The United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has denied Delta Airlines direct flight to Monrovia, Liberia and to Nairobi, Kenya. In a June 3 statement, the TSA said, “due to noted security vulnerabilities in and around Nairobi, and the failure to meet international security standards and appropriate recommended practices established by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) at the Roberts International Airport in Monrovia, TSA is currently denying air service by Delta to Nairobi and Monrovia until security standards are met or security threat assessments change.”
The decision to deny Delta permission to fly directly to Nairobi may or may not have a strong basis, but my blog discussion will focus only on the TSA decision against Monrovia, Liberia. This is because of my experience as a Liberian immigrant and my experiences with travel to Liberia.
Liberians are shocked, and of course, it is obvious that many Liberians would be disappointed in this decision. Liberian nationals and immigrants living in the US as well as other international travelers desperate to fly directly and cheaper to Monrovia would love to get a relief from the desperation they face when they have to book a ticket to Monrovia. There is a high demand for flights to Monrovia, and with each demand comes higher ticket prices. Try booking a ticket to Monrovia, and it is like striking a steel wall with another piece of steel. From my experience, you sit at the computer for weeks, trying to find a suitable airline to a country you so love. So, anyone can understand how desperate Liberians and international travelers to Monrovia can be and how desperately we need relief.
–My beautiful baby sister, Margretta Yeeyee Jabbeh Meeting me at the Roberts International Airport near Monrovia
Besides these travelers, it is inarguably true that Liberian officials and the President of Liberia would love to have such a reputable airline as Delta introduce direct flights to Monrovia. This would give the impression that things in Liberia are improving and that the country is ready to move toward a great future. Maybe this is one more need for window-dressing. Maybe this is a real desire on their part. Whatever their motive might be, one cannot argue that the move to deny Delta this opportunity is a blessing in disguise and is good for the country and for travelers right now. It is also a good thing for Delta. But you do not have to agree with me. Just keep reading on.
——Parts of Monrovia- Photo by Wyne Jabbeh
The TSA here in the US may have its faults, and their faults are numerous. In fact, I have regularly been targeted at airports each time I fly, and everything I carry on me is examined with double eyes for whatever reason or the other. My suitcases are always among the “random” checked baggage, something that is surprising. It does not matter where I travel to, throughout the US, to China, to South America or within Africa, they usually stamp the “SSSS” on to my ticket. Often, they examine me as though I were a specimen, and all my private documents are poked at, including my medications. I often have to be at the airport at least two hours before since I expect to be the victim of unnecessary inspection. But I don’t despair, and since I love the job they do to keep us safe most of the time, I really don’t mind. I also love the special attention they give me, and simply smile my way through. After all, I have nothing to hide. But you know, I’d prefer they found the right person to search instead of me, who is such a peace loving woman.
But I believe in the TSA and what they do to make us safe in the air and on the ground. I believe in the TSA’s need to monitor which countries, cities, regions of the world American planes can fly to, and if Monrovia is found unsafe or the airport is found unready, can anyone argue against that?
Try checking with international travelers, Liberian immigrants returning home or even Liberians traveling back and forth wherever they want, and find out what they know about the Roberts International Airport. Then find out from travelers of Delta Airlines between any country where they fly directly from the US to Africa, and discover for yourself their opinions about the sorts of planes Delta flies to Africa, the process of booking and checking in passengers, and the sub-standards for Africa compared to the high standards they have for European or American cities.
—Beautiful West Africa- 2008
But before we discuss Delta, let’s first get down to the issue of the Roberts International Airport. Do not despair, it is not all bad. The folks at the airport, receiving and sending you off do not mean any harm. They are simply doing what they used to do before the war. Corruption and bribing still abounds. Someone has to do something about the craziness at the airport, and I hope the Delta denial causes the government to probe into this and put an end to the corruption and the craziness with checking in and departing the country at that airport.
—The burnt down E. J. Roye Building and the Centennial Pavilion in the background
The Roberts International Airport needs attention if it is to compete for international airlines, and that improvement begins not only with the rebuilding of infrastructure in order to accommodate the after-September 11 standards, but also with airport personnel attending to travelers at the airport. During my 2008 visit home, I was shocked to note that airport workers were engaged in all sorts of tricks in order to obtain bribe from me. They ceased my passport upon entry, claiming that a passport that I was approved to travel with from the US was outdated. I informed them that I was entering the country and that I would buy a new passport. I also told them that my passport was valid since it had just been renewed by the Liberian Consul General in the US, but they just pushed me around, yelling, and treating me like a criminal until I demanded to see their manager. When the manager, a woman took one look at me, she ordered them to release my passport to me immediately so I would get out of the airport. I was spared the opportunity of giving them a bribe this time.
Upon departure, again, my passport was ceased. I had bought me a new passport, but was told by check-in agents that I needed to use my old passport that had been stamped throughout my trip in order to validate myself on my way out. This was in keeping with international standards and laws, the first person who checked me in told me. I was traveling with Kenya Airlines to connect in Accra, Ghana to Delta. After I had been checked in, I proceeded to immigration, where my passport was again ceased, and I was lectured by some agent, and again tricked that I needed to pay a fine for coming into the country with an old/valid passport. I was delayed, and of course, there were others being delayed by this same craziness. Around me in the small room, were crowds of travelers who were confused about what was going on, people passing through, and I wondered.
This craziness must end if Monrovia is to compete for and with international airlines. The denial of Delta to begin direct flights to Monrovia this month is a something that should make the Liberian fficials stop and do something drastic to regulate the airport workers and bring sanity to traveling to Monrovia.
Finally, Delta Airlines is a point I will conclude on. Delta is not ready to go to Liberia, I’d say. First of all, Delta needs to improve its standards for this very important transatlantic trip. Delta is not ready for Liberia. Why am I saying such a horrible thing, oh God?
I used to be the greatest Delta fan. I flew Delta at least a dozen times a year until last July, 2008, when I flew with Delta to Accra, Ghana. I have never ever flown Delta since then, and my mileage points are still waiting to be claimed. I had the experience of my life that made me cry, kept me stranded another day in Accra, cost me unnecessary hardship, and made me so desperate for cash, my son had to wire money to me in Ghana.
—Monrovia, 2008- Meeting with Cuttington University Officials
On my flight to Accra for a two week poetry teaching experience, I traveled alone on July 4th instead of with the group of Pan African Literary Forum (PALF) Creative Writing team. The first awkward thing I noticed at the airport in New York was that the Delta flight was so overbooked. We had to fight for a place on the plane since way too many passengers had been booked. Of course, others were left behind in New York. On the plane, I noticed how substandard the plane was with only one working restroom for the back cabin. This plane carried about three hundred passengers. But that was the better side of my journey.
On my return trip to the US via the Kotoko International Airport in Accra once more, I arrived at 7 a.m. on August 4th for a 10:30 flight. That should have been enough time, you’d say. After all, I had confirmed my trip, and had obtained my confirmation via internet in Accra the day before. When I arrived at the airport, there was a pandemonium. Delta had overbooked once more, but here, the game was different. The airline attendants did not care whether a passenger was confirmed or not. They had preselected who would and who would not travel through another corrupt selection. So, those of us arriving at 7 am were told that we were too late. We were given the run around to check this and check that until 8 am. Then they shut the gate for checking in. Others who had better connections got our places on the plane, and we were left stranded. After all the shouting and confusion, I was told to go and rebook for travel the next day.
After the initial shock wore off, and I was left in the crowd of confused travelers, I tried to pose my arguments to the agents. I was ill, and had already been in Accra two days on my connection, and my medications were out. I took my case as far as to the Manager, went to several offices, requesting that my original seat be given me since the plane still had yet to arrive. I met with a team of managers, broke down and wept, called Delta USA, but all my pleas were to no avail.
I then took up the matter for Delta to give me accommodation since I arrived at the airport at 7 am for a 10:30 flight, but they refused to check me in. The airline agents had in their corrupt deal claimed that I arrived at 8 am. What if I had arrived at 8 am? Wouldn’t two and a half hours have been sufficient for someone who had booked and was confirmed?
So, what did they do to accommodate me? Nothing. By noon, I dragged my luggage back to town, returned to my hotel and pleaded with hotel clerks to recheck me in. I paid for another day and waited for the next Delta flight to come in. The day of my travel, I was at the airport at 4 am for a 10:30 flight. I was shocked to note that in order to give seats to the wrong passengers, Delta agents in Ghana told their friends to arrive that early. So, I went through check-in, and was upgraded without any cost to me. The agents thought that this would calm my frustrations. If they could do that, why couldn’t they do what was right in the first place?
So, here was I in First Class with others like me who had been left behind the day before. Everything should have been great- right? No.
The agents on the plane knew better than to be fooled by non-first class passengers being given a one time opportunity in first class. The plane was already delayed by five hours so the agents were probably tired and angry. They were so rude to us, refusing to give us the same treatment real first class passengers were given. But that was not bad enough until we arrived in New York six hours delayed for no weather or apparent reasons.
We had missed all of our connecting flights, naturally, arriving close to midnight instead of at 5 pm. After customs, we were told to find our way to some
Ramada Hotel, and if we could speed up there fast enough, we would find rooms. If we delayed, we would be out of luck again. With so many passengers from our flight and other delayed Delta flights, it was another rush. Handicapped passengers could not make it fast enough, of course. I was one of the few lucky ones to get one of the last rooms. That night, there were dozens of African and other international travelers with small children who were stranded in the hotel lobby. Some of them were with children, with their Delta vouchers in their hands. But they had no food or rooms to sleep in.
Yes, we need a great airliner to travel to Monrovia, but Monrovia and the airline must be ready to do the job according to international standards. The TSA is a great security monitor, and it is making the best decision for all of us. If the quality of services I have described is what Monrovia is to expect, then this is a good time for both Delta and Liberian officials to reassess their mission and purpose. What do we want in an agreement between Delta and Monrovia? Do we want to travel safely or do we simply want to travel?