In December last year, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and the Federal Ministry of Aviation (FMA) launched what was labelled a cleansing exercise in the aviation sector. It was specifically designed to minimize, if not totally stamp outcorrupt practices at our international airports. On December 16, 2014, I jetted out aboard United Airline through the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMA) in Lagos to George Bush International Airport in Houston, United States of America, USA.
I arrived at MMA in good time to check in. For the first time in the many years that I have been passing through border point, I witnessed a 60percent free flow of travelers through different immigration desks. It was a remarkable improvement on what used to be. Though the menace of touts was still there, as I could smell and feel them right from the entrance up to the departure lounge; I was welcomed by two urchins begging to assist me with my light luggage. I quietly declined. Even at that, they still pursued me to the security checking point begging for a token from me.
Walking through immigration after my luggage was okayed without any official pestering me with the usual plea: ‘Sir, anything for the boys?’ Thatkept me wandering whether the ICPC/FMA partnership to sanitise our international airports had started yielding dividends.
My curiosity made me ask one of the officials at the final departurepoint why I was not pestered with demands for tip. He smiled and said: “Our Director General met us yesterday and told us about the ICPC/FMA war against corruption at the airports and that whoever that is caught demanding bribe or tip risks going to jail.” He then added a caveat: “I hope this is not just a one-off thing. It happened like this before during Madam Chikwe’s era as the Minister of Aviation, and that order never lasted than three months.”
However, whatever sense of pride I was feeling at those points vanished with an encounter I had at the United Airlines’ final check point leading to boarding gate where an officer without a name tag frisked me. As he began, he looked at me and started a conversation in a low tone.
“I saw you when you came into the airport; a lady was carrying your bag,” he began. I had to look back to be sure I was the one he was talking tobecause only my driver came with me to the airport. I told him sharply that I was not the person. But he was not deterred. He said: “Baba, we are at your service O! Anything for me?’ I just looked at him, smiled, and then,walked briskly into the bowel of the brand new Dreamliner.
Moments later, the big bird slid out of the hangar, and hit the tarmac, to begin the 13-hour non-stop flight to George Bush International Airport, Houston. It was the smoothest flight I have ever had. We landed in the wee hours of December 17, and walked into the calm and cool bosom of the magnificent airport. There was no noise. There was ethereal peace as travelers passed through Immigration points without molestation. It took meonly 10 minutes to complete the arrival procedures. There were no toutsnor any official pestering you with “wetin you carry”.
After spending a week in Houston, I moved to Silicon Valley in San Jose. Again, like in Houston, there were no delays. Everything was done with computerized precision. The little delay we experienced, and which everybody understood came through the strict security checks travelers were subjected to. It was understandable. The fear of terrorists has become the beginning of wisdom for all countries all over the world.
My return journey from Silicon Valley, through San Jose Airport, was less stressful as my luggage was checked and routed straight to Lagos throughGeorge Bush International Airport in Houston. The three-hour flight to San Jose to connect my flight in Houston for my journey back home was flawless. There was no security check again at George Bush Airport, as this had been done at San Jose Airport. I took notice of how Internet Technology had taken over virtually all transactions for air travels. You cannot see anyone loitering around you, pretending to want to assistyou in whatever name. There were free trolleys to move my luggage.
Coming back home, I had expected things to be better. Sadly, it was the same confusion. As I disembarked from the bowel of United Airline Dreamliner that ferried over 200 passengers to Lagos, a gust of harmattan haze blew me in the face. How I wished the harmattan would have saturated the Murtala International Airport terminal building because most of the air conditioners had either packed up or were working far below their optimum capacity.
But I noticed a remarkable improvement in the immigration formalities for passengers. My clearance formalities were done in less than ten minutes. But to foul my mood, I had to wait endlessly to collect my luggage at baggage claim. First, most of us were forced to pay N200 per trolley that had a price tag of N150.00. The lady issuing the ticket feigned not havingN50 change. I understand it is worse in Abuja airport where passengers have to pay N400 for a trolley. United Aircraft landed 4.45p.m., Nigerian time, but most passengers, including myself, did not get their luggage until two and a half hours later. This delay should earn Nigeria a place in the Guinness Book Record as one destination where a passenger spends the longest time waiting for his luggage.
Whatever one went through at the arrival hall was nothing compared to the hell outside. As soon as you stepped out of the terminal building, touts swooped on you like ants do over honey. A cacophony of voices welcomed you, offering one service or another. “Oga, we are registered. You can trust us with luggage is safe,” one solicited. “I have taxi at affordable price,” another said. “My car is good. It is a Camry.”
Money changers became serious pests as they thrust wads of naira notes at your face, begging you to come and change “Dollars. Pounds Sterling.” I asked one of them whether the ban on touts and touting imposed by the Minister of Aviation few weeks ago had been repealed. He replied with a wry smile: “Even if heaven falls, nothing can remove touts from this airport. This is where we get our daily bread. Nobody can remove us.” I couldn’t help but wonder whether sanity would ever prevail at this very important gateway to Nigeria.
United Airline is in business in Nigeria. The way Nigerians are migrating to the United States is making the airline to bloom. It now operates two flights one to Houston and the other to Atlanta. This is not to talk of other airlines like Delta and our own Arik, ferrying passengers to the USA on a regular basis. You maywonder why this rush out of the country and why most of these Nigerians are taking American citizenship. My guess is that they are running away from Nigeria for greener pasture in the USA because of the worsening state of the economy.
However, not all that glisters that is gold! The economy in the USA is even worse than what most Nigerians would have imagined. It’s even worse for those migrating without sound education. Such people would simply be moving into second slavery. My prayers are for the leadership of our country to improve the welfare of the downtrodden so they could stay at home and enjoy the opportunities offered by their fatherland.
A word for United Airline Cabin Crew
They should show some respect for their passengers. A situation where cabin crew members spill water and drinks on passengers is horrifying. I was a victim. And I think that is not dignifying. However, I enjoyed flying in their brand new Dreamliner. The big bird could tempt you to always burn the kilometres. The brand new aircraft has one simple alluring feature. It has no window blinds. Instead, it has a blue screen that keeps the inside serene.
MY TRIP TO NASA CENTRE
On December 22, 2014, my in-law, Pastor Gbenga Oso, who resides in Houston, drove me and my cousin, Gbolabo, his wife, and their two lovely daughters to the National Aeronautics and Space Centre in the city. TheCentre, established 56years ago, is an aerospace research and development facility for missions to space.
The Centre, open to the public, is one of the money-spinning tourist centres dotting America. In 2014, the centre won the Best Tourist Centre of the year. People’s curiosity about why and how the USA ventured into space isanswered by a number of questions, namely: how does the universe works? How did we get here? Are we alone? It takes about one hour for tourists to move around the complex in an arranged motorized cabin. Intermittently, tourists are allowed to visit some of the laboratories whereastronauts are prepared for space travels, and conduct research into what they found in space. The visit was an eye opener as to how the US has navigated a total of 168 missions into space.
NASA, according to Wikipedia, has conducted many manned and unmanned space flight programmes throughout its history. The unmanned programme launched the first American artificial satellites into earth orbit for scientific and communication purposes. The United States won the space race with the Soviet Union by landing 12 men on the moon between1969 and 1972 in the Apollo programmes. To date, NASA has launched a total of 166 manned space missions. One could not but recall some of the accidents that nearly scuttled the programmes. The two space exploration shuttle orbiters with 14 astronauts that lost their lives – the Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.
The Space shuttle, according to Wikipedia , had 135 missions before it was suspended on July 21,2011, with the successful landing in space of Shuttle Atlantis. In all, the programmes spanned 30 years with over 300 astronauts sent into space.