Skies Can Be Unfriendly : In Africa, Air Travel Is a Challenge

Times Staff Writer

A Pan American jumbo jetliner was flying high above West Africa two days before Christmas when the captain received word that sandstorms from the Sahara Desert hundreds of miles away had made landing at Lagos temporarily impossible.

The captain diverted to Togo, a small coastal country that provides the airline's alternate landing site for the region. After the Boeing 747 touched down, however, airport officials demanded an immediate cash payment of several thousands dollars to refuel the aircraft, a transaction handled routinely on credit almost everywhere else in the world.

Rising Temperatures

For three hours the captain haggled with the Togolese. Telexes were sent back and forth between Pan Am's London office and the airport. Meanwhile, the midday sun was turning out a typically hot, steamy West African afternoon and the temperature rose in the cabin, where most of the 400 passengers had been sitting since they left New York more than 15 hours earlier.

"I felt like I had been hijacked and was being held hostage," one passenger, Lori Haskell, a 32-year-old lawyer from Seattle, said later.

Finally, the plane was refueled and the captain climbed back into the cockpit. But the airport tower called again: there was the matter of paying airport landing fees.

After two more hours of haggling, the captain convinced Togolese officials that Pan Am was good for the money. Eight hours behind schedule, Pan Am Flight 188 resumed its journey across Africa.

Backward Time Trip

Africa's magnificent skies can be anything but friendly for air travelers. Flying across the continent can be a trip back in time for Americans and Europeans, to the days when passengers brought their own food, when missing a flight meant a three-day wait for the next one and when a seat was not truly confirmed until you were sitting in it and the plane was airborne.

Only one American airline was tough enough--some might say crazy enough--to fly where no other European carrier dared to fly--east and west across the entire continent, making at least four scheduled stops and occasionally unscheduled ones.

Now Pan Am has given up the New York-Nairobi run that it inaugurated in 1965, citing "pure economics," and replaced it with a less adventurous weekly north-south nonstop flight between Nairobi and Frankfurt, West Germany.

The last American flight across Africa departed from Nairobi, Kenya, on the evening of Jan. 31, followed the sunset across Africa and the night across the Atlantic and landed at daybreak of Feb. 1 in New York. Ethiopian Air and Air India are now the only carriers still flying east to west across the width of Africa, a couple of times a week.

In Africa, it is often easier, faster and more reliable to get from one country to another by leaving the continent altogether. For instance, the quickest route from Nairobi to Bangui in the Central African Republic, a distance roughly equal to that between Chicago and Miami, is to fly eight hours north to Paris, change planes and fly eight hours south.

Getting from Africa to Europe is relatively simple, thanks to lingering ties from colonial days, but hopping across the breadth of Africa can be a nightmare of humid, barren airports, airplane malfunctions, hard landings and lost luggage.

Urgency Is Alien

Even traveling between neighboring countries can be iffy. An American asked a travel agent in Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast, not long ago for the quickest possible route to the capital of neighboring Ghana, a distance of less than 300 miles. The agent, Genevieve Vivier, explained gently that such urgency is alien to travel in Africa. "You can't get there 'as quickly as possible' in Africa," she said.

That was what made Pan Am Flight 188, hopping east all the way across Africa, and Flight 189, its westbound sibling, so unusual. Pan Am, the only American carrier flying anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, had stuck it out for 21 years, flying a route that made scheduled stops at as many as seven African cities over the years.

Twice a week, Pan Am's 747 jets linked the United States directly with West Africa and then with East Africa, going from New York to Dakar, Senegal, on the edge of West Africa's bulge; then on to Monrovia, Liberia, the country founded by freed American slaves; from there to oil-rich Lagos, Nigeria, and, in a final five-hour stretch--by itself the equivalent of a New York-Los Angeles flight--into Nairobi.

'Flight Had Charm'

Then they turned around and retraced their steps, a 21-hour journey each way if all went well--which, if you ask Pan Am, was 97% of the time. If you ask the regular traveler, however, that average was a bit lower.

"The flight had its own charm," Jimmy Dastur, Pan Am's chief in East Africa, observed wryly.

The African Queen, as it was called by some regulars, had a story for every one of its 8,000 miles. It had its share of rainstorms and mechanical failures. But it also had the distinction of being frequently diverted by coups, radio malfunctions and power outages.

"We're used to being under radar control in most parts of the world," said Capt. James Hogan, a veteran of the airline's African run. "Some places have radar in Africa, of course . . . but it's not always working."

Cigarettes, Peacock Feathers

Flight 188's wide-body usually was brimming with Nigerian market women, wrapped in flowing bright cloth and carrying everything from cigarettes to peacock feathers in bulging baskets. When it stopped in Dakar, Senegal, a few genteel French-speaking Africans would squeeze in next to the wheeler-dealer traders from Lagos.

Sprinkled among the group would be American diplomats, usually obliged to travel by a U.S. carrier, World Bank economists, development experts, Peace Corps volunteers and backpacking tourists.

A newly assigned U.S. diplomat in Africa remembers arriving at the Pan Am gate at John F. Kennedy International Airport: "I felt as if I had already arrived in Africa. It was pandemonium--people trying to carry on half a dozen bags. They had a special agent just for the baggage."

Doug Davison carried the Pan Am flag in Lagos, working out of the back room of the airline's ticket office where a straining air conditioner pumped out moist air the temperature of tap water. A veteran of the airline business, mostly in Latin America, Davison had seen some rough posts.

'Forget the Phone'

"Africa is like Latin America," Davison said recently, puffing on his pipe. "only more so.

"Take the telephone, for instance," Davison went on. "From here to the airport, forget it. You can't talk on the phone. So we have radios. My assistant, my airport manager and my controller all have them. Without them we couldn't operate."

For long-distance communications, the airline has a cable hook-up that usually works and a telex machine that usually does not.

"Then there are the power outages," Davison said. "We have a generator, but sometimes the generator breaks down, and it's hard to get spare parts."

The average passenger worldwide brings along about two pieces of luggage. The average Nigerian lugs five to 10 bags, according to Davison, who added: "And those aren't normal suitcases. They're trunks."

40% No-Show Rate

No-shows are also common, especially in Nigeria, where making a telephone call to cancel a reservation can test the patience of even the most considerate passenger. The no-show rate in the United States is about 10%, in Latin America it is less than 20% and in Lagos it is 40%, Davison said.

As a result, he said, Pan Am overbooked the planes more frequently than on other routes. But occasionally as many as 40 people, without tickets or reservations, would show up at the gate with their luggage shortly before flight time, wanting to fly.

Planes in Africa are often held at the gate for passengers having difficulty clearing the maze of official checkpoints. A passenger on a domestic flight in the United States, for example, makes three stops: check-in counter, security check and the gate. In Lagos, the passenger makes 14 stops, as officials check and recheck such matters as passports, currency forms and departure taxes.

Currency Devaluation

Pan Am says it canceled the cross-Africa route because it was no longer profitable. In Nigeria, where most of the airline's passengers boarded, the local currency, the naira, has recently been devalued against the dollar. The airlines, obliged to sell tickets only in naira, have not been allowed fare increases high enough to compensate. Pan Am also says it has had difficulty getting the Nigerian government to convert the airline's local ticket revenue into dollars quickly enough to operate profitably.

Americans living in stops along Pan Am's route often complained about the flight, but many of the problems are the norm for Africa. Africa has several dozen national airlines, invariably money-losing outfits. Air Uganda, for example, has a work force of 1,100--for just five planes.

National airlines in Africa are frequently kept alive to enhance the prestige of their country, and operating a flight to Europe, even if it chronically loses money, is considered a status symbol.

Ethiopia's Enterprise

The airline with one of the best reputations among travelers in sub-Saharan Africa is, ironically, operated by the Marxist government of Ethiopia. Although technically a state-owned business, Ethiopian Air is managed as a capitalist enterprise. It flies modern planes such as the Boeing 767 and offers luxurious first-class seats for the bourgeoisie that include treats not found in Ethiopia itself, such as vintage French champagne and Western newspapers and magazines.

Even on its domestic flights, Ethiopian Air maintains a bit of style. On a recent 100-mile flight from Addis Ababa to the small village of Debre Markos, a flight attendant served fish sandwiches and beverages to the full load of 18 passengers before the twin-engine plane landed in a grass field.

Travel can still be dangerous in Africa, but not because of overworked air traffic controllers or crowded skies, as in the United States. A Sudanese commercial airliner was shot down over southern Sudan last year by rebel forces. Pilots flying in southern Africa steer clear of South African territory to avoid confrontations with that country's air force.

140 Travelers Bumped

But more often, air travel is simply a challenge. Checking in for a flight can be such an ordeal that travelers often pay energetic entrepreneurs to forge through the masses for them. Kenya Airways recently overbooked a flight to Europe by more than half, and ended up bumping 140 travelers with confirmed reservations.

Travelers boarding at the second or third or fourth stop always risk being denied a seat, and with flights operating only twice a week in many cases, a missed flight usually means a long wait.

One American businessman was determined not to miss Christmas with his family in Nairobi when he was bumped off a Kenya Airways flight from Malawi to Kenya a few days before the holiday. So he took Air Tanzania from Malawi to Tanzania, hoping for a connection. But when he learned that the same plane from Malawi would be flying to Kenya a few hours later under a new flight number, he refused to get off--and managed to make it home for Christmas.

When a Nigerian Airways domestic flight was overbooked a few years ago, the enterprising captain stood at the doorway selling boarding cards for 50 naira, about $35 at the time. Another Nigerian Airways captain was reported to have solved a particularly severe overbooking problem on his flight by asking passengers without boarding cards to run twice around the plane.

The fastest passengers got the seats.

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