By Yushau Shuaib
“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. We regret to announce that because of a technical problem, we have to return to Paris for safety and security.”
That was the announcement by the Captain of the Abuja-bound Air France flight on Monday, October 23, 2023, that departed Charles De Gaulle (CDG) Airport in Paris after over two hours in mid-air en route to Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja, Nigeria. Air France flies to over 200 international destinations in more than 90 countries across Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania.
The announcement for the U-turn was made after the plane had passed European airspace, flew over the Mediterranean Sea, crossed over North African countries of Tunisia and Algeria and was just about approaching Niger Republic in the scheduled six-hour flight.
As I looked around, I could see and feel the agitation in the minds and body language of the bewildered passengers. We were confused but everyone remained obediently calm and prayerful. An old Nigerian woman who was depressed voiced out loudly: “The pilots should park the plane in any nearby airport to fix the trouble!”
I joined an air attendant and other passengers on board to pacify the woman so that she wouldn’t suffer shock or any cardiovascular attack. Meanwhile, deep inside me, I knew that other passengers needed similar pacification going by their disturbing glances.
Those that were formerly watching movies and listening to music from the video screen on the seats had now switched their channel to the route map that shows the direction of the flight as it made a U-turn towards Paris. At that moment, I remembered those verses in the scriptures and scenes of horror movies on D-Day and what might finally unfold.
I could not shake off the negative, horrific thoughts from my head. I comforted myself by realising that I had said my early morning prayers to Almighty God. I nevertheless regretted that I couldn’t speak to my mother and other loved ones the previous days. I remembered old friends that I had wished to catch up with.
I again realised that everything about this world, including wealth, fame, families, position and power, were indeed nothing. There were top politicians, businessmen and celebrities in the business class and so, if anything happened, my name would not make the headlines. The editors may cast their headlines thus: “Top Politicians, Business Tycoons, Celebrities Perish in Ill-fated Airplane.”
I wished I had shared the pictures we took at the Golden World Award hosted by the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) in Barcelona, Spain, where my Image Merchants Promotion Limited (IMPR), which publishers PRNigeria, and the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) were honoured with Crisis Management Awards before the trip to Paris. With the award trophy in my traveling bag, it dawned on me that there are crises that award-winning Crisis Managers cannot manage.
I felt my seatbelt as if I was tightened to the stake in a firing squad expecting the executioners to pull the trigger. I queried myself for deciding to enjoy a few days transit in Paris for holidays with my wife just to satisfy the Schengen visa requirement offered by the French Embassy. Unfortunately, none of the pictures we took at tourist sites in Paris had been shared to anyone. The pictures, including our visits to the famous Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre Museum, etc., were saved on our phones.
Like a child, I consciously blamed no one but myself for looking for ‘trouble’ travelling by air every time when I could have taken the risk of road transportation which could have been safer in case of an emergency and by which someone’s body can be easily retrieved for a befitting burial.cTrivial conversation by passengers, revving of the plane engine, and sound of movement were so irritating to my eardrum.
I wished facemasks, ear-masks, nose-masks and even strong sleeping pills could be provided to relieve us of the excessive tension. The jerking by the plane prompted me back to the reality around me. I wished the air hostess could once again demonstrate the safety tips and instructions for emergency purposes which I always ignored or paid no attention to previously.
The jolt of the aircraft ran shivers down my veins as I quickly connected my device to Wi-Fi and Googled ‘air turbulence’. I was comforted to read that air turbulence might be a bit uncomfortable, but it is regarded as normal because planes are built to handle the worst scenarios.
I gathered that for a plane to fly stably, airflow passing over and under the wings need to be regular – though some weather events cause irregularity which creates air pockets; that with clear air, temperature inversion and turbulence, passengers’ safety is guaranteed once they fasten seat belt; that turbulence could create panic among passengers but do not cause a plane to crash because pilots are specially trained while aircraft are engineered to survive all types of turbulence.
Though I was not sitting by the door, I was shocked when I read that if a plane door was suddenly thrust open, anyone standing near the exit would be ejected into the sky; the cabin temperature would quickly plummet to frostbite-inducing levels, and the plane itself might even begin to break apart. I deliberately refused to look at the passengers sitting by the doors out of sympathy as I prayed for our safe landing.
For the first time in that moment, I was envious and jealous of those that hardly travel but rely on technology from the comfort of their homes and offices to attend conferences, receive certificates, bag awards, make friends and tour sites of attractions from internet-enabled devices and programmes.
The cabin crew members were busy attending to passengers’ needs with words of reassurance even as the flight was smooth. I watched with keen interest as the airplane tactically maneuvered in the cloud and sky till it remained about 30 minutes until landing when the pilot confirmed the same. The landing was a huge relief because of my experience during the flight. I could hear different names of God in victory songs and prayers renting the air.
When we alighted, the Air France personnel provided us with meal tickets and checked us into decent hotels for next available flights mostly through codeshare agreement with other airlines. The following day, we were booked and checked-in with Lufthansa Airline which took us to Munich and Frankfurt on transit before finally landing safely in Abuja.
Yushau Shuaib is the author of Award Winning Crisis Communication Strategies