When I was in high school, at the beginning of every summer we would take a 6am Northwest Airlines flight out of Don Muang Airport to SeaTac via Narita. It involved waking up at 3am, hauling four to six suitcases into a Toyota Hiace van, and spending the next 1-2 hours shuffling bleary-eyed through the airport formalities. I used to think that was as hard as airplane travel got. Then, I moved to Africa.
At 1:30pm, I anxiously regarded the tarmac as my flight’s scheduled arrival came and went.
At 2:00pm, my plane’s scheduled departure time came and went. A fellow passenger shared with me his concern that he’d somehow missed the boarding call.
By 3:00pm, I was resigned to missing my connecting flight.
At 3:30pm, an announcement acknowledged that the flight was delayed. I received a tuna salad sandwich and Coke, compliments of Air Burkina. I called my travel agent to ask them to rebook me.
At 5:00pm, my travel agent confirmed that my connection was delayed until at least 10pm, but said I could probably make the next day’s 6:30am flight from Ouaga to Niamey. They recommended I hold off booking it until I was sure the BKO-OUA flight would get me there in time.
At 6:30pm, the airline confirmed that the flight would depart at 3:40am the next day.
At 7:00pm, I simply walked the wrong way out of immigration and joined a dozen other passengers at the Air Burkina office, where a tired-looking agent received our requests for recompense.
At 8:30pm, we boarded a shuttle to a hotel in the city. I’d decided that negotiating for a cab into town and then getting my partner to drive me back at 1am was too much of a hassle. Arrivals are infrequent enough at Bamako that there is no permanent taxi queue. I spent the 20-minute drive with my heavy bag perched on my lap, squeezed between two other similarly-arranged passengers. We endured the ride with good humor and got to know each other.
At 9:00pm, I checked into my room at the Hotel Onomo, a shockingly modern and comfortable hotel hidden near the Bank of Africa building in Quartier du Fleuve. I enjoying a dinner of curried lamb along with three other passengers: a hard-of-hearing French rep for Caterpillar, a radio frequency engineer and consultant working for the mining industry, and a bible translator who had lived for fifteen years in Niger.
At 10:00pm, I settled into a fitful sleep broken by waking episodes where I was worried I had missed the shuttle back to the airport.
At 2:15am, I boarded the shuttle back to the airport. There was enough room this time that I didn’t have to have my bag on my lap, but we were squeezed four across in my row.
At 2:45am, we simply walked past the deserted health check station, through immigration without needing to show our papers, and beyond the understaffed security corridor to the departure lounge.
At 3:40am, I left Bamako behind me as my flight finally lifted into the silent night.
It was probably my worst travel experience in recent memory. It was also notable in several respects. First of all, when I was waiting with other passengers, the interactions with the agent were not confrontational. They didn’t direct their anger and frustration at him, and he addressed every concern in a straightforward, honest way. And despite Mali’s lack of (enforceable) consumer protection laws, we got hotel rooms and a shuttle and passengers who’d missed their connections on completely separate airlines were booked to their final destination on Air Burkina’s dime. Communication about the delay would have been better in the States, but I bet I would have seen a lot more nastiness from the passengers. My delay in Bamako was characterized more by patient, resigned waiting and plenty of time to get to know my fellow travelers. The RF engineer turned out to be from Denver, not too far from my partner’s family, and we shared a good deal of professional overlap; we spent the last hour before the flight swapping stories of WiFi network deployments.
Second, the travel agent was quickly able to rebook me with minimal fees on my new routing. I wouldn’t have been able to do it as cheaply had I been booking myself on the internet. So if you’re traveling in West Africa, get a travel agent like mine (ESF Travel) so that when the inevitable kinks happen you have someone to take care of them.
Third, my travel experience is apparently completely normal in West Africa. The French caterpillar rep told me over dinner how he had once been stuck for eight days after one flight was cancelled. Local airlines simply don’t have enough planes, so when one breaks down it has ripple effects across the entire network.
My advice for anyone new to airline travel in West Africa, then, is to pack some essentials with you to make those long delays more comfortable, use a travel agent to book all of your tickets, and to never make an itinerary with make-or-break schedules. Take your time, and bring plenty of cash (dollars or euros, if travelling between countries with different currencies). And when you’re informed that your flight has been delayed for 13 hours, see it as one more way to experience life in a new culture and make friends with interesting people you wouldn’t have the pleasure to meet under any other circumstances.