Nigeria, September 4, 2008
Within Nigeria or over to Ghana, Virgin Nigeria is a trip, alright!
If you are going to fly Virgin Nigeria, be prepared for a little adventure - it's not like Virgin Airlines by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, Virgin Nigeria is a downright adventure no matter if you're going on an inter-Nigeria or international flight.
Let's start at getting a ticket. Before you think it's as easy as booking online, check your optimism. They may have a website, which you can reserve a ticket on, but you better be actually in Nigeria before you think of buying a ticket.
For that, you need to visit an actual Virgin Nigeria ticket office, where you'll find helpful people who tell you "No" at every chance. Can I get a ticket for the 6pm flight to Abuja? No. What about the 4pm flight? No. Any flight? No. Why? We're not flying. Okay, not flying today, this week, ever again? I don't know.
Yeah, that is how the conversation started, and after 20 minutes of guessing what to ask, I learned that Virgin Nigeria was not flying that day or the next because it was in an argument with the government. Once I figured that out, I did manage to get tickets from Kano to Accra, via Lagos, but only after a slight payment ordeal.
Virgin Nigeria does not take cash, but their credit card machine was broken. The bank they are associated with doesn't take credit cards or Nigerian Naira for Virgin Nigeria's international flights. Its USD cash only, the exact currency I did not have enough of. After another round of ATM headaches, I finally bought my tickets. And a few days and a whole length of Nigeria later, I was ready to fly.
The flight from Kano to Lagos was uneventful. We had a brief stop in Abuja on the way, too short to see theObama billboard, but long enough to stretch my legs while we waited for the Abuja-Lagos passengers. Its when we got to Lagos that the adventure started.
While there is one airport in Lagos, Murtala Muhammed International Airport, it has two terminals, one domestic and one international. They are about 1km away from each other on opposite sides of the runway and there are two ways to get from one to the other.
If you are transferring between flights, you can go via the airport shuttle. Its about a 30 minute wait between shuttles and they take about 20 minutes to drive across the runway. Yet, if you brave the street traffic to drive or taxi between airports, you can be stuck in a Lagos go slow for an hour or more.
Either way, brace for the chaos of the international terminal, where no matter when your flight is scheduled to depart, it will be late by an hour or more itself. From Lagos to Accra, we were two hours late in boarding and another two and a half hours late in taking off. From Accra to Lagos, we were only two hours late in leaving, a record in punctuality for Virgin Nigeria. But let's back up to the Virgin Nigeria check in desk at either airport - Accra or Lagos. Start by imagining Africans with two or three massive suitcases to each person, packed with everything imaginable. Now let's follow them through the check-in process.
In Lagos, you'll first pass through the customs police, who check each passengers luggage in the check in area, by asking that it be opened and placed on a big folding table in front of all the passengers. Its amazing to see how badly people pack. Or what crap they fly with. Or how slow and ineffectual the customs police are in doing anything that resembles work vs. bribe asking.
Then there is the passport control by the airlines, and Virgin Nigeria checks everyone's passports and visas to make sure you can both leave Nigeria and enter the next country. Only then can you get in the actual line for a check-in agent. Of which there are only two. For a whole flight of people and luggage. In Lagos, I wasn't even up to the check-in desk until the time the flight was to leave.
I breezed through the check-in, because I never check my bags, and found the whole official customs and passport control activity a breeze after the pain of checking in.
I guess that is the real measure of the pain in flying Virgin Nigeria - you know its bad when Nigerian government officials are models of efficiency in comparison.