I had heard so much from friends and family about Rwandair’s good deals. The Rwandan national carrier is fast becoming a favorite of many travelers on a budget. When my big sister, Gertrude, visited me in Johannesburg last November, she came aboard Rwandair and loved it. She had been upgraded to business class on the Kigali-Johannesburg leg of the trip. Jealous, right? I surely was.
So when I got my South Africa visa renewed on 10 Jan 2013, four days to my proposed date of travel, Rwandair was my preferred carrier of choice. I skipped from the South Africa High Commission on Nakasero Road down to the splash Rwenzori Courts, where the Rwandair offices are located, as catalogued in the Eye Magazine. And when I got there, the ticket cost me $565. It was a fabulous deal, I paid on spot and prepared for my night flight.
I have since learnt to travel light, and in this case, light means carrying one slightly over weight suitcase. Yes, I am known to travel with no less than 3 huge suitcases. So doing one is a mighty downgrade. I gave myself points for fitting my life over the next 15 months in Johannesburg into one bright orange Gino De Vinci suitcase. Life was good.
After hours of waiting, transit and eventual travel, we landed at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg at the scheduled time- 5:30am on Tuesday morning. Tired from the flight and reeling from lack of sleep, we filed out of the plane and headed for the immigration desks. Once we completed with immigration, we moved to carousel 2 where the Rwandair baggage would come through. The carousel slowly spat out the baggage. It made a low humming sound as it made the rounds laden with bags. We crowded around it waiting for our luggage. No one seemed to be picking up their luggage, yet the carousel kept spilling out more and more bags.
First we thought that we were at the wrong carousel, even though the TV screen above the carousel 2: Rwandair. A few of us headed to carousel 7 to see whether our bags could have been loaded there. Nothing.
We returned to carousel 2 and it hit us that Rwandair had not loaded our baggage in Kigali. This luggage, swirling unclaimed on the carousels, which clearly was not ours, had come aboard Rwandair. One black briefcase making rounds on the carousel caught my attention because it had burst open. My heart went out to the owner. Clearly the careless handling had been responsible for the damage.
One of the workers at baggage claim, advised us to make our way to Lost and Found, and file complaints. He added that we should not leave the airport without lodging our claims. He said the luggage we saw was for Rwandair passengers who had traveled on Sunday, 13 January. He added that Rwandair has steadily built for itself a reputation of not delivering passengers’ luggage.
Two women I had made friends with regaled me with horror stories of traveling aboard Rwandair out of Johannesburg in December, 2012. Obviously overwhelmed with the demand, because the airline had overbooked. Passengers were not called about the change in flight plans, so they made their way to the airport only to be turned away. Some demanded for hotel accommodation, which was provided, albeit, reluctantly. Many waited two days or more before they could travel.
As we slowly made our way to the Lost and Found, we agreed, that supporting Rwandair was highly overrated. There was no official to explain to us what had happened to our luggage. No apology offered. The planeload of passengers, cursing and promising never to travel with the airlines again, trudged to lodge their claims. Everyone had their own version of what could have happened, but it was no doubt that the airline had knowingly boarded a planeload of passengers without their baggage. I mean lost and found cases happen with all airlines, but a whole planeload not receiving their luggage takes the game a little too far.
As we filled in our contact details in Johannesburg where the baggage would be delivered, on little sheets of paper hurriedly provided, one passenger asked whether the delivery would be taken to Mpumalanga where she lived. Would the luggage arrive in one piece?
Another plane landed. It was the Korean Airways, and the lady at the Lost and Found, shooed us away to make way for new cases. So we were relegated to one corner, huddled together, breathing in each other’s musty smells, as we waited to lodge our complaints.
For people who had paid for a service, the treatment of the passengers was and is so very unacceptable. Dejected souls who had boarded the plane made their way out of the airport that morning, most promising not use the airlines again.
I and another passenger went up to the ticketing desk to enquire about compensation. It is standard procedure that when an airline leaves behind your luggage or misplaces it, they give a small compensation to enable you buy essentials before your luggage is delivered. None of this information was relayed to the passengers.
The lady at the ticketing desk was involved in banter with another passenger who had just bought a ticket. He was laughing and I thought to myself, you won’t be laughing after your travel. We asked to speak to someone about the luggage problem and she referred us to a Doug in the upstairs office. With a brusque, “I do sales. Doug deals with ticketing,” response, she momentarily dismissed us. When we went upstairs, the Rwandair office was closed. There was no Doug.
Three hours after my arrival, I boarded the Gautrain to Rosebank, wondering what I was going to do. All I had was a rucksack with my laptops and a handbag with important documents.
I spent four days in the same clothes with little or no communication from Rwandair, save for tweets on twitter. The Johannesburg office was useless. No one was picking the phones. There has been no written apology to the passengers because I surely haven’t received mine in the mail.
I doubt that any of the passengers who experienced the despicable service will be using the airline. I, for one, will look into cancelling the return leg of my flight.
Such treatment of passengers spells doom for Rwandair. Obviously, the airline is having a hard time managing success. If things continue at this rate, they should brace themselves for managing failure. Rwandair is successfully sabotaging itself and spelling doom for its plans to be the regional aviation leader.