traffic Controllers. Since 8 years had elapsed and being my first direct flight from any US city to a Nigerian city, I was stunned as the Captain of the flight announced that the flight time would be 9 hours 15 minutes, which I thought would be 11 hours initially. My critical thinking immediately corrected for flying tail winds would be reason for gaining two hours to arrive Lagos that early at about 4:15 am Nigerian Time. The food was great and suited Nigerian dishes to say the least.
Right about 4:15 am Lagos Time, passengers clapped almost unanimously after the 3-point touch down of the aircraft landing gear at Murtala Muhammed International Airport. It was a great feeling back to the Homeland again. It was another hussle as assengers disembarked and alighted, walked through the gates lobby to about 4 check points for Nigerian Citizens and 2 check points for Foreigners. At this point I was sweating profusely because the air conditioning did not function at the terminal and check points. I asked one of the security agents standing by, why the terminal was that hot as if there were no air condition system in the airport. He pointed to me, certain Portable AC Units that were purchased by the Federal Airport Authorities of Nigeria (FAAN) when the central air condition systems failed years back. These units were installed at designated positions at the terminal and security check points but that many of them had become dysfunctional and just stagnant units. In place of that was a big fan positioned at one location, which could only cover two check points. As it turned out I was lucky enough to have been served by one of the check points areas covered by the fan and enjoyed the breeze this fan produced which was still better than no AC at all! What a stack difference of two different countries I thought. I asked where all the work I heard was done by FAAN in renovating Nigerian airports, I was told most of the renovations were at the local terminals, such work had not yet reached the International terminal I was told. However, I wanted to keep reminding myself that I was finally in Lagos once again to keep the excitement going!
The tipping point to writing this softer side of my journey was generally the attitudes of some Nigerian flyers at JFK and conditions I met at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport Ikeja, Lagos. I drew two points to share that first; in case these passengers don't remember, each person with a legitimate ticket had a seat and would make the flight. There is always enough space for your luggage otherwise the airline will tell you. Restraint is necessary to promote ourselves as people who understand basic guidelines to boarding airplanes because it makes life easier for the workers and other passengers who see these attitudes as inappropriate but above all, it helps the flight depart on time when boarding is handled in a more effective and efficient way.
In regards to FAAN and their work at Nigerian Airports, I saw the vested work at MM1 and work currently going on MM2. I was impressed with MM1 which is the local terminal. If MM2, which is another wing of the local terminal, is handled prudently with fiscal responsibility to completion, will again be very impressive structures. However, the International Terminal should receive immediate attention because this terminal is where visitors see first. First impression as is said is never wrong. Anyone can form opinions that are long lasting. They may never have the chance to re-visit our country simply for such first impressions. We can't afford to turn away tourists who come to spend their own hard earned money in harder conditions. Let it be told that the foreigners that are held bent on returning to Nigeria are business benefactors from the country as opposed to tourists who may never desire to return because of hash experiences at the port of entry. This is the lesson we need to remember always. It is our hope that Nigeria becomes part of a global force of developed nations of the world. However, we have to change the way of doing things for the future of our children otherwise, Nigeria's growth will forever remain in reverse gear!
I want to categorically state that although I have written about patronage of indigenous airlines to offset the imbalance of air travel at the expense of Nigerian Airlines, I hold no allegiance to any indigenous airlines by compensation or seek to, and neither do I advocate to abandoning foreign airlines services who fills up the voids of incompetence of our indigenous airlines. Everyone knows his pocket better than another and it is what suites your needs that you do. You can be the judge of this position.