Before Kenya Airways became a public company, with its shares floated in the open market, and it had to toe the line to withstand competition from international airlines, it was considered a matatu airline and behaved like one.
My Christmas story is related to those good old days when Marie and I almost missed a Christmas flight, though our tickets stated RR, which in aviation jargon means ‘Reserved and Reconfirmed’. I want to tender my apologies, in advance, to the ‘Pride of Africa’. Things have radically changed since and I am equally proud of our national airline.
As usual, we were scheduled to celebrate Christmas and New Year in our favourite resort on the North Coast in Mombasa. We had planned a family reunion with Jenny and Jan, both flying directly to Mombasa from England to coincide with our arrival. As soon as the dates were fixed, I personally booked the flights for Marie and I in September at the KQ head office at Barclays Plaza.
We arrived at 10am at the domestic terminal to board the KQ flight, which was scheduled to leave at 11am. We went to the check-in and presented our flight tickets and ID cards to a young lady. As she repeatedly fed our details in her desktop, without a positive response to our utter dismay, she said: “Your names are not here.”
“But we booked four months back.” I protested.
The counter was inundated with irate passengers in the same plight as us, and I heard the harassed girl say. “We are heavily overbooked.”
“Any seats in the Premier class?” I inquired.
A few more clicks and peering at the computer screen, she replied. “Only one seat is available there.”
“Book it for my wife.” Despite vehement protests from Marie, I replied. I explained to her that I could be on the next flight; she could meet the children and wait for me at Mombasa Airport.
Flight to Mombasa
“Please pay the difference at Kenya Airways office on this floor,” she advised.
While returning to Marie, after paying the difference, I bumped into a man wearing the KQ captain’s uniform. “Are you?” Before he finished, I eagerly rattled out my full name.
“You don’t know me,” he replied. ” My name is Captain Bhaloo and you operated on my father’s hernia last year, and he has been singing your praises since. You were very kind to him; he was terrified of surgery. Are you on my flight to Mombasa?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied, showing him our tickets. “Marie and I have our confirmed tickets, but there are no seats; I have just paid for Marie to upgrade her to Premier class, but they have no seat for me there either.”
Captain Bhaloo took both tickets from me and said, “Please wait here and I will see how I can help you.”
Since he did not come back for about 10 minutes, I surmised that he had done the Indian rope trick on me and walked back to the check-in counter, where Marie was waiting. Suddenly I saw a grinning uniformed airline official, holding our boarding cards, walking towards us, and he said, “Captain Bhaloo has gone to the aircraft, but he told me to tell you that he can offer you a jump-seat in the cockpit.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” I said and we followed him to the aircraft. After settling Marie in Premier class, the official escorted me to the cockpit, where I was reunited with the captain, who was busy with his checklist. Safety in surgery is also important and recently huge compensations had been awarded for errors that occurred in operating theatres like removing wrong digits, limbs or other paired organs, including kidneys, with fatal consequences. We surgeons decided to take a leaf from the aviation industry and devise our own checklist before using our scalpel. I was chairing the committee formed to devise a checklist. I was, therefore, engrossed in what the captain was doing until, to my relief, we started taxing.
After we passed Kilimanjaro, a pretty-Afro-Arab air hostess approached the captain and whispered something in pure coastal Swahili. I understood most of what I overheard. Not knowing that I was conversant with the dialect, the captain explained to me, pointing at the air-hostess. “Like you, an Arab lady was stranded too and Nadia, our head-stewardess, after consulting me, offered a jump-seat near where she sits.
Since we are expecting some turbulence and since the Arab lady is heavily pregnant, Nadia persuaded a passenger in an aisle seat to give his seat to the pregnant lady. He agreed to do it in exchange for a jump-seat in the cockpit so that he can watch how the captain flies the aircraft.”
I understood what the captain wanted me to do and replied. “I am happy to sit with Nadia in the back of the plane.” To add some humour, I added. “This is the season for Immaculate Conception and Nadia and I will try to re-enact the scene after 2,000 years.” Before I vacated my jump-seat and followed Nadia, I continued in the same vein.
“Besides, I don’t want this Arab lady to go into labour on the plane because I haven’t conducted a delivery since I did my maternity term as a medical student. Things have changed since and I don’t know if modern babies come out head first or feet first! I am not even sure that the female apparatus to deliver babies is the same as it was in my time.”
Leaving the captain and his copilot laughing, I left the cockpit and followed Nadia, who was blushing. On the way, I saw the Arab lady sitting precariously on her aisle seat. Looking at how advanced her pregnancy was, I could better understand Nadia’s fears. Happily, I could hear the grating noise of the undercarriage being lowered. Soon we landed, without the need to refresh my knowledge of midwifery!
Wishing Happy Christmas and Healthy New Year to all my readers and my patients.