Thursday, June 12, 2008

Losing my virginity

ON the evening of Monday June 9 I left my hotel in Abuja for the airport to catch an 8:25 flight on Virgin Nigeria to Lagos. Having been burned repeatedly by this hopeless airline, this was not my choice at all. Earlier in the day I had received an sms from Aero, saying for technical reasons they regretted to inform me that the 7 p.m. flight I was scheduled to take to Lagos had been cancelled. What was more, Aero had followed up with a phone call, at least eight hours before the flight, to express their regrets and offer me a full refund. I was expecting the worst from Virgin, and I got it.
I arrived at the airport at 7:10, a full hour and 15 minutes before departure, only to be told that the flight had been closed and I couldn't get on it. Dumbfounded, I asked how that was possible. The hapless little lady at the check-in counter kept mouthing a meaningless "sorry, sir; sorry sir," before coming up with the quite incredible explanation that the flight came early, so they checked in early, and now I couldn't fly. I had a choice to hit the roof and perhaps make a terrible scene. But as part of my on-going education regarding my re-entry into my native country, where anything that can go wrong is guaranteed to do so, I willed myself instead to ask, in my most even-tempered voice, how it was possible for her to wake up in the morning and go to work for a company that is so demonstrably hopeless. She turned away and kept saying, in that lifeless, resigned sort of way, "sorry, sir; sorry sir."

Soon enough some "supervisor" came by and said she could squeeze me into an economy seat, though Virgin had taken my cash for business class. I kept haranguing the staff how they could possibly be proud of a company that treats its customers with such contempt. Of course, there being no possibly defensible answer, they kept quiet. One said, again, "sorry sir. We will refund your ticket sir." So I walked to the aircraft to board. One fellow ran up to me with a hurriedly handwritten ticket - just as the boarding pass and the baggage tag had also been handwritten - as proof that Virgin owed me a refund. I boarded and settled into Seat 5D, economy class.

We prepared to take off. The pilot apologised over the PA system for the more than one-hour delay of the flight. A-ha! So the flight was not early after all. It was late! And so, quite capriciously, the bright sparks at Virgin decided to combine the earlier flight with the 8:25 flight, with no further flights for the day, and tough luck for any customer expecting to fly at 8:25. Virgin Nigeria lies. As we prepared to take off, I took a look at the paper ticket, No. 1 786 5090007821 0, that had been handed to me. Stated at the top that the ticket is NON REFUNDABLE! And it is merely "good for further transportation or excess baggage" on Virgin Nigeria only! Virgin Nigeria cheats.

The aircraft trundled along the runway and prepared to take off. Dozens of mosquitoes buzzed around in the cabin. One bit me in the left foot. Virgin Nigeria makes you sick. Several weeks ago, while my wife and children were visiting, we had experienced another incident of the outrageous and contemptuous way in which Virgin Nigeria routinely treats its passengers. We had boarded a Lagos flight from Abuja and were walking to the tarmac to board, when we discovered that Virgin was herding us onto some unknown charter operator called Blue Fin. No previous warning, no explanation, no apology.

The aircraft was rickety old. Overhead compartments couldn't close properly. Stuffing came out of the seats, and my daughter's seat could not be made to stay in an upright position. Neither the pilot nor the cabin crew spoke a word of English. We avoided the food. We hoped for the best. Virgin Nigeria lies and cheats and makes you sick.

It is clear the airline no longer has operational capabilities that can pass muster with any minimally competent regulator. But as in all things, our government leaves the citizens at the mercy of predators of all stripes. Since Richard Branson lends his name to this fraud, he can only be considered a fraud also. A liar, a cheat, and a flier of planes with malaria mosquitoes inside. It is clear that an airline like Virgin Nigeria does not have what it takes to put planes in the air safely and efficiently. A company that is so dysfunctional cannot be trusted with the lives of citizens.

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