Two days ago, air passengers travelling from Abuja to Benin-City, the Edo State capital, were stranded for some hours at the Abuja airport. Their flight scheduled to depart at 10.25am did not move until 4.15pm. Instead of a departure announcement at the scheduled time, what came was a series of changes. The first announcement was that of a delay for some 20minutes after which a second delay for 30minutes was announced. With two announcements of delay in quick succession, passengers became apprehensive. Shortly after, the passengers were requested to proceed to the boarding gate for what the announcer described as a special message. There, the passengers which included this writer, were informed that a bird had attacked their aircraft on its way to Abuja from an earlier trip adding that airline engineers were working hard to locate and retrieve the bird in the aircraft’s engine. At about midday, the airline formally announced a-two-and-a-half-hour delay to the flight.
While some of the passengers left back to town to return later, many others who were not that privileged waited patiently in the airport. At about 2pm, airpeace called the passengers again to the boarding gate for a second special message. This time, the message was that due to failure to retrieve the bird from the engine, the airline had arranged for the aircraft scheduled to arrive from Calabar at 3pm to convey the Benin passengers to their destination. Naturally, the passengers were bitter and decided to organize a protest at the airpeace counter because their flight which was for 10.25am was being delayed till 3pm. The protest was interesting with several questions to the staff who did not appear to be coherent in their responses. Meanwhile, flights had gone at least twice each to Lagos and Uyo. One of the passengers asked why the flight that was going to Lagos for a third time could not have been deployed to help those who had been stranded instead of catering for those just arriving? The explanation was that the original aircraft for Benin was the only one that could accommodate the large number of the Benin-bound passengers. No other plane with same capacity according to air peace was available
The airpeace story was a hard sell. First, previous experiences of the stranded Benin passengers established beyond reasonable doubt that the airline had become notorious for treating Benin passengers with contempt. One of the passengers who only returned from Benin the day before, revealed that the flight suffered the same fate. Other passengers who regularly fly the Abuja-Benin route confirmed that travelling to Benin by air had become an ordeal as the route was the most neglected. Not less than five stories were told of the recurring excuses Benin passengers hear on a daily basis. These stories angered other passengers who then decided to block the departure gate to prevent any movement until the airline was ready to convey them to Benin. Statesmen and other elders were on-hand to dissuade that form of transferred malice, so the passengers retreated to the waiting lounge where some of them entertained others to first-class comedy.
The main gist of the day was the position of an elderly woman who said she was no longer going to Benin. According to her, since there was a dedicated aircraft for Benin it means the aircraft was manufactured in Benin City; so, she was unsure of the safety of such an aircraft. The Lady told those who cared to hear that bronze casting and artefacts at Igun Street in the Edo state capital were what the Benins specialized in, not aircraft building. She then pleaded with others to avoid the Benin-made aircraft. The insistence of the Lady especially her determination to get her luggage ‘deboarded’ helped to reduce the tension among the enraged passengers but no one was able to convince her that the faulty aircraft was not made in Benin.
A second passenger chose to appeal to Senator Mathew Urhoghide, the Senator representing Edo South, who himself was a victim of the discrimination against the Benin route, to use his position to frustrate the planned upgrade of the Benin airport to one where planes can land and take-off at night. His rationale was that since airpeace likes maltreating Benin passengers, except night flights are banned on the Benin route, all flights to Benin might be shifted to the night after all other routes had been served. In other words, Benin-bound airpeace passengers are likely to wait at the airport from morning till when the airline has nowhere else to go which might be late at night. When asked why passengers must fly airpeace when there are other airlines, he explained that airpeace inherited the poor treatment of the Benin route from Arik airlines which now travels to Benin occasionally rather than daily.
When asked why he preferred to appeal to Senator Urhoghide instead of reaching out to his ‘wake and see’ governor to ensure that Edolites are treated with ample respect, another passenger cut in to say it was better to appeal to the Senator because aviation is a federal concern. Another one said that the Benin Senator couldn’t do much because he does not belong to the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC. A third passenger agreed that it was better to appeal to the Senator, because at the moment, Obaseki was busy fighting off pressure and excessive control of Edo’s latest godfather. He should thus be left alone to concentrate on strategizing on how to neutralize the large number of members-elect of the Edo State House of Assembly who have anti-Obaseki feelings. We were reminded that state legislators are not the only ones against Obaseki, the governor has to find a way of protecting the state treasury from those who want its contents shared among party leaders
Although the interesting stories of politics had relaxed the situation, tension resurfaced when the long-awaited flight from Calabar arrived. The new source of tension was that while one set of airpeace staff cleared Benin passengers to board, another airline personnel reportedly encouraged Calabar passengers to reject the use of their aircraft to assuage the feelings of other people. But there was little anyone could do because many Benin passengers were already at the boarding point at the tarmac. While on board, the first observation was that there were free seats contrary to information given to persons who pleaded in vain earlier to be checked in.
Benin passengers thus shifted the problem to Calabar passengers making it obvious that our aviation industry is still infantile. In which case, there is no difference between the so-called inefficient government-owned Nigeria Airways of old and the supposed private-sector driven commercial airlines. There is also no difference between the modern and old airport environment. Today, there is always a long queue at the screening machines for luggage scrutiny because operatives ensure that only one of the screening machines works at a time. Big pity.