The Nigeria Files - Arik Air
I probably take at least a hundred flights per year. Many of those are on non-Canadian airlines. I get asked all the time if I'm scared that I'll die in a plane crash.
The short answer: Nope.
As a matter of fact, until recently, there was only one time where I was genuinely freaked out by a flight experience and even that was after the fact. A little before the (still missing) MH370 went missing, I had taken the exact same night flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on Malaysia Air. It messed with me for a while. But, let's be honest, hundreds of other people who took that flight were thinking the same.
And then I Visited Nigeria for the First Time
Up until this past autumn, I hadn't had many "Jesus Take the Wheel" moments in my life. And then, I found myself trying to get to Nigeria.
Arik Air is one of the largest airlines in Nigeria. If you are trying to get to Nigeria from another West African country or if you are flying domestically within Nigeria, to the untrained eye, they often appear to have the best availability.
Many of you have seen inklings on previous blog posts about the catastrophe that was my autumn Nigeria trip, so let's start with the shortened, less dramatic version of that experience.
Accra, Ghana to Lagos, Nigeria
In November, I attempted to fly from Accra to Lagos on Arik Air. Our flight was cancelled and after some hours, we were diverted to Abuja, Nigeria, where we were told a plane would be waiting to take us to Lagos. snort There was no flight. After being held in a very hot room with no food or water for hours, we paid a ahem fee, to get boarding passes for an already scheduled flight.
Now hindsight, and chatting with experienced Arik Air travellers has since taught me that there weren't actually any seats left on the scheduled plane, and the ahem fee we paid likely bought us someone else's seats.
Our flight was delayed for several hours due to "personal reasons". Yes, Arik Air actually announced that on the loudspeaker. I was picturing a hungover crew barfing in the airport bathroom somewhere, trying to get it together.
When the flight was finally announced for boarding, a mob-like crowd began and it was obvious that there were way more people than seats. Angrily, everyone began to literally push their way to the tarmac, as the gate agents let us all through.
The crowd was so forceful, people in the middle were getting scared of being trampled and someone behind me yelled, "This is how people in America die on Black Friday!"
I'm a little baffled as to why the gate agents let many more people onto the tarmac than there were seats for, but I suppose they figured that they wouldn't have to deal with the mess.
As we got on the tarmac, our luggage was in a huge pile on the ground. Passengers were to identify their luggage. The agents on the tarmac were yelling that there was "free seating", another way of saying that your boarding pass meant nothing.
People were getting aggressive and rushing, as we all knew that there weren't enough seats. I got my butt on that plane as quickly as possible, and watched from the window as chaos exploded on the runway. Passengers were literally screaming, and starting physical fights with the runway staff. My phone was dead by this point, but boy do I wish I had a video!
Passengers and staff on the plane were yelling at each other over seating and overhead bin space. And those among us holding onto sanity begged those around us to calm down so the plane would take off. The last thing I remember before we actually took off was a man screaming at another passenger that he was going to sue the guy for putting a carryon bag on his laptop. He announced over and over that he would win the case because he was a lawyer.
As the plane ascended into the air, I looked around, the seats were duct taped together, there were exposed wires, and all I could think was that I just needed to make it through the next hour safely.
I'm a Sucker
When planning for my follow up trip to Africa in the winter, I was dreading the Nigeria flights. I reasoned that I just had an insane experience, surely that couldn't be normal. If it was, there is no way any government would let them fly into their airspace. And rather than being inconvenienced with the schedules of other airlines, I booked myself on Arik Air from Abuja, Nigeria to Lagos, Nigeria.
Our flight was delayed, of course. As we waited at the gate, there began to be a whisper through the crowd about some issues with refueling. I started to eat my manicure and tap my feet nervously.
About an hour later we were allowed to board the same type of dilapidated aircraft as last time. I seriously hope they are at least splurging on brand-name duct tape.
As we buckled up, the pilot came on the speaker and apologized profusely, expressing anger at the situation. Apparently Arik Air was in a dispute with the fueling company over billing and the fuel company would not let Arik Air refuel.
So, were Arik Air not paying their gas bill? I'll just let that set in for a minute.
The Final Nail in the Arik Air Coffin
A week later, I got word from a colleague that her Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi had been diverted to Mombasa. Apparently an Arik Air flight had mechanical issues and was stuck on the runway, so new planes could not land.
Never again, Arik Air. Never again.
Disclaimer: I do not want to leave you with the impression that this is typical for air travel in Africa. I fly many lovely and safe airlines in Africa, including Ethiopia Airlines, Kenya Airways, South African Airways and Rwandair.