The 12-hour flight ended up extending to a grueling 20 hours because passengers spent 8 hours aboard the plane and on the tarmac, while officials hustled to sell seats to stranded passengers on the waitlist.
The flight was an evacuation air travel organized by Nigerian Authorities for Nigerians stranded abroad and looking to return to home. Nairametrics received videos and messages from at least one distraught passenger aboard the flight.
In the video, we could see and hear upset passengers lashing out at airline authorities and babies crying because of the ‘heat’ in the plane. As the frustrations brewed, some passengers demanded to get off the plane insisting that they no longer wanted to fly again. Eventually, 5 passengers deboarded from the plane, and their seats were promptly sold.
Suspicion of racketeering
The frustrations apparently began from about 10 am (local time in Houston) when passengers were expected to arrive at the airport due to requirements of health and security checks. However, as it has been the case for weeks, there were more passengers than the plane could accommodate. This created an opportunity for last-minute deals and alleged racketeering between government officials looking to sell seats to stranded passengers who hoped no shows will unlock seats for them.
A one-way ticket for this flight cost as much as $1,500 and could cost more for passengers who did not have confirmed seats on board. According to a passenger aboard the plane, seats that recorded no shows were resold for as high as $1, 750 out of which $1, 500 is remitted to the airline and $250 pocketed by racketeers.
According to people familiar with evacuation travels, Nigerian Embassy officials in conjunction with Ethiopian airlines operate two flights once every two weeks from Newark, New Jersey and Houston, Texas respectively. Nigerians looking to come back home book ahead and pay a one-way ticket price of $1,500 (N600k).
They are then expected to carry out a COVID-19 test 3 days to departure before being allowed to board the plane. Despite the high cost of traveling, passengers who have used this service have experienced travel frustration as the flights are frequently delayed by officials due to the arduous and often chaotic boarding process. It is within this chaos and under the guise to fill all available seats that opportunities open up for racketeering.
The Ethiopian flight of August 16th was no different. Passengers were made to arrive at the airport by 10 am to allow for an early check-in. However, they waited till about 10 pm local Houston time before departure. A full 12 hours of horrendous wait. One of the passengers complained bitterly about the treatment from authorities handling flight operations and worried about the safety of passengers amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Both the Nigerian embassy officials and Ethiopian airlines have been reckless in their handling of citizens and have further exposed citizens to COVID exposure on the flight. They kept postponing the expected time of departure. The flight that was meant to depart at 3 pm local time was still on the tarmac as at 8 pm local time in Houston.”
Evacuation is big business
Since the COVID-19 lockdown affected airspaces, evacuation flight out of the US and UK into Nigeria has become a big business for operators. However, most travel operators who we spoke to believe Nigerian authorities can make the evacuation travel experience a lot better while still making more money if it is handled better.
With thousands of Nigerians looking to come back home, more flights can be made available at a cheaper cost. Most Nigerians cannot afford the $1,500 fee, thereby resorting to route through Cotonou which goes for $750, half the price. However, this route also carries hidden costs and inconveniences, especially if you are traveling with several pieces of luggage.
Asides this, immigration authorities are allegedly “greased” as much as $600 to allow them into the country due to another slew of entry processes put in place by the government to limit the negative effects of COVID-19.
According to sources familiar with the situation, upon arrival from an evacuation flight, the international passports of passengers are seized. These passports will not be released until a mandatory test has been conducted by passengers within 24 hours of arrival. They must pass the mandatory two weeks without showing symptoms.
In the meantime, Nigeria’s airspace remains closed for commercial international travel in line with preventive measures to avoid COVID-19.