By Rotimi Ijikanmi
Passengers including hundreds of Nigerians on board Air France operated commercial Aircraft from France to Lagos and Abuja have since Wednesday been stranded at Charles De Gaulle International Airport, Paris.
The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that many of them have to sleep at the airport from Wednesday for a day or two days owing to what the management of the airline claimed as malfunctioning of their planes and lack of aviation fuel.
Some of the passengers had left Lagos and Abuja for various destinations while many were returning to Lagos from various countries en route the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.
Air France, which said their planes could not fly, were scrambling for hardly available seats in other airlines in alliance with them to fly the passengers to their destinations.
Many of the passengers, who in their bookings had about three to five hours layover in Paris were left stranded spending 17 to 48 hours at the airport.
Some, who were lucky to get the seats in the allied airlines were re-routed and had to spend additional several hours to get to their destinations albeit after several hours of inconvenience.
Many of the passengers complained of ill treatment and alleged flouting of standard aviation regulatory operations against the airline.
More pathetic were the vulnerable passengers – the elderly, women with children and some with disability, who went through harrowing experiences.
Mrs Olagunju Ojo and Mrs Afolake Arikewuyo, who were in their late 70s said they left the U.S for Lagos en route Paris on Tuesday only to be left stranded at the airport.
The women, who could barely speak English and do not understand French, were in the long queue unassisted while struggling to get their cancelled flight to Lagos re-routed.
They said they arrived the airport 12 hours earlier only to be told that their flight to Lagos had been cancelled and there was no alternative arrangement for the day.
Mrs Ojo, who spoke in Yoruba language, said: “We cannot go to Lagos today and there is no Schengen visa to take us outside the airport to sleep.
“They said we will sleep at the airport here and there is no way to communicate with my people waiting for me at the airport at home and those I left in the U.S,” she said.
Another passenger, Mrs Theresa Fashida, also an elderly woman, said she left Ireland for Lagos en route Paris and had been at the airport for eight hours struggling to see how her cancelled flight could be re-routed.
Fashida said the airline later succeeded in re-routing her flight through Nairobi, Kenya from where she would travel to Lagos with Kenyan Airways the following day.
“The flight from Paris to Nairobi is tomorrow, that means I have to sleep at this airport because there is no hotel accommodation provision for me and I do not have Schengen visa.
“I did not book Nairobi flight; I don’t know why they should make me to pass through these pains with my age.
“You can see, this is the only pack of food given to me since I arrived at this airport and even their airline officials are not friendly at all,” she said.
Some other Lagos bound passengers were rerouted to South Africa to fly South Africa Air from Johannesburg.
NAN reports that some of the passengers, who left Lagos for official engagement in Washington DC, were also left stranded at the Charles De Gaulle Airport.
The passengers, among whom were journalists, had departed Murtala Mohammed International Airport on Tuesday at about 11 p.m. aboard Airbus 340-800 Flight AF109 and arrived in Paris at about 6.30 a.m. Wednesday.
With a scheduled flight from Paris to Washington at 12.30 p.m. on Wednesday, they were supposed to have a layover of about six hours before departure.
However, at 3 p.m. after about eight hours of waiting at the departure hall, the airline officials announced a technical fault on the Airbus A380-800 Flight Number AF0054 prepared for the journey.
The operators announced that their team of engineers and other staff were working on the aircraft and also expected to overcome the challenge of fuel before take-off.
After several more hours of waiting at the lounge, the officials announced a cancellation of the fight at about 6 p.m. owing to the purported technical fault and shortage of aviation fuel.
They directed the passengers to a point for possible flight rescheduling which they said could not be able to accommodate the 500 passengers on board the botched flight.
At the flight rescheduling counter where passengers had converged, there were many Nigerians with series of complaints, with a few number of the airline staff to attend to them.
After hours of waiting, some of the Washington bound Nigerian passengers including the journalists were re-routed for Thursday flight through Heathrow London on board Virgin Atlantic operated Airbus 330-300.
The flight from Paris to Heathrow airport was scheduled for Thursday 7.30 a.m. while the Virgin Atlantic Washington bound flight was for 11 a.m. also Thursday.
All efforts to convince the Air France officials for an earlier flight to enable those scheduled for a conference to be held Thursday at 3.30 p.m. in Washington fell on deaf ears.
Confronted with the challenge of where to pass the night, the airline officials said without a valid Shenghen visa to take the passengers to hotels outside the airport, the option was to sleep at the airport.
Many of the passengers had to sleep on the floor and few available seats at the resting lounge of the airport and there was no provision for dinner for them.
At the lounge, Mr Niyi Oginni, who slept on the floor with his wife, narrated his ordeal after spending 17 hour at the airport.
He said their Air France’s Abuja to Atlanta flight was delayed from Tuesday to Wednesday only to get to Paris and there was no connecting flight.
“Our stop over was supposed to be for five hours but we have spent 17 hours here waiting to connect a flight to Atlanta.
“You can see what they subject us to after paying so much, no food, no place to lay our heads.
“It is so embarrassing. I saw a woman also from Nigeria at the other lounge sleeping on bare floor with her four children,” he said.
Oginni said he had gone through the internet to find out redress option left for him and other passengers.
“The EU Complaint Form on Air Passenger Rights provides compensation in the event of overbooking and cancellations of flight and I am going to explore it.
“From what I read on the site, www.airpassengerrights.eu passengers on cancelled flights are entitled to 250 Euro for all flights of 1500km or less.
“Passengers are also entitled to 400 Euros for all flights between 1500km and 3500km and 600 Euros for all other flights more than 3500km.
“Compensation shall be paid in cash, if the passengers accept; it can also be through travel voucher or others services.
“The right to assistance also applied for passengers on long delays, in meals, refreshment, hotel accommodation and free phone calls,” he quoted the site.
Oginni, who said he was going to file the report, enjoined other passengers who cannot go to court not to sleep on their rights.
Speaking in same vein, Solomon Chung, a Voice of Nigeria correspondent among the stranded journalists, said Nigeria was long overdue for a national carrier to protect her citizens from the recurrent embarrassment.
He said the news of the launch of a new national carrier; “Nigeria Air” in London by the Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Serika was a welcome development.
On his part, Stanley Nwosu of Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria said the inhuman treatment meted to the passengers was unacceptable.
“No provision for accommodation and no place to refresh. Since we arrived here, we were given only 11 Euro food vouchers which could only fetch you a burger and a bottle of water.
“For two nights, I can neither take my bath nor change my dresses, which are already in my checked in luggage, because I was not envisaging this delay.
“It is even more disheartening that we are going to miss the assignment we left Nigeria for, in Washington and there is no remorse from the airline,” he said.
As envisaged by many of the passengers, Air France, despite assurance, failed to send the luggage of the passengers on re-routed flights.
Meanwhile, attempts to get official response from the airline proved abortive as those approached said they were not authorised to speak on behalf of the organisation.