Afriqiyah is Libya’s official airline with red, green, yellow and black colours and the numbers 9999 embossed on every aircraft. The numbers 9999 is of course the birth date of the African Union. The entire Afriqiyah Airways consists of modern Airbus 320 – 200, A319-111 & A330-200 aircrafts. With primary objective of linking Africa to Africans, Afriqiyah is quite popular amongst Nigerians for its affordability and baggage allowance generosity. The airline tells a different story when it comes to reliability and often times, customer/ cabin service. With a chequered history of running at ‘African time’, Afriqiyah’s punctuality is notoriously tardy. I was about to find out just how behind schedule the airline can be.
The promise of spending Christmas in the warmth of my native Ibadan propelled me at the last minute to book my flight home with Afriqiyah. Afriqiyah was the only airline that would put me up within my budget. Whilst other airlines were charging £1200 -£1500, Afriqiyah was charging half of these amounts.
I left home (Luton) at 545am on Saturday the 19th of December. From there, I caught the Gatwick Airport service which was delayed for 38 minutes because of signal failure a little further down the line in the Bedford area. On the platform, we were continuously updated about the whereabouts of the train we were waiting for. By the time it showed up, my hands had lost all feeling. England was experiencing severe wintry weather conditions. The day before (18th), Luton experienced 5 inches of snow. I was counting on a wish and a prayer that Gatwick airport would remain open as was advertised online.
My cold numb hands warmed down on the train. Nothing ever prepares you for the cold: clothes and length of time in the UK does not get you ready for the harshness of the weather. I was wearing two pairs of gloves each on both hands, yet my hands were ice frozen.
Getting to Gatwick, the queue on the Afriqiyah route progressively reached the doors which borders on the North and South Terminals. Somehow, I was assured that there were So many Nigerians were like me, who were flying budget. I was given a £5 voucher at check- in and informed that the plane was running 2 hours late. Departure had been moved from 1130am to 1330pm. I was pleased to have the opportunity to do some more last minute Christmas shopping.
After a while, I got bored monitoring the departure boards, 1330 became 1515, till they eventually announced we were boarding at about 1700. Once we were all sat in the airplane with seat belts done, the plane did not take off until 1800. The flight captain informed us eventually that the plane wings needed to be de-iced. This was the first official information we were given as to why we were running about 5 hours late. Honestly, I think the Captain was forced to make an in-flight announcement as a couple of militant passengers who were hungry and frustrated threatened to get off the plane.
We got to Tripoli the capital city of Libya some 5 hrs later. The time at Tripoli was 1245am. We were processed through immigration and airport security. We were sat in a poorly lit corner waiting room which had no toilets. There was a toilet, apparently, but, it was not lit and one could not lock it from the inside. We were not offered water or refreshments.
As we waited, the crowd grew tense, irritable and anxious. A baby or two were crying. A mother was arguing with her husband about something he said. The militants in the group were at the door of the waiting room having a go at the Libyan officials who were nervously dodging questions. A lot was happening between the passengers. The most curious conversation was between a young lady and her boyfriend. It had started in the processing line getting off the plane. It was gradually increasing in excitement and tempo. Apparently, the girl had caught her man sending some questionable text messages to an ex girl friend. The nameless girl, beautiful enough, seemed frustrated that she was having to deal with such drama when her man was taking her home to meet his parents. After a while, her outburst exacerbated and some passengers had to wade in. There was no place for the boyfriend to have gone, so we all just glared at him whilst he looked at his Dunlop slippers. The lady eventually held her peace after an older woman waded in and severely reprimanded the man.
In another part of the room, a woman hysterically walked to the door and demanded information as to how long we were going to be at Tripoli for. She was just yelling. I am not sure how the scenes in the Tripoli waiting room would have played out in any European airport. We were all Africans. We were in Africa and as such behaving like Africans. To be candid, I wondered if we would have been treated differently if we were Caucasians.
The poorly ventilated waiting room (lacked air conditioning) was getting claustrophobic and I was beginning to fight mosquitoes (imaginary and otherwise). I was armed with a blue plastic fan which seemed to do justice to getting the mosquitoes away from me. I didn’t have to battle for long. 45 minutes passed idly and then we were loaded in buses to a waiting plane. It later emerged that Afriqiyah might have wanted us to spend the night in the waiting room to give the pilot and his crew some time to rest and clean the plane. We were lucky to have left that night as we were told by another contingent of Nigerians that they had been waiting in Tripoli for 3 days!
Afriqiyah Airlines Flight Number 8U913 touched Muritala Mohammed International Airport at 0530 on Sunday the 20th of December. By 0700am I was in our car been driven home. The journey for me had taken over 24 hours. To be honest, I just glad to be home. I had seen a lot on this trip. I had seen a Priest from Warri loose his cool and decorum in the final tumble. I had seen a mother beg for water for her thirsty children. I had seen a father search frantically for his daughter in distraught as we scrambled to enter the plane from Tripoli. I had witnessed cabin crew and passengers exchange angry words, I had observed people queue for over 20 minutes to use the small lavatory on the aircraft. It was just a terrible journey that tried the patience of people. Crucially, I had seen Nigerians who were orderly in Gatwick, become disorderly in Tripoli and loose every cool as we approached Nigeria.
Perhaps, Afriqiyah could have helped the situation if the in-flight food tasted better or if they had provided more information about what was going on to us. Who knows? I was just pleased I had left the bitter cold behind. I was home in Nigeria and I was going to enjoy my holiday.
Ps: This was published four or five years ago first on @tellng.