The vagaries of air travel in Africa

“Bulembo Air announces that its flight No. BO 234 to Noburg is delayed for two hours. Any inconveniences caused are highly regretted.”
ON THE TARMAC: A Kenya Airways plane at Kigali International Airport.
ON THE TARMAC: A Kenya Airways plane at Kigali International Airport.

“Bulembo Air announces that its flight No. BO 234 to Noburg is delayed for two hours. Any inconveniences caused are highly regretted.”

This is so common with our local airlines, that sometimes I suspect the smartly attired airport staff want to make the announcements even before the delays have been confirmed!

To passengers who are cooling their heels in the lounge waiting for other connecting flights, this is an innocuous announcement, an irritant at worst. Not so to those going to Noburg.

This is merely the beginning of a whole load of inconveniences to magnitudes that someone who is not conversant with everyone’s itinerary cannot even begin to appreciate.

And such plane delays are a common occurrence which simply should not be taken for granted. They mess up flight connections, and it is not that people are always only worse off in terms of time. Business schedules get thrown overboard, meetings are missed, jobs and deals jeopardised.

Airline companies have such fancy catchphrases boasting comfort, luxury interiors, super services, and a host other so-called advantages over other airlines. But in my estimation, time is of the utmost essence. It is not only passengers that get a raw deal when a plane is late.

Airlines that have a bad record of time keeping are soon out of business, because of the high cost of accommodating and facilitating passengers in high class hotels whenever any of their planes is late thereby necessitating boarding and meals for the inconvenienced passengers.

But is this all that airlines should incur? Isn’t there more recompense for stranded passengers that we may just not know about?

Travelling from Arusha to Nairobi recently, we were delayed at Kilimanjaro International Airport. One of the passengers was going to Yaounde, Cameroon, and he was incensed, more so because some of the friends he was supposed to travel with to Yaounde who had elected to travel to Nairobi by road, had boarded the plane and were calling him to ask what was holding him up. He still had his feet firm on the ground in Arusha.

Knowing his rights better than we ignoramuses, he got first class treatment – airline operators had run afoul of him once and they knew him well. Thus because they knew that he knew his passenger rights, they treated him deferentially.

From the foregoing, it is apparent that aviation operators exploit their passengers’ ignorance of their rights. It is every passenger’s right to know what is due to them especially in cases of plane delays and cancellations, and it behooves every prospective air passenger to inquire into this when making a reservation. Otherwise aviation operators will continue treating us like their door mats.

Rwanda Brussels Airlines Country Manager Serge Dewachter says that normally if there is any case of delay or cancellation of a flight, passengers are informed, and are catered for in terms of snacks and drinks, or even accommodation in case of longer stays.

Then efforts are made to get alternative flight connections since they have a special arrangement known as Code Share with other airlines like Rwandair and Ethiopian Airlines (a passenger gets to board the next available plane to their destination regardless what airline he paid), or bring in another aircraft, thus giving travellers priority to reach their respective destinations.

Other local airlines like Kenya Airways and Rwandair Express share similar basic arrangements like Brussels Airlines.

As for compensating travellers due to mistiming, Dewachter averred that such cases are forwarded directly to Head Office in Brussels to deal with.

What I drew from this is that actually compensation for lost time is quite possible; it’s only that very few operators would wish this information to be known.

Delays – and the concern for some form of compensation to passengers at airports – are not just Africa’s thing. It has caused such concern even in developed countries that recently, New York State was seeking some form of penalty to airlines that do not provide enough support to stranded-on-plane passengers due to delayed flights.

Court eventually threw out the case, but not without highlighting the seriousness of the problem. To highlight this, I am telling one nerve-wracking story about plane delays that will bring you to agree with me that airlines need to become more efficient.

Coming from a NEPAD journalists workshop a month ago, John Lemi, a Sudanese journalist, suffered what might have been the greatest of airline foul-ups of all time. He and his fellow Khartoum-bound passengers were thrice bundled off planes.

The first time they boarded at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and were a good many minutes airborne, the captain announced that there was a technical fault so they had to turn back to Nairobi.

By that time everyone knew there was a terrible problem because they were nearly bursting – there was no pressure in the plane according to the captain. One can imagine the fright in midair!

At Nairobi, Kenya Airways provided another plane, but when take-off time came, this plane also malfunctioned, and the flight was aborted. It was raining hard by this time and they were requested to wait in the terminal.

At around midnight they boarded a third plane, but shortly after crossing the border into Sudan the captain announced that he was turning back to Nairobi because there was an electrical failure and the plane may not reach Khartoum.

Lemi and his fellow passengers finally arrived in Khartoum the following day after spending the night in Nairobi, and after boarding a record four planes – a distance of 1193 nautical miles – two days!

In telling the story, Lemi says the passengers clapped their hands wildly and praised God for having steered them safely.

I will add that they were very unlucky to have missed the entire African touch – they should have bumped into a Sangoma in Nairobi, who would have asked them for a blue goat and a green cock to cleanse them of the evil spell that was grounding their planes and did not want them to go back to Khartoum!

This is the kind of time and type of journey to impose some kind of penalty to the airline. Suppose a passenger refused to travel again soon for the very understandable fear and trauma that such an experience must have caused, what then? Can someone measure the kind of fear that these passengers had on the plane?

Is it possible that at the end of this flight the air hostess went through the normal mumbo jumbo of hoping that they had enjoyed their flight and thanking them for flying that particular airline?

And the story is only half-told if I do not mention lost bags, overbooked planes, cancelled flights, noisy, rattling planes that really know how to put the fear of God into a soul. We are grateful for our local airlines because they have opened up the continent with more flights.

A few years ago if a person from East Africa needed to go to Senegal for example, he had to go to Europe first; or to go to Dubai first before going to Tripoli. Now we can make convenient connections; but I strongly urge airline operators to raise the bar on their operations.

Travelling by air, especially where there are connecting flights to catch, is a nightmare in our region, not a novelty. The more reason why there are very few smiling faces in transit lounges at airports – it is not a laughing matter!


Subscribe to The New Times E-Paper

For news tips and story ideas please WhatsApp +250 788 310 999    


Follow The New Times on Google News