It was one of those hustle-free flights, where you don’t get the airline ground staff announcing “a delay” or an “overbooking” or one of those wacky things that gets your journey starting on the wrong footing. The cabin crew welcomed the passengers pleasantly – the flight captain actually stood at the entry of the aircraft to receive passengers. It was certainly the warm South African welcome aboard the 15:20 SA 161 flight from Entebbe (Uganda) to O.R Tambo (South Africa) last month.

Aboard, the crew unceasingly kept passengers posted on every flight detail. I am sure flight regulation and protocols require the crew to do just exactly that. The only distinguishing feature here is that the updates always came with an extra tinge of detail – which occasionally prompted a little mirth from those on board. Just about 30 or so minutes before commencement of descent to O.R Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg, the flight captain announced that the plane had developed a “technical problem” and the crew together with their ground counterparts were doing the best they could to fix the problem, remotely.

Not many of the passengers (I want to believe) heard this announcement. A few minutes later, the flight captain again announced that as a precautionary measure, fire engines and extinguishers had already been lined up on the runway to handle any untoward situation. The second announcement was without doubt welcomed with fright in the cabin. It was shell shock for many travellers – call it cold sweat on board. It is at this moment that many came alive to the worrying fact that there was indeed something wrong with the aircraft on which we were on board.

The second announcement marked the end of the playful mood that had filled the flight right from take-off at Entebbe. In an attempt to sort of calm the panicky passengers, the pilot quickly made a follow-up flight announcement giving assurances that the “technical problem” had been managed, but safety measures still had to be taken. A few minutes later, we steadily approached the airport area as I took a bird’s eye view of the runway – minutes before touchdown. Every passenger literally tried to see through the window to catch a glimpse of the scene that the pilot had described a few moments earlier – fire engines and emergency gear lined up on the runway.

The mood in the cabin remained drab even as things seemed to be in control. It was helpless anxiousness on board as some passengers softly sobbed. Upon touching down, the fire engines trailed the taxing aircraft both from the tail end and the sides. Moments later, the plane gradually cut speed, slowly turning and facing towards the parking lot. Several metres away from the parking area, the aircraft came to a complete stop – prompting more unease among passengers. The flight captain then announced that, all was well and he was waiting to be directed on where to park. The captain’s message was greeted with a sigh of relief by the fear-gripped passengers. As passengers left the aeroplane, there were whispers of how this experience could have been worse if the “technical problem” had happened mid-flight or if the problem had not been fixed – remotely.

Knowing how disastrous air accidents can be, this was a rude reminder of all the horrendous aviation incidents that have happened, especially the 1988 Uganda Airlines accident at Fiumicino Airport in Rome, Italy in which we lost 33 of the 52 occupants on board. In its annual report, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) indicated a decline in the number of air accidents that occurred – from 68 in 2015 to 65 in 2016. Although 2016 may have registered slightly less accidents, those that occurred were a lot more fatal than in the previous years.

A substantial number of the incidents have partly been both maintenance-based and out of human error. This calls for strict adherence to air travel safety precautions. There is need to play strictly by the rules of air transport. Whoever is responsible to ensure the airworthiness of the aircrafts must do so without compromise. Pre-flight checks, inspections must be thoroughly performed. But also, we must say no to aircrafts that are prone to mechanical problems.

We shouldn’t allow old, problematic aeroplanes to fly to our countries. It is these old and bad planes that cause passengers to have traumatic travel experiences akin to the one I just described. It is time that those in charge take this message seriously; let’s not wait for another disaster to happen. We have already lost many lives in air accidents. Let’s act now to save lives!

The writer is coordinator, Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda.

This story was also Published by The Daily Monitor

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