Date: Jan 5, 2009
Airline: Arik Air
Flight Number: W3
Dep: 0730 (scheduled)
Arr: 0910 (scheduled)
Aircraft: Boeing 737-300
Trip Mission: It is dual. The first one is to coordinate some work on an upcoming conference in Spain. The second one is to simply to enjoy some time off in Nigeria, which is not a traditional tourism destination, but nonetheless I think one of the most intriguing countries on Earth – no exaggeration.
General Note: While democracy in Nigeria is around 10 years old this year, it is technically still prohibited to take photos around sensitive installations, airports included. For this, I apologize for the angle/quality of some of the photos below. I honestly tried my best to take clear photos but sometimes paranoia and the need to take the photo rapidly/discreetly caused less than ideal photo quality. I hope you’ll still appreciate them!
I made my booking on the phone from Spain, around 10 days to the flight. The Arik Air call centre was professional and efficient. I was given a booking code ad informed that since I don’t have a Nigerian credit/interswitch card, my booking wouldn’t be cancelled till 1 hour to departure. Perfect!
I flew RAM to Lagos from Madrid and arrived at a very odd time: 3:40AM. Recently the new Nigerian aviation minister warned BA and asked them to rescheduled their arrival in Lagos to 6:00PM at the latest due to “safety and security of passengers”. I wonder why RAM was not harassed – and why the double standard? In any case, I shall not complain because the arrival time is actually convenient for me. I didn’t want to stay in Lagos overnight, so simply cleared customs and headed to the arrival area to wait it out till 5:30AM when the bureau-de-change and the Arik Air ticket desk open. Some section of the arrival area adjoining the curb is sealed off and only incoming passengers are allowed to pass through (out) – but the section with the bank halls, cafeteria, and other amenities, was filled with dozens of people sleeping on the floor. From far you would think they are corpses! Again, I was not bothered, because SAMSUNG had a sponsored LCD entertainment screen showing an American movie. Eventually, at around 5:15 I went to the currency exchange desk and got some Naira. I then proceeded to the departure hall (one floor up) and my first impression was WOW. It was tidy space in comparison with arrivals. Flat screens at each check-in counter, a few people on duty from Virgin Nigeria and Arik Air, etc.
|MMA International Departure Check-in Area, notice Arik Air and Virgin counters.|
At 5:30 the Arik Air ticketing desk opened and to my surprise, was told I could buy my domestic flight ticket here in international terminal and board from GAT Terminal. I paid 17,000 Naira (roughly 100 Euros) for my 07:30 Calabar flight.
Now I had the “problem” of hailing a taxi at this time. It was still dark and I was reluctant to board just any taxi, for security reasons. At 5:35AM I spotted a familiar European face rushing into the terminal. Indeed, It was Mike McTighe, the MD of Arik Air. I waived and said “Hello Martin!”. Shoot! I wasn’t sure (actually got it wrong! Must be my morning brain) about his first name but he didn’t seem offended. He actually smiled and approached me. I introduced myself, wished him a happy new year, and asked him how I could get to the GAT domestic terminal at that time in a safe way. To my astonishment, he offered a lift. “I’m going to check on the Arik arrival from Heathrow and will be back here in 20 minutes – I would be glad to drop you off since I’m going there”. Three letters: w-o-w ! Now that is a friendly service from an airline, and its Managing Director himself!
To kill time I headed to the cafeteria and chatted with a Moroccan engineer waiting to be picked up. Sure enough, McTighe was back in no time and we then proceeded to board an armored jeep with tinted glass. The drive to the GAT domestic terminal lasted around 10 minutes because there was hardly any traffic. I took this as an opportunity to ask him about Arik Air’s strategy, operations, etc. Here’s a summary of the outcome:
• It’s a herculean task to maintain consistency – network wide.
• Overall, the London route is proving to be successful.
• JFK/Houston will start in 2009, with the delivery of the third A340-500.
• Johannesburg will be launched with the delivery of the second A340, possibly by March.
• When asked about Dubai, he said Emirates is starting a second daily flight to Lagos and as such he personally is opposed to starting Dubai for now. At least, this is my impression from his cautious remarks about this tough market.
• They are looking at China and India, with the Indian ambassador in Nigeria especially keen on seeing Arik link Lagos with Mumbai.
• When I asked him about CAT-1 challenge for Nigeria, he said he regarded the A340-500 operational deal with HiFly not so much a temporary solution but an “indefinite” one – to be realistic.
• Before Christmas, Arik operated over 100 flights daily. He said that with pride.
• The man is clearly stressed and works very hard – He seems to be the #1 man not only in executive management but also operationally. I’m quite impressed he’s up at 4:30AM to check on the relatively new arrivals from London.
McTighe dropped me off at GAT and wished me a pleasant flight. Too bad we didn’t have more time to chat. My impression is that the GAT terminal is an old, small building which won’t last long in terms of meeting Arik’s growing requirements. The check-in building is roughly 30m x 10m so is the Pax Waiting Lounge building. With about 30 daily departures and rising, Arik will soon have to either move to the new Terminal 2 or come up with ad-hoc alternatives until it will presumably build its own terminal.
Right, back to the flight. I checked-in and got my boarding pass, window seat. Then quickly cleared security screening, x-ray, etc. The officer who asked me for my passport opened it looking for the photo to match ID, but surprisingly opened it to an old Brazilian visa of mine and simply said “OK” – giving me back my passport. Now this is not a laughing matter but with this kind of lapses a terrorist or an imposter could easily gain access to the tarmac or flight.
After x-ray you walk down a dark, shabby corridor towards the “Passenger Waiting Lounge” which is behind a set of wooden opaque doors with no signage. This area has 2 gates, a
couple of cafeterias/restaurants and 2 newshops.
|Gate 2 (only 2 gates exist in this small "terminal"!!)|
|A local reading The Punch, very popular newspaper in Nigeria.|
|A view of the 2 modest snackbars in the GAT old domestic terminal.|
I bought a coffee and water and sat down to wait for the boarding announcement. The Abuja-bound flight boarded first. Then, at 0705, was the Calabar announcement. I walked through Gate 1 and boarded a mini-van full of passengers.
On the GAT tarmac that morning was Arik 737-300 (x2), 737-700 (x3), CRJ-900 (1), Fokker 50 (1, although this belongs to Arik Niger which hasn’t started ops yet), 2 DASH-8-300s. In the distance were 5 Aero DASH-8-300s, an IRS Emb-135, Bellview 737-200, a Dana MD-83, among some other stored planes. We were driven to the aircraft (photo), and after a few seconds an officer of the airline on the tarmac shook his head and asked the driver to proceed to another aircraft – this was not the Calabar-bound aircraft. Entertaining. Seconds later we reached 737-300 5N-MJA.
|More passengers coming out of GAT to board the minivan which will take us to the plane.|
|Nope - this IS our aircraft - 5N-MJA 737-300.|
|5N-MJA - are you ready for me?|
|Arik Air CRJ-900|
|Boarding has started - Everyone was calm and orderly.|
I was slightly disappointed it was the older 737 variant, having looked forward to try Arik’s sleek 737-700s. We climbed the stairs and the welcoming smiley crew were very helpful. I went to seat 7A.
|Seated in 7F.|
Realizing the Runway 18L was now open to daylight traffic, and is probably the runway in use today for domestic flights, I walked towards the rear of the aircraft and sat down on a starboard window seat to observe the domestic aprons during takeoff roll.
I counted souls on board – roughly 30 passengers.
|Arik Air DASH-8-300 waiting for its morning assignment.|
|Switched seats when realized the active runway is 18L, for a better view of the domestic terminals.|
|The captain inspecting the aircraft.|
I requested a newspaper but the crew said they had none. I think this is an area where Arik can improve, providing businessmen and other travelers with daily newspapers since the airline still has no in-flight magazine or entertainment (Virgin Nigeria recently launched PTVs on its domestic ERJ-190 runs).
The crew made an announcement: We would cruise at an altitude of 31,000 feet and the flight to Calabar would last 1 hour 20 minutes. The captain was obviously a Lebanese, because of his accent.
7:24 - another mini-van brought around 9 passengers.
7:30 – Engine start.
7:32 – Safety demonstrations.
7:33 – Taxi to Runway 18L – as expected. Ahead of us was a Chanchangi 737-200 and as we turned to the threshold noticed the Abuja-bound 737-300 and a DANA MD-80 taxiing behind us.
|Arik Niger Fokker 50 - not in service yet.|
NOTE: The push back and taxi video will be uploaded shortly and a link posted as a reply to this report.
7:38 – Airborne. The Terminal 2 ramp was quite busy, with an Aero 737-500 / Dash 8-300, Virgin Nigeria ERJ-190 / 737-300, and an Afrijet MD-80, with some smaller planes I couldn’t identify. It was quite hazy so apologize for the quality of the photos.
|Arik 737-700 and Dana MD-83 behind us for takeoff rwy 18L - Reopened at last.|
|Climbing to FL 310.|
We climbed and broke free from the cloud cover.
At cruising altitude the seatbelt signs were switched off and I went to the bathroom. It was not dirty yet the smell was awful. Went back to my seat and the cabin crew came around with cake and refreshments (picture below). The cake was unlabelled, but was moist and quite good. My choice of coffee was unavailable so settled for tea.
The female cabin crew was flirtatious and very friendly – she went back to the galley and came back with my tea and confirmed “I put sugar for you”. 30 minutes later they came around again with some candy (pictured), proudly made in Nigeria.
|I was served this cake and tea at my request. The cake was quite good - moist in the inside.|
|Candy, made in Enugu State, Nigeria|
I listened to some music on my iPhone. Eventually, the captain announced start of decent and we smoothly came through the low cloud cover. The thick rainforest of Akwa Ibom and Cross River states is impressive. It was recently revealed that of all countries in the world, Nigeria has the fastest deforestation trend, something which Cross River state is trying to arrest through protection reserves and other initiatives. I sincerely hope that one day Nigeria will have sustainable patches of protected rainforests, for biodiversity and eco-tourism sake.
Three minutes to touchdown I started filming the landing from my window. We touched down at 9:02 and our low payload permitted a very quick drop to taxiing speed. Calabar Airport has no parallel taxiway so we made a u-turn on the runway. An Aero 737-500 was on the ramp. I’m a fan of this airline so got excited. Before too long realized that the Aero aircraft was actually taxiing out. I managed a few shots of this aircraft registered 5N-BKQ.
|Reverse thrust active and view towards Calabar terminal and Aero 737-500.|
|Close-up of the Aero 737-500.|
|Aero running away from us!!! It later roared into the sky as i was walking on the ramp towards the terminal.|
We quickly parked in front of the Margaret Ekpo International Airport terminal building. The female cabin crew was back to complement me on my tie. She asked me if I could give it to her, I said if I had a second one I wouldn’t hesitate, but it was favorite tie – no chance! “OK I give you a shirt, you give me your pink tie” – Again, no chance! Oh well she was obviously trying to make conversation. I asked what her favorite Arik destination was, “Is it Calabar?”. Calabar is a serene, tourism-friendly city in Nigeria. A unique place in this country, given its negative image abroad. “No, Port Harcourt, I love Port Harcourt!”. “Thanks, happy new year” I said, and began to walk out. 30 pax meant I was out of the aircraft in a few minutes. The smiley captain was by the door, I thanked him in Arabic and he responded. The tarmac is so small so passengers could simply walk to the terminal, which is surrounded by lush greenery. The Aero 737 roared into the sky, I as looked back to the Arik aircraft to took a photo, hoping nobody would notice. No one did, thank God!
|Panoramic view of our 737-300 after arrival in Calabar.|
|View of the same aircraft, but from Aero's ticketing office which I visited before I went to town.|
Arik has a simple yet nice livery. It was not too long ago that Nigerian airlines paid no attention at all to branding and an attractive livery that is thought-out and designed by professionals.
The arrivals hall is small but nicely decorated with the Calabar Carnival promo stuff, banking adverts, and Nigeria’s favorite: Telecom network ads. In fact the entire terminal exterior seems to act as a billboard for Glo – one of the largest wireless networks in Nigeria.
I decided that before going to my hotel, I would buy my Thursday Abuja-Lagos flight from Aero. I had no baggage to reclaim so went directly outside and walked to the departure hall ticketing zone. The terminal building and airport area is a plateau, surrounded by well-maintained greenery and trees. Walking into departures (check-in area) I took a photo which shows how busy this airport is becoming (actually this photo is coming soon in the next trip report Calabar-Abuja). Aero, Arik, Virgin Nigeria, Overland, and IRS are operating here, although Overland and IRS serve Calabar erratically. The Aero office is accessible from an exterior walkway which offers a direct view of the tarmac. I took another photo of 5N-MJA. The Aero office is very small, as is everything in this terminal. I purchased my ticket for 19,000 Naira. The flight was 4 days away but I preferred peace of mind.
|Aero ticketing office, where I bought my upcoming Abuja-Lagos flight.|
|The terminal from the street. It's totally branded "Glo" The Nigerian wireless network.|
Overall, Arik Air is an efficiency airline – a safe bet for any person wishing to fly in Nigeria without headaches. Sure it has its share of operational problems, given the challenges of operating in this country (delays, occasional bird strikes, terribly small and outdated domestic GAT terminal building in Lagos, ground handling vehicles crashing into Arik aircraft causing great damage, somewhat confused staff on the tarmac, etc.).
I would recommend Arik Air over Virgin Nigeria and perhaps any other Nigerian airline with the exception of Aero. I’m yet to try them on Thursday Jan 9th but judging from their history (founded in 1959) and positive track record, will delay my opinion on “Best Nigerian Airline” to Thursday evening! Another Arik Air trip report (Calabar-Abuja) is coming soon, with pics and videos. Stay tuned!