Aeroplane thriller flies close to Nigeria's reality

In Nigeria, Last Flight to Abuja has become the first home-grown production to outsell Hollywood films this year. (AFP)

In Nigeria, Last Flight to Abuja has become the first home-grown production to outsell Hollywood films this year. (AFP)

It is perhaps an unlikely theme for a blockbuster film in a country with a dire air safety record: a near miss in which a pilot steers a smoke-filled aeroplane to safety.

In Nigeria, Last Flight to Abuja has become the first home-grown production to outsell Hollywood films this year. Crowds have been packing ­cinemas to see how the Nollywood fiction matches the reality of taking an internal flight in West Africa's most populous country.

The film took a record-breaking eight million naira ($50 400) in its first week of release in Lagos. It has toppled this year's box-office hits The Amazing Spider-Man and Ice Age: Continental Drift and has grossed  the ­second-highest income in West Africa after The Dark Knight Rises.

"Each time I fly in Nigeria, it's a nervy experience.
All the shaking, the bumpy landings, the unexplained noises as the aeroplane starts off five hours after you're supposed to have arrived at your destination," said the director, Obi Emelonye. "The film was an accumulation of all those ­stories."

The timing of the film's release coincided with a Dana Air aeroplane smashing into a Lagos slum, killing 163 people. Relatives of the dead encouraged the director not to ­cancel the film's opening so as to keep aviation safety in the spotlight.

"The timing was spooky because it was supposed to be an era [that was] behind us. I felt I had a social responsibility to show [improvements] we could make with just a little change of attitude – being proactive," Eme-lonye said.

Bad experience
Audiences have given the fictional white-knuckle ride a positive reception. "When I watched it I thought that's how a country with big dreams like Nigeria should be able to handle an aviation disaster," said cinemagoer Daye Sola, who has spurned domestic carriers since a "bad experience" 12 years ago.

Yet not everybody is convinced by the fairy-tale ending in which emergency workers are at the scene before the aeroplane's dramatic touchdown.

Femi Alade, whose house is within sight of the spot where the Dana aeroplane crashed, is a rare person from the slum who has watched the film. "Someone like me, I have never entered an aeroplane and I will not do so. I enjoyed the film, but afterwards I remembered how people were looting and police were beating the crowds," he said.

"The emergency reaction wasn't realistic; it was just too prompt," said another filmgoer, Ohimide.

The reality is undoubtedly grimmer. June's accident marked the start of a tumultuous period in which half of Nigeria's domestic airlines have been grounded. Africa accounts for 14% of the world's aeroplane crashes, although it has only 3% of global traffic.

Whistle-blowers have claimed that heavy debts in the aviation sector routinely compromise safety. In some cases, insiders say, aeroplanes have been dangerously overloaded with fuel to avoid paying refuelling fees in each country.

David Kolawole's seven-month-old daughter survived the initial Dana Air impact. But emergency services took 45 minutes to push through the crowds thronging the slum's narrow mud roads. At the local hospital, staff members were unable to save her amid electricity blackouts. "In a country where people are prepared she could have been saved," Kolawole said.

An inquest revealed other failings, including emergency staff who had not been trained to put out an aircraft fire with chemical foam rather than water. The aviation ministry has cleared Dana Air to fly again, although an inquiry continues.

Safety in Nigeria improved after two aircraft crashed within two months in 2005. But public distrust has returned since the country's most popular airline, Arik Air, was briefly grounded when aviation workers raided its offices, saying they had not been paid. Hailed for its fleet of new aeroplanes in a creaking industry, Arik had mopped up passengers in West Africa's thriving market as competitors floundered.

Accusations of financial mismanagement have threatened to engulf the sector, which has grown as air travel has become an alternative to being transported along the region's often poorly maintained roads.

"We had situations where some of our aircraft were flying with only one engine working rather than pay[ing] for the cost of maintaining two," said a former employee at the suspended Air Nigeria airline. – © Guardian News & Media 2012