Flying without seatbelts

Dmytry, did you remember to flick that switch?

Last week I flew from Hargeisa to Djibouti City in Djibouti, Somaliland’s neighbour to the north, on Jubba Airways. I have flown hundreds of times in my life on dozens of different airlines, but this was by far the most bizarre flight of my life. I am glad I have absolutely no fear of flying, because I think most people would have been freaking out and/or wetting their pants by what I experienced.

Let’s start with my experience in the terminal. My flight was scheduled to leave at 2:00pm, but check in didn’t even start until 1:30pm. The process was done entirely manually, without a single computer or printer. I mean this must have been what it was like to fly in the 1970s – they have a hard copy list of all the passengers booked on the plane, and then they check your hard-copy ticket against the list. They then hand-write a boarding pass for you on a stub of paper.

I then passed through immigration and a very minimal level of security (basically an old man asked me to open my bag, and then I walked through a metal detector which I’m not convinced was even switched on). The departures area is a small room, given that Hargeisa Airport (spelled Hargeisa Airprt on the sign, by the way) handles only one flight at a time. I took out a thick book and made myself comfortable because nobody was making any move to depart soon. Indeed, the plane wasn’t even there yet.

My hand-written boarding pass. At least it's not on a post-it note.

I think the plane made an appearance on the Hargeisa tarmac around 3pm, after our scheduled arrival time of 2:45pm in Djibouti City. There are no departure screens of course, an there was no announcement or call to board. Everyone just saw the plane arrive through the window and started to get up and filter outside onto the runway. There was a man at the door checking our boarding passes, but I didn’t know at the time that he was the last airline staff I would see, save for the pilots, until I arrived in Djibouti.

First, find a seat that isn't broken. Second, forget everything you ever learned about the necessity of seatbelts.

First, find a seat that isn't broken. Second, forget everything you ever learned about the necessity of seatbelts.

Flying on Jubba the Hargeisa-Djibouti short-haul was in all respects like riding a bus – you board the bus yourself without assistance from anyone, nobody checks your ticket/boarding pass, you find your own seat, the seats don’t have seatbelts, there are no safety announcements, there isn’t a single flight attendant, and you just take off and go. And when the bus arrives (I mean, the plane lands), within minutes the door is open and the mobile stairway is positioned at the side of the plane. It’s up to the passengers to find their own way out.

When I first boarded the plane, I changed seats about three times, trying to find one with a working seatbelt. When I realized that in fact none of them worked, I gave up and settled on finding the seat that was least broken and least uncomfortable (note from the photo how the seat-backs were leaning at every which angle).

While I was making myself comfortable, other passengers behind me were helping two very elderly and immobile men into seats near the door.  Why employ air stewards when the able passengers can take care of the disabled passengers? Brilliant. Meanwhile, across the aisle, a man was taking out his bushel of khat and starting to chew (see my previous post on this mild drug). Never mind that there were “No Khat” signs throughout the airport; I saw many men sitting right underneath them and chewing.

Please ensure the overhead luggage compartment is closed.

The plane itself was ancient, and old Soviet-era Russian craft. Such planes are no longer allowed to fly anywhere else in the world because the respective aviation authorities won’t allow it. For example, when I flew on the same airline from Dubai to Berbera, the plane was a regular Boeing 747, because the United Arab Emirates Aviation Authority has certain safety standards. But, because of the relatively low aviation safety standards in Djibouti, and the absence of any effective aviation authority in the failed state of Somalia, airlines like Jubba and Daallo can use these old-school planes.

So that’s how you end up flying on an over-the-hill, unmarked plane without seat belts and an “overhead baggage compartment” that amounts to a shelf (again, it’s more like being in a train or bus than on a plane).

The crew is Russian, but by “crew” I mean two people – the pilot and the co-pilot. They shut the doors themselves before moving into the cockpit to fly the plane. Of course, given the non-existence of any air stewards, there are no safety demonstrations and you won’t hear any of the familiar refrain that frequent flyers have ringing in their ears (“Please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position”). I mean, there aren’t even any tray tables to speak of. I’m not sure there was even a toilet on the plane, for that matter. What, you want a glass of water? Or a landing card? Just knock on the cockpit door and ask Ilya, I’m sure he will help you out.

The advantage of the lax security and safety controls is that you can move freely throughout the plane during the flight, and even take a stroll along the aisle during take-off if you wish. I wouldn’t recommend it though, as the take-off caused the entire plane to shake violently. The rest of the flight was smooth though, and literally within minutes of hitting the runway in Djibouti City the passengers were disembarking the plane. No need to waste time buckled-up in your seats while the plane taxis, waiting for that pesky beep to give you permission to get up. Just go for it!

3 Responses to “Flying without seatbelts”

  1. How did you manage to stay calm hun?

  2. hilarious!
    I was laughing out loud several times during reading this story!

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