Route: Calabar (LOS) - Abuja (CBQ)
Date: Jan 7, 2009
Airline: Arik Air
Flight Number: W3.502
Dep: 09:20 (scheduled)
Arr: 10:30 (scheduled)
Aircraft: Boeing 737-700
I bought my ticket on Monday morning, or 2 days prior, for peace of mind. The access of the Arik Air ticket office (small but rather sleek, photo below) in Calabar Airport is somewhat bizarre. You walk by the check-in counters to a back corridor, turn right, and three doors down is Arik Air. It%u2019s actually not a glass door but an opaque wooden door with Arik Air inscriptions. The whole experience is very shabby %u2013 and the probable reason is FAAN (Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria)%u2019s failure to expand terminals in the country, resulting in an ad-hoc attitude to coping with traffic growth. As you noticed, I tend to get distracted in writing trip reports %u2013 but can%u2019t help connecting the dots and providing you with a holistic snapshot of aviation in Nigeria. Check the other trip report (Lagos-Calabar) for a photo of Calabar%u2019s check-in area.
|Arik Air Ticketing Office - CBQ Airport|
OK so on the day of the flight, I set my alarm to 6:45 but forgot that my iPhone was 1 hour ahead (Spain time). The result is that my driver called me at 8:05 and told me he was outside. Crap! I was asked to show up at the airport at 8:00 for the 09:20 departure. This meant that I had to dress, pack, and rush to the airport hoping to make it before the 8:50 check-in limit (Arik has an official policy of closing check-in 30 min prior to domestic departures).
Well, I made it. Calabar is a small town, and a model city in Nigeria, with functioning traffic lights, relatively orderly flow, lush public green spaces, and the cleanest roads I%u2019v seen in Africa. Just in case I couldn%u2019t make it in time I called the Arik Air office and they said I had nothing to worry about %u2013 they wouldn%u2019t leave without me since I was already on the road and headed to the airport.
When I got to the terminal at 8:50 most people were in the process of checking-in. A big sigh of relief! I checked in, and got my boarding pass as usual (with hand-scribbled data in the Arik Air boarding pass fields). I requested a window, and got 7F.
I cleared security and settled in the waiting lounge (photo).
|Calabar Airport - Departure Passenger Waiting Hall|
|More of the same at Nigerian airports: Glo ads and meatpie vendors!|
Nigerian airports are predictable %u2013 very humble. A rectangular space with many stalls at the perimeter selling absolutely everything from prepaid mobile cards to Nigerian souvenirs, books, papers, etc. Again, the interior is branded after GLO wireless company. Maybe FAAN has an advert exclusivity deal with them, not sure. Maybe Ken can shed some light on this.
The boarding call came at 9:15, after which the 35 or so passengers, me included, walked through the %u201CBoarding Gate%u201D door, onto the tarmac and straight to the aircraft. And what a sight! The gorgeous Boeing 737-700 5N-MJF %u201CQueen of Angels%u201D, pictured below.
|Margate Ekpo Calabar International Airport (Pausing to catch my breath!!!)|
|B737-700 5N-MJF Queen of Angels|
While settling down in the aircraft, I had the time to peek outside and got a serious shock. A shock that could mean life or death to any potential passenger out of Calabar Airport. It was a colony of birds, literally besieging the entire airport. In the photo is one pack, but actually that is the tip of the iceberg. There could have been hundreds of birds around the perimeter. I thought to myself if 2 engines were out we would be in fatal trouble. Again, I point the finger of blame to FAAN who in yet another area fails to discharge its duty in ensuring that bird-strike threat is minimized. It was obvious they were not doing their jobs in scaring the birds away. I simply prayed for safety.
|Prior to taxiing|
|Birds, hundreds of them, all over the airfield...|
The captain came on the PA and announced our flight details. Cruising altitude would be FL 310 and the flight would endure 1 hour 10 minutes. Safety demonstrations started (and I started recording the taxi/takeoff). I also managed a shot of the largest flag in Africa (Nigerian flag) in the distance near the Stadium of Calabar.
|A reminder we're in Arik's 737-700s!|
|The largest flag in Africa. I saw it from close, it is HUGE.|
We started taxiing to the runway. This sleek 737-700 could automatically ask passengers to fasten their seatbelts. A very (and I mean VERY) loud pre-recorded female voice (American accent %u2013 probably straight from Boeing) came on saying %u201CDirect Access Message Number 1: Please Fasten Seatbelts%u201D. We reached the end of the runway and did the usual 180 u-turn and took off %u2013 uneventful really, the ramp was vacant. It was just us and we climbed steadily.
Video of the taxi / takeoff:
When the fasten seatbelt signs were off I went to the bathroom for a leak. Again, bathrooms of Arik aircraft look neat (relatively) but smell awful. Even in a new aircraft, air freshness does not seem to be an issue for them.
|Arik Air washroom|
|Cruising over Nigeria's Eastern region|
On a positive note I returned to my seat and noticed how attractive the color palette of Arik interiors really is. Rich burgundy red and dark navy blue (photo). Even the seatbelts have the burgundy color. Custom made to the core. Commendable. Then came the snack, and to my delight coffee was actually available and the hostess gave me 2 snacks %u2013 not one. It was the cake, as usual, along with something I thought was napolitana or croissant. It was good, but couldn%u2019t tell what it was, even the raisins inside were not really raisins I thought. Not very tasty, but the cake was as moist and delicious as usual. The coffee: Not bad. Fresh milk is not very popular in Nigeria, so powder milk is used in abundance. I%u2019m lactose intolerant but thankfully didn%u2019t suffer later.
|More flirts from Arik: I got 2 snacks and yes - hot coffee!|
Looking out of the window, I appreciated all the Nigerian %u2018Middle-Belt%u2019 scenery. It was predominantly savannah and low hills. We started descent towards Abuja airport and the sun angle was such that I took a picture of our aircraft%u2019s shadow from about 2,000 feet. The loud voice came again %u201CDirect Access Message Number 1: Please Fasten Seatbelts%u201D. We approached the runway from the North-East direction and touched down at exactly 10:14. On time, in fact ahead of schedule. This is my second flight on Arik. Based on my experience with them, and discussion I had with their MD, they aspire to provide safe, punctual, and consistent services, in that exact order.
|OK, I'm winglet-obsessed|
|Descent to Abuja 1|
|Touched down in Abuja|
We vacated the runway via link B. We taxied by the VIP ramp and the presidential 737-700 / Gulfstreams were there, along with some Julius Berger (construction company) light planes. We reached our parking stand and noticed 2 Virgin Nigeria 737-300s parked next to us. A British Airways 777-300 had just pushed back and headed to the active runway. (Note: Etihad, Emirates, and South African will soon join BA, Lufthansa, KLM, and Ethiopian in serving Abuja).
|Domestic zone of the main ramp - 2 Virgin Nigeria 737's in view|
|VIP ramp, with Nigerian presidential 737.700|
|A line up of Virgin 737s. Virgin is Arik's main competitor.|
|Full stop - Everyone stood up in a flash.|
I got my luggage from the overhead bins and walked down the stairs to the Cobus 3000 bus of FAAN. The drive to the Arik/Virgin arrivals section of the international terminal took around 30 seconds. We walked into the side of the terminal, where I noticed a %u201CVirgin Nigeria welcomes you to Abuja%u201D sign. An angry security officer started waiving and shouting hysterically from afar when he saw me taking photos. I was lucky because he was quite far on the ramp. I simply gave him a thumbs up and a smile and walked quickly into the terminal, hoping he wouldn%u2019t hunt me down. By the way, it seems Virgin is still relevant, but how long will it last? They are having financial difficulties and rumored to be scaling down to a regional operator.
The inside of the Abuja terminal is quite spacious, for the amount of traffic, with functional baggage belts. I sat down on a seat and waited for my driver to pick me up %u2013 he had went to the domestic terminal thinking all Arik flights arrive there. Apparently some Arik flights depart from there (Maiduguri, Yola, etc.- but not Lagos/Calabar flights).
|FAAN's Cobus 3000 waiting for us|
|An area of the baggage reclaim area reserved for domestic traffic (Arik and Virgin's)|
|A look back...|
|Arik's competitor, Virgin Nigeria, welcomes you to Abuja, Nigeria's federal capital|
|A FAAN trolley, while I waited for the driver.|
And such was my second flight with Arik Air. After visiting several locations in Nigeria, I%u2019m simply amazed how Arik, or any other company, can maintain safe, reliable, and punctual flight services consistently %u2013 but somehow Arik Air pulls it off. No doubt its robust management team and deep political connections are very helpful.
My advice to Arik Air is to go the extra mile in passenger comfort. The ground staff need more training, especially ramp personnel. The bathrooms smell of urine and this is unacceptable. How expensive can air freshener be? The onboard %u201Cfood%u201D can be elaborated a little, not necessarily more (expensive) ingredients but simply customized packaging and possibly some kind of deal with a caterer or Nigerian fast food company (like Mr. Biggs, Tantalizers, etc.) for the sale of onboard snacks. Newspapers must be available on request, and a shuttle made available to passengers in Lagos international terminal to connect to GAT domestic terminal or wherever their domestic flights operate from in the future.
Otherwise, kudos to Arik Air for truly living up to its promise of being %u201CThe New Experience%u201D %u2013 changing the face of the Nigerian airline industry. I%u2019m writing this trip report in the Lagos Sheraton and noticed Arik Air has a desk here, with pamphlets announcing their new London-Lagos flights in Airbus A340-500. They are set at becoming a global carrier, if they do their homework and avoid the pitfall of rushed expansion.
My last trip report is Aerocontractors (simply known as Aero in Nigeria), Abuja-Lagos leg, and I can%u2019t wait to share with you my opinion on %u201CBest Nigerian Airline%u201D according to this humble passenger! I%u2019ve already flown the sector but where%u2019s the fun in pre-empting your expectations? I apologize for discarding (from the onset) Virgin Nigeria, which in my opinion is losing ground as a reliable airline due to incessant flight cancellations, relatively ageing fleet, and relatively small domestic network.
Take it easy folks.
[Edited 2009-01-09 05:54:55]