Bolaji Ojo stranded at the airport in Lagos at 3:00AM on Monday.
By Bolaji Ojo
In a journalism career stretching now into the fourth decade, my name has graced thousands of reports as the writer. But I have never desired to be the subject of the coverage.
This week, though, I became the news, courtesy of Lufthansa Airlines.
I wanted to attend the Autonomous, the auto executive industry conference held annually in Vienna. I didn’t make it so, instead, I went to Nigeria to see family, planning to return to my Swiss base on September 18.
It was not to be. Again, courtesy of Lufthansa, the airline that used to be my favorite and with which I had been flying for more than 3 decades. Here’s the short story, but first an explanation of why I am writing this article.
When passengers board flights, we entrust our lives, well-being and security to strangers and the airline. By paying airlines, we assume we could trust them to get us to our destinations. Often, we travel to distant and unfamiliar places. The airline’s guarantee to return us to our homes or wherever we are visiting is seen as sacrosanct. A violation of that trust could strip us of dignity and, in extreme cases, even our lives. It is a trust many airlines are increasingly treating with levity nowadays. Those who are treated shabbily by some airlines grit their teeth and move on. Many do not have access to public forum where they can tell their stories.
I do. This is why I am speaking up on social media and using this medium in the hope that thousands of other travelers will be spared in future.
This is my story:
Setting the stage
Lufthansa flight 569 was supposed to leave Nigeria by 11:10 pm on Sunday September 17 for an approximately 6-hour flight to Frankfurt. News in the Nigerian press prior to that day indicated travelers could face extensive delays boarding. Passengers were advised to arrive 5 hours ahead of departure. A frequent flyer to Nigeria, I knew this was advice I should heed. I got to the airport around 4 pm.
Checking in at the airline counter was initially problematic. “My system is down,” the customer service representative told me. She took my passport, went to another terminal and processed my luggage, returning with the luggage tag.
Everything else was a breeze. I had no problems going through immigration, customs and the compulsory Q&A with the Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) officials. The next 5 hours were spent at the Lufthansa lounge.
By the time I boarded the plane, I was half-asleep, looking forward to a long snooze. I happily drank half the glass of water offered, took my laptop out of its case and inserted it into the back of the seat in front of me and settled down.
Then the nightmare began. A Lufthansa ground staff – a man with the name tag Aploga – approached and asked me to take my carry-on luggage and follow him. Still feeling sleepy and puzzled, I complied. I have been asked why I didn’t make a scene. First, that is not my style for dealing with offensive situations. Second, I wasn’t going to engage in a struggle or shouting match with any airline officials or the police. There were no police officers in sight, but they could be close by, awaiting a violent response.
Imagine the headline: Tech Editor Hauled off Plane Swearing and Fighting!
My colleague Junko Yoshida and investors in The Ojo-Yoshida Report would have been highly disappointed. I would have become the “news”!
Mr. Aploga offered no explanations. He asked me to wait a few minutes, matched off and didn’t return for a while. That was when I insisted to other Lufthansa ground staff that I needed to know why I was taken off the flight and my options. Nobody ventured a response till Aploga returned. “We are done with you,” one of his colleagues, Mrs. Matthew said.
It was past midnight. I was alarmed for my safety and concerned about being abandoned at the airport. In addition, I was even more concerned about the lack of explanations and the suggestion that I should go alone into a dark section of the airport to retrieve my luggage.
I decided to record my conversation with Aploga and Matthew. But as soon as I whipped out my phone and told them I was going to record our conversation the entire team fled. Within seconds, they were out of sight, and I was alone in a dark corridor. The plane was already in the air.
I spent the night in a well-lit section of the airport, seating on a lonely chair, watching my luggage, sleep-deprived and struggling not to fall asleep. Leaving the airport at that time of the night would have been insane. I grew up and went to college in Lagos, a former capital of Nigeria and the economic heart of the country. Only fools saunter around in Lagos at midnight. I stayed at the airport and left in the morning to take a train back to my residence in Nigeria.
Lufthansa did not communicate with me throughout this ordeal. I have not heard directly from the airline since.
Curiously, though, I received a notice on my Lufthansa App the next day welcoming me to Frankfurt. It added, “Have a nice stay.” I poked around the App further and found another message confirming the flight had arrived and telling me where to pick up my luggage. It said: “Ihr Gepäck für Flug LH569 kommt am Gepäckband 1 (Your baggage for flight LH569 arrives at baggage carousel 1).
Elsewhere the Lufthansa App told me: “This booking has been voluntarily cancelled or the flight was fully flown.”
Wrong on all counts, Lufthansa. Your agents took me off the flight just before departure. I did not “voluntarily” cancel the booking. Neither was the “flight fully flown”. I have not left – as at the time of writing – the country where I was abandoned by your airline.
Was Lufthansa aware they left me in Lagos?
With all the technologies at our disposal and all the tools the airline could have used to contact me they chose to be silent. Am I supposed to chase Lufthansa for an explanation? This is how service is done? I am a frequent flyer with Lufthansa. And yet, I suffered this ignominious action. How many other flyers have had such outrageous experiences?
The airline chose to dump me in Lagos without any recourse and without any interest in my safety.
In Lagos, Lufthansa flight attendants are chauffeured from the airport to their hotel in Ikeja, a bustling suburb of Lagos. Their bus is accompanied by armed policemen riding in vehicles positioned behind and in front of them. I know this because I have encountered them on the road and at Sheraton Hotel where they spend their day off. I stay at the same hotel on trips to Lagos. I know Lufthansa discourages flight attendants in Lagos from leaving the safety of the hotel, the perimeter of which is also guarded by armed police.
This is the city where Lufthansa left me at midnight.
As I have written on LinkedIn, the airline had the right to take me off the aircraft for whatever reasons they deemed fit. What they were not entitled to was endangering my life. Lufthansa owes me an explanation and, if they have in the past done this to other passengers in Nigeria or in any other parts of the world, they need to be made to account for this.
Let me return to the issue of the reporter-turned-news-subject.
I have forgotten which one of my journalism school lecturers decades ago drummed it into us, but I still subscribe to the principle that the reporter should never inject himself or herself into the news.
We write about events and other people. We should not be writing about ourselves as the news.
I have crossed that boundary.
Lufthansa turned me into the news. I am writing on Wednesday morning, days after Lufthansa chose to take me out of an aircraft just before boarding. They had hours and days before I sat down at my seat to inform me of any problems with my departing with the flight. They could have reached me in a variety of ways even afterwards. Lufthansa chose silence.
Bolaji Ojo is managing editor and publisher of The Ojo-Yoshida Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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