“Someone has stolen my passport.” I felt my heart slow down, and there was that familiar sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Next to a safety emergency, my other most dreaded incident is theft on board.
I looked at the man and decided this was not a prank. He looked like an academic type: his hair was in a low afro perfectly groomed, the temples touched by grey. His moustache and beard were flecked with grey too.
He wore fashionable glasses that perched on the bridge of his nose and a short-sleeved button-down shirt open at the neck. He had on a pair of dark chinos pants and loafers.
“When was the last time you saw your passport sir?” I asked him.
“I used it as identification at the check-in counter, I also showed it at the boarding gate. You see,” he continued, “I have an order in which things are arranged in my bag.” He pulled down his carry-on bag and proceeded to run me through it.
“My laptop goes in here, whatever novel I am reading on my flight goes here.” He pointed out compartments as he went. “I usually put my ticket and boarding pass in my passport which goes in here, but as you can see, my ticket and boarding pass are here, just not my passport.”
“When did you notice your passport was missing sir?” I asked. I could see he was beginning to lose his cool, but he answered me.
“Just a moment ago when I got up to take out my passport to complete the Ghana immigration card.”
That explained why he noticed the theft while we were still on ground; the flight from Lagos to Accra was a short one so we usually handed out landing cards to passengers as they boarded.
“Alright sir,” I said. “Have you checked your seat area? I will speak with our gate agents to see if you left it there…”
“The lady gave it back to me.” He cut me short. “I say someone stole my passport, and this flight is not going anywhere if I don’t find my passport!” His voice was rising and more passengers were getting interested in the matter.
I left him to speak with our ground personnel and the captain, but not before I heard someone suggest that maybe the crew were working with whoever stole his passport. Clearly, it was a racket we were running – this was not the first time the speaker had heard of such things happening. At least the man was lucky it was just his passport. The other time, someone lost a lot more.
I had a good mind to confront the speaker, but I held myself back.
After fifteen minutes of going back and forth, and taking statements, and apologising, and making reassurances, fifteen minutes of passenger mixed reactions: hostility and sympathy, fifteen minutes of the gentleman threatening the airline with lawsuit after lawsuit, my colleagues and I were at out wits’ end when, for some reason, the man put his hand in his back pocket and went quiet.
Because I was facing him, I was the first to notice the indignation drain from his face. He just stood there with his right hand sticking out of his right back pocket, blinking rapidly.
“Everything alright sir?” I asked him.
“I don’t… I don’t understand. I mean… I don’t understand.” He repeated as he pulled his hand from his pocket and in his palm was his passport.
My colleagues and I smiled and nodded and told him it was alright, these things happened.
Throughout that flight though, he never once got up. He did not even accept the snack and drink we offered. He just sat in his seat, his head against the headrest and his eyes pressed closed, pretending to sleep.
A friend of mine told me of an elderly man who, having gone through the screening machine at the domestic airport in Lagos, accused the security officials there of stealing his phone.
The officials, embarrassed by his accusation called him to the side in a bid to keep everything quiet while they investigated his claim, but he would not agree. He wanted to make a scene and he had an audience of onlookers.
“I had passed o, but this man here,” he pointed to one of the officials, “asked me to go back and pass my phone through the machine. Now I cannot find the phone. That is not a coincidence, so ask him.” He insisted.
Passengers going through the screening point and some who were at the departures lounge had a few things to say about the airport security personnel and how “they too do”.
“Baba, what is your number? So that we can call it and see if the number is going.” One of the officers offered. After minutes of Baba telling them how sure he was that one of them stole his phone, he finally gave out his number.
Everybody went quiet as the officer dialled the number and they listened for the phone to ring, and it did ring.
As one, all eyes went directly to Baba as the phone continued to ring around him.
“Oya Baba, pick your call nah.” They urged him.
“You see my children, old age…”
“Baba leave old age, just pick your phone first.” The officer he had specifically accused told him.
“Ermm, my son you see…”
“Baba answer the call first nah.”
He raised the cap he was wearing and there, resting on his clean shaven pate, was the ringing phone.
As it turned out, he had put the phone in his cap when he went back to pass it through the screening machine, and in his haste had put on the cap without taking out its content.
The security officials smiled and agreed with Baba that these things happen, after all, we are only human. Nobody made any mention of his age.
We are how we are regardless of how old we are.
PS: I believe accidents are never caused by just one thing. They are helped along by a series of factors and events.
An Engineer who had not been paid for months and did not have necessary spare parts to carry out proper maintenance of aircrafts signed out an aircraft on the minimum equipment required for safely operating the flight without knowing that the Turnaround Coordinator and the Baggage Handlers had declared a lesser weight of cargo on the manifest than there was in the hold. The money charged for the difference they split so that they could keep body and soul together since they too had not been paid salaries for some time.
The ticketing agent and the cabin crew declared a fewer number of passengers on the manifest than there were on board; the fares of these undeclared passengers they divided and put in their pockets. Some passengers came on board with more than their allowed baggage and tried to pass it off as normal.
The Pilots wanted to depart the station on time because the airport at the destination they were flying to had a set closing time and he wanted to beat that. One of the pilots had exceeded his flight duty hours and should have taken the day off to prevent the onset of fatigue, but he got called in as a favour with a promise of cash for the flight. Considering that his salary had also not been paid, he got dressed and reported for duty.
The other pilot accepted all the figures on his manifest as true and believed the word of the engineer whose signature was on the technical log.
With all of these, the flight departs.
I will not even go into our porous airports that will allow a teenager to get on the tarmac and climb into the landing gear of an aircraft; nor will I talk about our politicians who then turn around and make said teenager into a hero.
Nor will I talk about the state of our airports – even the Lagos and Abuja ones where wall tiles are used as floor tiles. I will leave our regulatory bodies out of it too.
Two days ago I learnt from our Honourable Aviation Minister that air crashes were Acts of God.
While my heart goes out to the families who lost loved ones in the recent crash, my head still asks if that crash – and the recent crashes we have witnessed – could have been avoided.
They say we live and we learn, but this is one lesson that has refused to sit well with me. As far as I know, accidents are accidents, and an Act of God is just that – an Act of God, and these crashes do not qualify as such.