Travel. Exhilarating, eye-opening, enriching. But sometimes it can be downright annoying – especially where travel in Africa is concerned. Over the past two years I’ve taken numerous trips across the continent I call home; the majority for work, some on my own dime, each unique in its own way. My most recent visit to Africa’s western most city was my fourth; I was excited to explore not just the intellectual crannies of the youth conference I was attending, but also the simple delights of what is easily one of my top three African cities: Dakar. It felt like coming home.
Between exploring how Africa’s youth can contribute to our continent’s development and meeting eclectic “fringe thinkers” like Maguette Wade, I met up with old friends and explored Dakar’s hottest brunch spot Marina Bay with Ndambaw Kama; one of Senegal’s most prolific bloggers. It didn’t take too long before I was soaking in my fondest memories of the Senegalese capital – the many beaches that are only 15 minutes away; the breathtaking sunsets that no other city I have visited can hold a candle to; the vibrant colors, smells and sounds; the languorous flow of life that mimics (or influences?) the slow sway of hips as Dakar’s women make their way about town. The welcoming “Teranga” spirit.
The food. For the sake of loyalty, I will always pick Ghana in a jollof war against Nigeria. But when it comes down to it, Senegal’s tchieboudienne offers a way more interesting range of taste – from the subtle sweetness of tomatoes to the slightly acrid taste of lemons and ground hibiscus leaves,’and the supple softness of steamed vegetables and fish. That and the fact that they have more of a historic claim to West Africa’s contested dish.
I could live here, I told myself more than once. It would be the healthy option: fruits, vegetables and sea food are plentiful, and the fitness culture has grown by leaps and bounds since my last visit in 2015. People work out everywhere. I could live here, I told myself when my friends and I navigated our way through the rolls of colorful fabric at the Sandaga market and even as I dug deep into my treasure trove of bargaining skills, stern face but all the while smiling inwardly and thinking “I’ve not lost it”. I sashayed between the past and present, between a young, eager Jemi and me today: still learning but more comfortable in my skin. Could I live here?
“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” – Nelson Mandela
How much is a two-bedroom apartment in an okay part of town?” I asked my friend Aicha. Her eyes lit up; she’s been trying to get me to move to Dakar for the past year and a half, and honestly I might have if not for the fact that my other friend came not just with a proposition to leave Abidjan for Accra, but also with a room in a house and a guarantee that Ghana’s electricity crisis only occasionally paid our neighborhood a visit. That and the fact that Accra has the highest density of the people I call family. Aicha tells me how much she pays. It’s half what I currently pay for rent. That’s it, I’m moving back to Dakar!
That was on Saturday. “Call me on Monday and let me know if you still want to return to Dakar,” Aicha teased. Monday came, but I had no response for her. I was sitting at Gate 4 of the Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport waiting for an Air Côte d’Ivoire flight back to Accra after Asky Airlines “delayed” my return, not once, but twice. My Sunday jet eye morning flight with Asky Airlines turned into a Monday morning flight turned into a no-show. Not because of a technical issue or because I mixed up the flight schedule. No, that would be too gracious. Both my flights were “delayed” or rather, rescheduled, because Asky Airlines was late. On their own schedule. Ironic, yes. But by no means surprising.
West Africa’s Airlines: A History of Delays & Poor Customer Service
Although the smallest in the world, Africa’s $80billion aviation industry has shown signs of promise, with growth averaging 5% per anum in recent years. Many have relied on national airlines like the now defunct Ghana Airways to make their way around the continent and globe. However, with infrastructure, funding, human resource, and policy concerns the picture painted is a mixed one. While big shots like South African airways have run themselves into debt, others like Ethiopian Airlines seem to have cracked the code and are just spreading their wings in Africa’s fledgling aviation industry. In West Africa, the entry of private airline companies may have added some much needed variety for sub-regional travel, however their ability to match the performance of their national and East African counterparts is still up in the air. Equally important, but often sidelined is the question of service delivery and customer satisfaction: can the African aviation industry afford to lose its 28million domestic passengers?
Air Côte d’Ivoire. Destination: Dakar, June 2010.
My introduction to West African airlines started with Air Côte d’Ivoire. It was my second trip to Dakar, only this time I was not just visiting, but rather moving there for work. Given the demise of Ghana’s national airline, I was surprised to discover Côte d’Ivoire had one. I was also on edge as we descended into Ivorian airspace, the lush greenness momentarily distracting me from my worries about flying into a country in the throes of conflict. The flight itself was smooth, uneventful even, but I was lucky to have even made it to my seat. We had arrived three hours to departure, as is generally recommended for international flights, only to find that the departure time had been moved up. Out of breath with my (overly heavy) hand luggage, I rushed after the check in attendant up stairs, across bends and finally, to the gate. We made it in the nick of time. When I finally settled into my seat, I said a quick prayer of thanks. While Air Côte d’Ivoire has remained largely efficient, the same can’t be said for other airlines I’ve traveled with. Coincidentally, they are all private, non-‘national’ ventures.
Aero Contractors. Destination: Lagos, February 2016.
I was excited to finally pay my birth country a proper visit; where better to start than Africa’s largest city which boasts a population of 17 million and for Social Media Week Lagos no less. Having never flown into Nigeria from Accra (except on transit) I turned to the inter webs for advice on which airline to go with. My options were limited: Aero Contractors, Arik Air, Asky Airlines, and Dana Air. Of the three, Aero had the best reviews and competitive pricing based on Kayak.com at the time. I bought my ticket and showed up in good time on the day of departure. The check-in process was relatively easy and the staff friendly. After going through all formalities, I found myself a seat near the gate, and waited. Thirty minutes later, myself and the other passengers were still waiting when we should have been boarding. The plane was yet to arrive. An hour later, we were still waiting and by the 90th minute, many of us were grumbling under our breath. We finally made it onto the plane two hours after scheduled departure, still none the wiser about what had resulted in the delay.
The return trip? No better. I arrived at Lagos’s Murtala Muhammad international airport for an afternoon flight back to Accra only to be told the flight had been moved; first to 3pm and then to 6pm. When I asked how passengers were supposed to know, I was told an SMS had been sent to my number; my Ghanaian number which was inactive during my entire stay in Lagos. Forget the fact that they also had my email address. All I could do was leave a suggestion that they send updates to email addresses which passengers are more likely to check since they don’t include roaming or additional charges. But that wasn’t the end. Already disgruntled, we got to Accra only to find out they left the majority of our luggage in Lagos. Why? They had to carry luggage for previously delayed passengers. Aero has since suspended its operations.
Asky Airlines. Destination: Conakry, June 2016
With my Aero experience still fresh in mind, I had little expectation of Asky Airlines, which apparently is an initiative of West African governments. Compared to other flights, the first leg of the flight went generally well; the initial departure was only 30 minutes behind schedule and the pilot acknowledged and apologized for the delay. Our stopovers in the Togoloese and Sierra Leonean capitals were also efficient and uneventful. Based on this, I had higher expectations of Asky Airlines for my return journey from Guinea and some semblance of hope for regional travel. The joke was on me. In true form, they delivered as only a West African airline can.
Arriving in good time at the airport after taking an early morning UN flight from Nzérékoré – a region in Guinea that was affected by the Ebola crisis – I was told I would have to spend the night in Lomé. Why? The connecting flight had been cancelled. This wouldn’t have been an issue except that I had a wedding and event I had promised to attend. After a few calls with my client and friends, I decided to proceed to anyway and arranged to be transported across the border to Accra by car.
The flight went smoothly and Accra passengers were called to the side upon arrival in Lomé. It was there that I found out the truth: the flight had just left. It hadn’t been canceled due to technical failure as myself and other passengers had been told. That was just a convenient excuse to cover up the airline’s delay. As is the policy of Ethiopian Airlines which operates Asky Air, arrangements for overnight stay were made for passengers, but since I was continuing on by road, I asked to speak to the manager for reimbursement details for my client. Stonewall. The airline representative told me her supervisor had left for the day and there was no one else to talk to. She wouldn’t give me his contact information, nor her full name for followup. I left, annoyed at the total disregard for my concerns and schedule.
Arik Airlines. Destination: Cotonou, July 2016
I first heard about Arik Air during the 2010 Harvard Business Conference. I was excited, as were many of my friends; Arik Air seemed innovative, youthful and edgy. They seemed genuine about wanting to help solve West Africa’s air travel woes and what’s more, they went a step further to connect with the US-based diaspora. Six years later, I was less than enthusiastic about traveling with Arik to Cotonou. The accounts of customer dissatisfaction later – including one about passengers locked up on a plane without air conditioning – were many as well the warnings against flying Arik.
Ironically, the airline I had done my best to avoid was the one to pleasantly surprise me. Arriving in Lagos for a 2-hour layover, we were escorted to a lounge with air conditioning, free wifi, and a complimentary drink. The stark difference in treatment at the Murtala Muhammad International Airport in Lagos got me curious, and after asking, an airline representative explained that it was a new policy instituted just that month to make their passengers and customers “more comfortable”. The rep was also forthcoming with the news that Aero had suspended its operations. I was elated about their consideration and shared the news online; it felt like someone was actually listening! Fast forward two months, and Arik is in the news again; this time for delays due to insurance renewal.
Revamping West Africa’s Airline Industry: Where Do We Begin?
It’s no secret that investments in West Africa’s airline industry are woefully lacking. Even its East African counterpart with more successful airlines like Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Air and Rwandair has its share of troubles. But the story is less about investments in the industry as it is about returns on investment. Many West African flights fly half-full and yet the cost of operating each flight remains the same. To allay this, much of the cost is transferred to the passenger – hence the high ticket costs which are comparable to a flight between Africa and Europe or America. And that’s not counting equally important variables like the cost of aircraft, fuel and training for staff and crew.
On the heels of visa-free policies by Senegal and Ghana, the African Union recently announced its “continental passport” in a bid to improve regional integration. Unfortunately the reality is the majority of Africans won’t be able to use it, even if they wanted to – the sheer cost of intra-regional air travel and poor connectivity means we are more likely to do so for business or on someone else’s tab. The point is, the industry needs to be revamped; maybe the AU and its partners can add alternate regional travel options like rail and the implementation of the 1999 Yammoussoukro decision it helped spearhead to its valiant efforts at regional integration. Until then, the questions about the relevance of the AU passport will consider to elicit responses such as this:
“To be honest, the visa is not the main hurdle to intra-African tourism – Africans still make it to countries with extremely tight visa restrictions on us – it’s the fact that a barely 1-hour flight from Lagos to Douala costs nearly $500 and that’s one of the cheapest flights you can take from Lagos anywhere.”
– Zika on Hyphenid.com
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that frequent travelers in the sub-region are very much aware of these challenges as we are about the fact that there are more options today than there were in the 1980s for instance. So yes, passengers should stay mindful of the context and tender expectations in that regard. But airlines should also take an honest look at what makes passengers disgruntled. It’s quite simple: feeling like we are being taken for granted, especially when paying for a service. To allay this, West Africa’s airlines must do what Arik Air did that one time and what Air Côte d’Ivoire has done a good job of doing: communicating.
With the possible exception of Air Côte d’Ivoire (again, a national airline) which has consistently demonstrated some regard for its customers and passengers, communication is still a big issue when it comes to West Africa’s airlines. Airline staff should be trained to listen and implement basic etiquette when dealing with clients. My recent episode with Asky in Dakar could have been much worse if the airline rep hadn’t been honest about the delays, willing to reschedule my flight, and open to considering my suggestion to move affected passengers to Air Côte d’Ivoire. A simple update for waiting passengers and an acknowledgement of responsibility for delays will do more to assuage any malcontent than anything else.
Taking it a step further, airlines could consider improving their visibility and availability. Generally speaking, none of West Africa’s airlines engages with passengers and customers on social media; their accounts are simply used to push out information about daily flights, jobs and company news. Social media offers the opportunity for real time updates on flight status and should be considered if customer relations is of any real importance. Another alternative would be to collaborate with Google to integrate flight tracking and updates in email, as many international airlines have done.
Of course, passengers and customers also have a role to play while we navigate the turbulent path to better aviation (practical tips here). Providing feedback, writing reviews and sharing travel experiences online could go a long to help other passengers, if no one at all. I’ve started on that front by sharing and curating my African air travel experiences and tips with the #CirqVoyage hashtag on Twitter – I hope you join me.
— Jemila Abdulai (@jabdulai) September 5, 2016