Missing baggage is every travellers' worst nightmare; at MMA, it comes true 20 times a day.
Nobody knows why it feels like holidays were made to be spent at home, but as she makes her way to the Air Cote D’Ivoire terminal at the Port Bouet airport, there is little more on her mind than landing in Lagos.
She checks in her luggage in, two large boxes, along with the rest of her entourage. Her flight is expected to land in Lagos by nightfall, so, all things being equal, she should be at home before midnight.
Hours later, the flight lands at the Murtala Muhammed Airport. It's 10pm, early in the night by airport standards and enough time for her to get home as she planned. She moves into the baggage area and looks out for her things, two big boxes. But after waiting for almost 10 minutes and watching her entourage glance around in confusion, it becomes clear to her. They landed in Lagos but something else did not. Their bags are missing.
Air travel in Nigeria is far from perfect. For those who use any of the country’s 22 functional airports, it is not uncommon to have seat numbers mixed up, airport staff fiending for handouts, flights delayed for hours without explanation and in some cases, cancelled at the last minute; they are realities we learn to be prepared for because they happen, more often than not.
It appears passengers now have one more thing to worry about; missing luggage.
The Murtala Mohammed Airport is the biggest and busiest in Nigeria, with an average of 106 flights passing through on a daily basis. In 2016, the airport processed over 7 million passengers, and according to employees of the Nigerian Airport Handling Company PLC (NAHCO) who pleaded anonymity, an average of 20–30 cases of missing or delayed baggage were reported, everyday.
When passengers hand over their baggage to airline staff and officials, it is in the understanding that these bags and boxes will be conveyed, so that when they land at their destination and undergo the necessary procedure, their luggage will be waiting for them, intact.
Considering the fact that airlines and airports have enlisted the help of technology and years of practice to develop their systems and create clear procedures for handling and transporting luggage, there seems little reason for this to be such a frequent occurrence.
Baggage leaves the passenger’s custody at the airline’s check-in stand. When the passenger hands it over to the airline staff, it is weighed, tagged with a bag tag and placed on a conveyor belt that takes it into a bag room where it is further searched as necessary.
At this point, it becomes the responsibility of the airport handling company. In more advanced airports, scanners on the conveyor belt scan the bag tag and direct the luggage to the pier or carousel for the appropriate airline. Here, the luggage is placed in baggage carts.
This does not always happen. According to NAHCO staff, most of the technology in Murtala Mohammed Airport is decades behind the times. They have conveyor belts with non-existent scanners and faulty baggage carousels, so there are instances where the ground handling staff have to move the luggage from the bag room, directly to the baggage carts.
Most local airlines don't even bother with this process. In local flights, the luggage is usually placed on a baggage cart at the airline’s ticket stand and taken directly to the plane by airline staff.
About 30–40 minutes before the flight takes off, the bags are brought out to the aircraft. There, a team of NAHCO staff loads the bags on board the plane according to a load plan. The load plan tells how many bags go in each cargo compartment to keep the weight and balance right and ensure fuel efficiency.
When the plane reaches its destination, another team offloads it into baggage carts which are moved to a baggage carousel. The baggage is then offloaded onto the carousel which brings it into the terminal where you pick it up.
At this rate, with the many irregularities and breaks in procedure that happen at Murtala Mohammed Airport, it is easy to see how two big bags can easily miss their flight.
The Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) is an organisation that is charged by law to manage all commercial airports in Nigeria and provide services to both passenger and cargo airlines.
According to a senior official of FAAN at MMA who spoke to Pulse on the condition of anonymity, the human factor is responsible for a lot of the baggage that goes missing but, as the case is not unique to MMA, there are many reasons beyond that.
Sometimes, the bag tag gets torn off in transit and there is no information to indicate where it is headed or when it should land. Airline staff, in a bid to make extra cash from unremited baggage fees, often attach hand-written bag tags that make it difficult to connect the bags to the appropriate flight.
When asked why the cases of missing bags spiked during the festive season, he replied that the period is a busy time for airports around the world when staff and systems have to be on top of their game, unfortunately, due to high traffic and inadequacy of some baggage management systems, some bags are forgotten, overlooked or simply left behind because they cannot be cleared in time to leave with the appropriate flight.
Other times, they are stolen or pilfered by airline and ground handling staff. In 2013, not less than 18 NAHCO staff were sacked by the company for pilferage and other related offences.
Either way, whichever of these many things is the reason, missing or delayed bags are becoming par for the course at MMA.
Just this March, a British national and his fiancee arrived Lagos aboard a Kenya Airways flight. After 45 minutes of waiting, his luggage was missing, and the airline had no explanation for this. It took 4 days and another traveller who was returning from his honeymoon in Zanzibar via Nairobi to get the bags back.
When this happens, fingers are often pointed in one of three directions; FAAN or more specifically its aviation security arm, AVSEC; the ground handling company, NAHCO; and the airlines themselves.
Naturally, the airlines do their best to avoid the blame, and this is made easy by the fact that baggage spends most of its time in the custody of the airport ground handling companies (read: NAHCO). However, the airlines are responsible for baggage from the point of check-in, which is why they are legally bound to respond to passengers’ complaints.
In the event of missing baggage, passengers are expected to visit the airline’s office or stand to obtain what is referred to as the Passenger Irregularity Form (PIR). The information requested on this form is used to track the luggage through the World Tracer System - a network that most major airports use to follow baggage for up to 100 days.
After making her reservations known, our friend, fresh from Abidjan, is told to wait for her bags. The explanation offered is that they were initially left behind in Abidjan but have since been put on a different flight to Lagos.
How long, she asks. The airline official does not know. ‘Soon’ is the best he can offer.
It takes four hours of waiting at MMA with her entourage till her bags arrive Lagos. She is one of the lucky ones.
In the period between October and November 2016, according to a Summary Complaints List released by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Arik Air had 190 cases of missing or delayed baggage. Apparently, some airlines don’t find the process very easy.
On December 5, the airline’s PR and Comms officer Adebanji Ola assured passengers with missing baggage who had travelled on board its flight from London’s Gatwick Airport that their possessions would be returned safely. He explained that the delay was due to a downgrade from an Airbus 330-200 to a Boeing 737-800. Baggage had been left behind due to a lack of space but as Ola told the passengers, the airline was making efforts to ensure it was delivered in due time.
After meeting with FAAN officials the next day to respond to lingering complaints about cancelled flights and missing luggage, the airline failed to honour the agency’s directive to “freight all backlog of short-handed luggage to Lagos within 48 hours”.
On the 16th, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority issued a fine of Six million naira to Arik Air for breaking the Nigerian Civil Aviation rules. It also directed the airline to pay $150 each to passengers who had their baggage delayed on the London-Lagos route between December 2–4.
Even with the advancements in technology and efforts by regulatory bodies to hold airlines and airports to a higher standard, missing baggage is every traveller’s worst nightmare, an occurrence that is made more complex because it is a reality in airports and airlines everywhere.
Little succour is to be found in the fact that most 'missing baggage' eventually turns out to be delayed baggage that, thanks to innovations like the World Tracer System, airlines can find in a matter of hours, at the most. There’s also the issue of airport traffic; as air travel increases during peak periods, it is inevitable that the airlines will deal with baggage beyond their normal capacity and decisions will have to be made on which baggage is prioritised for on-loading.
All these factors make it difficult to point accusatory fingers in a particular direction. They also show the need for airlines and airports to work together and passengers as well as regulatory bodies to demand better operations from all parties involved.
Airlines must also recognise their obligation to the passengers who board their flights. Where baggage is lost or delayed, they must ensure that the process of laying complaints is easy and hitch-free, and passengers are given information on the state and whereabouts of their belongings.
Ultimately, the NCAA must avoid making Arik Air a solitary scapegoat - it must use its statutory power to sanction airlines that default and constantly delay passenger baggage with the aim that this will discourage their contemporaries from towing the same line.
Tomiwa Adeniyi, a low-level FAAN staffer told Pulse that since the agency issued fines aginst Arik in December, other airlines have made concerted efforts to avoid the same fate. In December, after passenger baggage was left behind at London Gatwick, Medview Airline made a note of giving affected passengers daily updates through text messages and press releases. This continued until the baggage was airlifted into Lagos and dispersed to owners.
No-one decides to fly through MMA hoping to have their things left behind or that they will get stuck in limbo as the airlines battle with tracking bags and logistics. I imagine that airlines would also not mind a day or more passing without reports of missing or delayed baggage.
To achieve this ‘baggage utopia’ at Murtala Mohammed Airport will require that processes are optimised, due procedure should be followed by all parties, even as the airport’s infrastructure must be updated to keep up with the capacity and the times it operates in.