West Africa’s airline industry may be young, but it has already earned itself a reputation; it is notorious for delays, cancellation and general inefficiency. Whether you are flying business or economy, regardless of if your trip is for work or otherwise, you’re just another disgruntled passenger waiting to happen. For sanity sake, here are 10 ways you can make your West African airline passenger experience less painful.
Get a pulse on airlines before booking your flight
As with any baby, West Africa’s aviation industry can be prone to mood swings. One moment, Airline X is the most well-behaved kid on the block, and the next, dare-devil unleashed. Finding out which airline is currently reliable (read, tolerable and least likely to disappoint) will go a long way towards ensuring you’re getting the best bang for your cedi, naira or CFA. To preserve your sanity, ask frequent flyers in the region or your West African friends and networks which airline is currently the most efficient before you go searching for tickets. It will be well worth any price difference. And yes, that would be the thing to do each time you plan to travel.
Plan for delays
It breaks my heart to have to be the bearer of such mediocre news, but it would be naïve not to plan for delays. They will happen at one point or another. Cushion your travel dates with an extra day or two to allow for delays or cancellations. For instance, if you are scheduled to leave Dakar for Abidjan on Sunday morning, your earliest appointment in Abidjan should be set for Tuesday afternoon. That way, you won’t have to scramble with apologetic emails and phone calls after the inevitable delay happens. This should be done while booking your flight. As they say, better safe than sorry.
Pack hand luggage and an extra outfit – or two
Who needs hand luggage for a 45 minute flight between Accra and Abidjan? That would be you. With the high risk of delays and lost luggage it is only logical to take some of your personal effects on board the flight, even if it seems unnecessary. If the airline loses your luggage, make sure to handle the paperwork before leaving the airport. Want to be extra prepared? Pack an extra outfit or two; they might come in handy when you are left in transit with no other clothes besides what’s on your back. When it comes to West African skies, less isn’t always more.
Check the status of your flight
The rest of the world has flight tracking embedded in their Google email, but in West Africa we like to do it the good ol’ way: phone calls. Before heading to the airport, call to find out whether the flight is on schedule. I can’t guarantee that you’ll get a response, but in retrospect it would have probably saved me a lot of time – and insomnia. I also recommend that you download the CheckMyTrip mobile app for Android and iOS and turn on notifications for any changes – it’s been a game-changer for me in knowing about schedule changes and delays ahead of time, especially since most of the West African airline representatives are very bad with communication.
It might seem a tad ridiculous to ask about wifi before you arrive at your destination airport, but doing so will help you – and those picking you up – plan accordingly. Here’s what I know about airport wifi so far: while the international airports in Kigali, Abidjan, and Dakar have free wifi (30 minutes or more), you might have to do some prodding in Addis Ababa, Lomé, and Lagos. Ask at the information desk, especially if it’s an emergency; the worst they can do is say no. What’s that? Accra’s international airport? No, the so-called ‘Gateway to Africa’ doesn’t have complimentary wifi – we’re still stuck in the 1980s when it comes to technology – but you’ll be greeted with a lot of advertisements from telecommunications companies upon arrival.
Budget for extra money and phone credit
And by budget I mean don’t spend all your (local) cash. It can be quite discomfiting to find out you’ll be stranded at the airport overnight with no wifi, no money, and no phone credit (get a local SIM if you can, generally less than $2). Better still, take an emergency ATM card. Ecobank has a strong presence in West Africa and most ATMs accept both Mastercard and Visa. While you’re at it, it’s probably prudent to have a snack and bottle of water on hand. It could be a long wait and unless the airline has made arrangements for hotel accommodation and meals (most don’t), you might end up spending at least twice as much in the airport shop.
Clear your friends for take-off
It’s ironic that the people who are not in the aircraft are the ones who need to be cleared for take off, but unless you’d like to be found wanting, you’ll have to comply. Keep your friends or families dropping and/or picking you up on standby until you actually get to your seat and clasp that buckle on your belt. Better still, keep your finger hovering over the send button and just as they announce that all electronics must be switched off (yes, even smart phones with airplane mode) you can deliver your message: taking off, see you soon. Why? It will save your family and/or friends time, ensure they pick you up in good time, and give them peace of mind.
Ask about layover arrangements and/or reimbursement
I’m sorry it came to this (this is probably the only apology you will receive). With the exception of Asky Airlines, most West African airlines do not offer hotel arrangements for the passengers they leave stranded. That said, you might be able to recoup some of your ticket cost for the inconvenience caused you; make sure you ask and be firm. Unfortunately many airlines aren’t too forthcoming with that information.
Extra day in town? Enjoy it!
So your West African airline did what it does best and left you stranded in a country or city you know little about. Take advantage of it! If you are a business traveler, chances are you never actually get to appreciate the breadth and uniqueness of culture in each West African country you visit. Focus on the silver lining and use your flight delay or cancellation to explore: take a trip to the market and bargain your way into some great gifts, play tourist for the day, or meet up with a friend or acquaintance. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Leave a review, suggestion, complaint – or praise
Feedback is important, especially for a fledgling aviation industry navigating turbulent times. While I can’t guarantee that airlines will read, listen to or even act on your suggestion, request or complaint, I’m willing to bet recording your experience will be helpful to the thousands of travelers who are vulnerable to the inefficiencies of West African airlines. In the event that an airline actually does something right, do the honorable thing and tip your hat to them. Not sure where to leave feedback? Consider tagging your social media posts with the hashtag #CirqVoyage.
West Africa’s airlines need to get their act together, but until then preparation is probably the best we passengers have. Got other tips or ideas? Leave a comment below. Happy flying!
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.