International airports are critical gateways to a country. It is there that visitors make the very first and lasting impressions of their hosts and destinations. Before and more so in a post 9-11 world, airports bring out the best in a country’s security culture and emergency preparedness. Yet, the operational framework of an airport is one that requires delicate balancing. There is need to demonstrate a strong sense of hospitality and a responsible commitment to security. The two are not necessarily in conflict. For most countries, especially those whose economic strength lies in tourism, their airports serve as important arteries that channel the live blood of their economic survival. Most widely traveled people would easily appreciate the fierce competition among nations, even the most impoverished, to showcase their national pride through the operational efficiency of their airports. Other important downstream actors in the hospitality industry then complement whatever experience and consequential impression one gets at the (air) port of entry. In that regard, the cab drivers, forex exchangers, business partners, tourism guides, events organizers and so on are of critical importance.
The Lagos international airport is the nation’s busiest as it serves Nigeria’s unofficial commercial capital. Since I have known this airport, it has been perpetually under construction. It has hardly distinguished itself from the general state of poor infrastructure in the country. It is simply a depressing entry point into Nigeria. The most symbolic of it all, is that it is very dark, hardly ever well lit. It has consistently been nightmarish for most compatriot travelers and much so for foreigners. There is some symbolism in its profile in darkness that speaks volume of the country for which it is a critical gateway. Everywhere one turns; Lagos international airport is indeed a true and symbolic gateway to Nigeria. It tells Nigeria’s story without the need of a narrator. One thing Nigeria has ‘successfully failed’ to do unlike some countries is to mask its national decadence by setting up a make-believe red-carpet airport. Perhaps that is good, for there is no need giving visitors a false impression without preparing them for the rude shock that lies ahead through traffic chaos, bad roads, noise pollution and general insecurity to which they are warmly initiated shortly. In this airport, crowd control remains a nightmare; currency exchangers compete for space with all manners of unidentified and unidentifiable personnel, flashing dirty currencies soliciting patronage. And, then the cab drivers, ‘re-charge card’ vendors, it’s all about raw and naked hustling. In Lagos and its international airport unlike most cities of similar pedigree visitors dare not rent a car, let alone secure a reliable map and drive into local hotels or destinations. To attempt so is a recipe for suicide for any foreign visitor to Nigeria. Many would dismiss this expectation as idealistic. But, recall that Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy, a status that requires the country to play in the league of the continent’s friendliest destinations.
Early this summer in Beijing, I was taken by the impressive hassle-free transition from my arrival at the international airport to my hotel room. Despite the intimidating number of Chinese nationals that arrived both in my flight and others, I could not but be impressed by the amazing rapidity at which Chinese passport holders made a quick transition through the airport formalities. For the rest of us, it was not a different experience. As I stepped out of the cab, into my hotel, the concierge slipped something into my hands. I took a look. It contained information on the registration number and important details of the cab that drove me from the airport. I was advised therein who to contact if I had any issues, including if I forget anything in the cab!
Immediately, I had a flashback. My first iPad was lost in Lagos, several years back. I had forgotten it inside a cab. I am not sure if I ever activated its location security setting. My effort to recover it was futile. I was lucky though; I had not populated the instrument with data. I had just procured it and was only getting my way around it. I was on my own, it was lonely, and there was no clue as to where help could come from. I had hoped that the cab driver would quickly make a U-turn for me at my hotel. I was naïve. It is my custom to sit along side cab drivers in front and chat. He could have quickly seen my iPad after I disembarked. Perhaps it was the next passenger that took my iPad. Unlikely, but who knows. How I wish that someone had provided a clue as how best to trace the cab driver. Perhaps it would have made a difference, perhaps not. But accountability matters. In Beijing, I also thought about my encounter with a malfunctioned cash machine in a Canadian airport a few years back. I had inserted a twenty-dollar bill and operated the machine for a change. The equipment did not oblige me. Instead it took my money, without thanks. I resisted swearing at it. A lady airport worker saw my frustration from a distance; she came with a form for me to fill out. Quickly, she marked the machine out of order. Less than ten days, I got a cheque in my mailbox for twenty dollars with a letter of apology signed by the airport CEO!!
This June, I have had series of encounters with the Lagos international airport. It remains rowdy, under construction, filthy. In my most recent encounter, I had passed through the airline’s protocols, boarding pass in hand, passport control, SSS, NDLEA, immigration, customs and all that. After security screening, I needed to work in the lounge. About thirty minutes into stuff, I realized that my wallet was missing!! It had all things possible and imaginable a wallet could contain, currencies, identifications and so on. Hell was let loose for a moment. In Nigeria of all places, where do I begin? Even in the US airport security screening staff have been caught hands in the till. I thought about my long-lost iPad. I pondered, heart beating faster and faster, bubbles of sweat on my forehead. Providence delayed my flight. I was imagining the possible and impossible. Elsewhere, there would have been an announcement. I reworked my steps to where I passed through FAAN’s security check. Ms. Osokoko Bilkisu and her colleagues had my wallet. She politely asked me to identify myself and give her a sense of the contents of the wallet. I did. She flipped through the wallet on her desk. Hear this: “Check to confirm that the contents are in tact”, she said. I did not bother. I said my thanks, with relief to catch my flight, now been called.
As I reflected through the experience while aboard, I had no doubt over the honesty of the FAAN staff, Bilkisu and her team. It was obvious the stress under which they worked. The PA system may not have been accessible to her and I was not sure what other support she and her team had to trace me. What if I realized that my wallet was missing after I had arrived my destination? What could have been the possibility of recovering it in tact? Airport management in the 21st century goes beyond infrastructure. A critical aspect of it is personnel support, ethics and client relationship. One legacy of post 9-11 is universal best practices in airport security and administration. My regular encounter with the Lagos international airport reveals Nigeria’s wobbly struggle to adjust to the expectations. But the transition has been too slow. There are many honest people in the shark-infested waters of Nigeria’s airports. Those are critical partners as Nigeria tries to recover lost grounds in its hospitality and security departments and as it measures up to the expectations of its status as Africa’s largest economy. In Bilkisu and her team, I found redemption for my lost iPad. She and her mates are like palm trees in the desert working heard to squeeze water from the deep and to give Nigeria’s airports much-needed face-lift. I owed her this testimony.