Monday, 8 October 2007

Confessions of a Virgin virgin

Ronke Macaulay

Did the above title get you going? All I meant was the story of the very first time I flew with a particular airline…

A while ago, on my way back to Lagos from London , I had to book my flight at very short notice during peak season. I was nerved, having decided to make a quick internet booking. Alas, once again, I had neglected to take the Naija factor into account. For those who are unaware, the equation is as follows: (Nigerian destination + credit card) x internet/ telephone reservation = 0 (mission impossible).

Having made several fruitless attempts via the website of “the world’s favourite airline” (perhaps in their eyes Nigeria belongs to another planet) and others of that ilk, including some which quite frankly should be paying passengers to patronise their flying coffins, I began to despair. It seemed I would have to drive all the way to Heathrow Airport to be able to purchase a ticket – simply by virtue of wanting to fly to Nigeria at short notice.

Perhaps we should digress for one moment to ask, “Why Nigeria?” When I rang up to ask the reason for the embargo, a snooty voice on the telephone informed me that Nigerians are known to be hugely fraudulent and are therefore not to be trusted with credit card bookings – this despite the fact that the passenger does not disappear into thin air and eventually has to turn up at the airport with his or her passport! The tone of this “customer services agent” reminded me of one of the major reasons why Nigerians abroad often yearn to return home – sick to the stomach of being treated like the scum of the earth (or whatever planet it is they think we Nigerians come from).

Back to my story: I eventually ran out of Heathrow options and reluctantly decided to go for Gatwick, which is a lot further from where I live and has therefore not been my London airport of choice for many years. Virgin Nigeria’s website was simple and user friendly. That was a good start. The pleasant experience was heightened by the revelation that credit card details were readily accepted. And then suddenly, just as I clicked on Enter to complete the transaction… the whole thing crashed! No way of knowing if my payment had been accepted and my tickets purchased.

Frustrated and a little anxious – perhaps this was some new 419 scam? – I rang up the advertised telephone number. “We have a problem with our website at the moment and we can’t take credit card payments. But I’d be happy to take your payment over the phone.” At that point something (call it a discerning spirit), told me the polite-friendly voice was being economical with the truth, but I decided to let it pass, as long as I could get the wretched booking out of the way.

Imagine my shock the following day when I received a call back from Virgin Nigeria to say there was a problem with my credit card payment. They ran through the information I had given them verbally and “found” the address details had been incorrectly entered, which had led to the card being declined. On pressing harder, I formed the distinct impression that it was a kind of subtle screening process. Then the helpful-caring voice let it slip that in fact internet credit card bookings were not accepted at all. Which begs the question: is Virgin Nigeria – our national carrier – also discriminating against Nigerians, albeit in a slyly accommodating way?

Finally, I made it to the airport for my flight. Gatwick airport was deserted, the shops were all closed, and the only sign of life was the cleaning crews hard at work, and of course the passengers struggling with vast amounts of luggage at the Virgin Nigeria check-in desk. Feeling like a leper banished to the small hours of the morning far away from civilized travellers, I then discovered that our flight was delayed for three hours, so we would have an interminable wait until take-off at 3am. No explanation was given, and our “compensation” was limited to a miserable 5 pound voucher which we could only spend at McDonald's, since every other place was closed. (However, the pilot later informed us that the delay was due to late arrival of our plane from Lagos .)

Despite all this, I was pleasantly surprised by the demeanour of the airline staff. They were warm, and immensely patient with the endless packing and repacking many passengers were forced to do “on ground” to comply with the strict luggage requirements – one piece of hand luggage only weighing a maximum of 6kg; two pieces per passenger to be checked in weighing a maximum of 32kg each., a pretty generous allowance.

I was a little taken aback to be addressed as “dear” after getting used to the formality of being called “Madam” in Nigeria. The slightly patronising tone continued on board when we were sternly informed that if any passengers were reading a newspaper or book during the safety demonstration they should put it down and pay attention because, “Every plane is different.”

Perhaps all this is nit-picking, because we had a happy, comfortable flight, with the captain promising to take care of us, and they certainly did. The cabin crew were mostly Nigerians, with an English (female) Service manager, who kept an eye on things but generally left the others to get on with it. The atmosphere was very cordial and relaxed, which any frequent flyer knows is not always the case on board.

So, Virgin Nigeria, if you sort out your internet credit card bookings, I personally promise to defect from those Heathrow based airlines who love our money but treat us like aliens, and instead make the trek to Gatwick just to hear you call me “dear” and tuck my blanket in during the night.

Ronke is the Creative Director of Basepoint International, a Media Communications Company based in Lagos and London. She is a Member of the Institute of Linguists (UK) and Mensa.

This article was first published in NVS

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

check the link to this post. This story confirms what many people have being saying about virgin, they are going down fast, especially with local flights in nigeria. how can she even find something good to say about them.